Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Tomorrow Is The Last Time

"Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't one today."
"Groundhog Day"

For some reason, I always mix up Nishizawa Yasuhiko and Yonezawa Honobu in my head. They write completely different type of stories, but I always have to make sure I'm thinking of the right name/right titles when it comes to these two.

The last few years, Hisatarou has been spending New Year at his grandfather Reijirou's place. One shouldn't imagine a nice family gathering though. Half a lifetime ago, Fuchigami Reijirou was a horrible father, always drinking and gambling. When his wife died, his oldest daughter Kamiji and youngest daughter Haruna both left, leaving Reijirou and the middle daughter Kotono all alone. Kamiji and Haruna both cut ties with their old family, got married and took the name of their husbands. Reijirou at some time planned to commit suicide together with Kotono, but heaven had different plans for him: he won a fortune at the horse races, and with the money, Reijirou and Kotono started their own restaurant, which would eventually grow into the nationwide Edge Up restaurant chain. Both Kamiji and Haruna tried to rekindle their old family bonds after this, but Reijirou never forgave his daughters for leaving him and Kotono. However, recently the elderly Reijirou has softened up, as he has started to think about his inheritance. Obviously, loyal Kotono will inherit all of Reijirou's belongings, but she has no children of her own. Reijirou therefore wants Kotono to legally adopt someone to become the Fuchigami heir. The obvious candidates are Reijirou's grandchildren: Hisatarou and his two older brothers (the three sons of Kamiji) or the daughters of Haruna.  But there are also other candidates, like the secretaries of both Kotono and Reijirou. The New Year gatherings are therefore used to get on Reijirou's good side by Kamiji and Haruna, who both hope their own child will be chosen.

For as long as he can remember, Hisatarou has had the curious ability to get stuck in time-loops. Once every few weeks, he'd get stuck like in Groundhog Day: he'd live through a day and at the strike of midnight, he'd find himself back at the start of the same day. Nobody else is aware of this time-loop and in general, everyone acts the same in every loop unless Hisatarou does something significantly different which alters the stream of time. It's thanks to this ability he passed the entrance exams for school, because he happened to get stuck in a loop on exam day and thus became aware of the questions in advance. Hisatarou can not actively control this ability however and the time-loop happens completely random. Soon after New Year, Hisatarou finds himself stuck in another of these time-loops, but to his great shock his grandfather Reijirou is murdered during the second loop of the day, even though nothing happened the first time. Hisatarou realizes he must've done something wrong in the second loop which ultimately led to his grandfather's death, so he tries to prevent Reijirou's murder in subsequent loops, but each time, unforeseen happenings eventually result in his grandfather's death. From experience Hisatarou knows he will relive the same day for a total of nine times and that the ninth loop is final, so he has to find a way to prevent his grandfather's murder before he gets unstuck again and advances to "tomorrow" in Nishizawa Yasuhiko's Nanakai Shinda Otoko ("The Man Who Died Seven Times", 1995).

You don't have to read much of Nishizawa's work to realize that the incorporation of science-fiction and fantasy elements is the defining feature of his writing style. I never reviewed Nendou Misshitsu ("Psychokinetic Locked Room!") properly here even though I read it for a book club once, but that was a really unique short story collection where people had psychokinetic powers, but that still allowed for fun and fair locked room murder mysteries, despite the fact people could literally lock a door from the other side with mumbojumbo powers. Nanakai Shinda Otoko is perhaps Nishizawa's best-known science-fiction mystery novel. I've had the book for years by the way, but I didn't really get into it for err, reasons.

Anyway, the time loop is a popular trope in mystery-themed videogames, but not so much in "traditional" novels. Obviously, the Groundhog Day-type of time loop is very closely related to videogames in general. Say, you play a game of Super Mario Brothers and you fall in a pit somewhere. If you restart the level, the player (=you) are experiencing a loop: you went 'back in time' to redo the level (restarting a part), while retaining your knowledge of the previous loops. Eventually, you learn to get past this part, partially due to the knowledge gained through the loops. The player is thus always time-looping. There are also mystery games that make use of this meta-looping, that build on the idea that a player can die and redo a part. In Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P for example you must die several times first to gain the knowledge that allows you to get past that part. The Kamaitachi no Yoru games aren't formally about time-loops, but it does give you hints in the bad endings that allow you to make the right choices afterwards.

It's pretty interesting to see this trope used in a 1995 mystery novel though, and I have to say Nishizawa did a really great job. While the story is essentially about a young man reliving the day his grandfather dies over and over again, the overall tone of the novel is fairly lighthearted and comedic. The first time Reijirou is murdered, it's very easy to guess who killed the man, so Hisatarou's plan is to keep them busy during the second loop so the murder can't be committed. This action however puts the other people in the house "off-course" too, and the Butterfly Effect eventually still results in Reijirou's murder. It's funny to see how Hisatarou tries to gently pull the strings of everybody to coax them into doing what he wants them to do each loop, and how these actions still manage to result in his grandfather's death. The story has a bit of a slapstick element to it, but at the core, it's still a detective. At the start of each loop, Hisatarou reflects back on the previous loop to see what went wrong and the reader can think along too and identify the little thing Hisatarou overlooked.

While the murders each loop won't feel very weighty on their own, there's definitely build-up to the climax. Hisatarou has to make sure that on the ninth and final loop, his grandfather does not die and to do so, he has to remember all that has happened the previous loops and use that to his own advantage. The clues are hidden across the various loops and it's nice to see how everything comes together at the end, with scenes in one loop turning out to be of importance to reinterpret events in other loops. But even after everything seems to have settled down, there's more for Hisatarou to do, as over the course of the nine loops, he also encountered a few events that still puzzle him and this is where the novel really goes all-out in utilizing the loop structure to its fullest, bringing all the scattered hints across time together to reveal a surprising truth. What I like about it that ultimately, this final mystery is only visible to Hisatarou and the reader: the mystery only arises because we were all able to experience the same day several times from various angles, while for the other characters, there was never a time loop and each day only happened once. It's a very interesting way to create a mystery plot, and it was handled well in this novel.

And I think Nanakai Shinda Otoko's merits also lie in its accessibility. "Science-fiction mystery" might sound hard to grasp at first, but this novel is written in a way that makes the time loop plot device surprisingly easy to understand, even if you're not familiar with the trope. To then write a mystery story that does make use of the time loop in a clever, fairly-clewed manner, but without getting overly complex or too science-fiction-y, is probably easier said than done, but Nishizawa succeeded with this novel. A very amusing novel that can be surprisingly cleverly plotted despite its accessibility.

Original Japanese title(s): 西澤保彦『七回死んだ男』

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Last Song

Time after time
「Time after time~花舞う街で~」(倉木麻衣)
Time after time
The miracle of having met you
"Time after Time ~In The City of Dancing Flowers~" (Kuraki Mai) 

2018's Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar, the seminal study which explored the history of mystery manga, points to the trio of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, Detective Conan and Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou in the early-to-mid nineties as the watershed moment that really popularized the genre. These series are serialized in magazines with boys as their primary audience (though the magazines are also widely read by girls and I think especially Conan has more female fans than male). People therefore might have a tendency to associate mystery manga with a male audience, but Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar also clearly shows how mystery manga first flourished in magazines aimed at girls. The seventies and eighties were the formative period for originally written mystery manga with puzzle plots (not adaptations) and its champions were mostly women too. I have been exploring this formative period the last year with for example Takashina Ryouko's Murder series, the mystery tales sometimes featured in Maya Mineo's Patalliro! and Yamada Mineko's Alice series.

It came as a shock to everyone when it was made public in May this year that manga artist Noma Miyuki had passed away at the young age of 59 earlier that month. Noma was probably the greatest veteran of mystery manga: her long-selling Puzzle Game ☆ High School started in 1983 and was still running in 2020 until her sudden demise, meaning the series had been running for over 35 years! It pre-dates the three watershed series by a decade, and while Puzzle Game ☆ High School may not have been the commercial succes like Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo and Detective Conan with countless of adaptations, videogames, merchandise tie-ups etc., it has remained a reliable cornerstone of the puzzle plot genre since it started with a loyal fanbase. It's no wonder so many mystery authors (not just of manga) responded to her sudden death, because she's been in the industry for so long and considered one of the giants because of Puzzle Game ☆ High School.

Earlier this year, I posted a short article on the first two volumes of Puzzle Game ☆ High School. At that time, I of course never could've guessed that Noma would pass away a few months later, but I had been reading the series on and off, and in the last few months, I've finally finished the complete original 34-volume series which ran between 1983-2001 (I read the bunko release, which is 18 volumes long) and I think it's about time I'd pick a few of the highlights from this lengthy series which I've grown to like a lot. But first a short introduction. As the title suggest, the series starts with a high school setting: Hazuru High School is a school with numerous school clubs and circle with an extremely high degree of autonomy and these clubs are exclusively governed by the student council: not even the school administration can interfere with these afterschool activities. Second-years Kazuki and Daichi are two childhood sweethearts who start their own new club: the new Mystery Club is also joined by Kazuki's best friend Mimei, a girl who can find out anything about everyone at school, and the shy first-year student Takuma, who also dabbles in stage magic. The Mystery Club's goal is to solve mysteries, of which there are plenty at school. From poisoned Valentine chocolates to blackmail attempts on clubs to vandals who paint the water in the pool red: Hazuru High School's unique club environment is also a breeding ground for countless of mysteries.

What makes Puzzle Game ☆ High School so unique however is that while it starts out as a high school mystery series, soon several sub-series are introduced that are set in different periods in the lives of Kazuki and Daichi. These chapters are published not in chronological order, but the series jumps back and forth time. The Puzzle Game ☆ Jr High School chapters for example are of course set during junior high before Kazuki and Daichi were officially dating, but there's also Puzzle Game ☆ Pre-Stage, which is set after Kazuki and Daichi are graduated from high school: Daichi is in college, but Kazuki is doing all kinds of part-time jobs to obtain various qualifications and diplomas for their joint dream. Puzzle Game The Professionals actually makes up the bulk of this series with thirty chapters: by this time Daichi and Kazuki are in their mid-twenties and have opened their own detective agency. These chapters tend to be the most interesting plot-wise, and often start with Takuma, who is now a journalist, hiring Daichi and Kazuki to help him in some investigation. It's in these stories where you understand why Kazuki was doing all those part-time jobs in the Pre-Stage chapters as Kazuki is always going undercover and I'd say that in terms of tone, The Professionals chapters are the most like the stories in Conan or Kindaichi Shounen. But there's more: at one point the  Puzzle Game ☆ Next Generation chapters start, which focus on Hinako, the ten-year old daughter of Daichi and Kazuki! Hinako is a child-model who not only has inherited her looks from her parents, but also their sharp brains and she tends to get involved with crimes in the model and entertainment industry.

This focus on the chronology is what really sets this series apart from series like Conan and Kindaichi Shounen. Sure, Hajime might be 37 now instead of 17, but that's one single jump in time: Puzzle Game ☆ High School however is built around the notion that we see all these protagonists in various stages in their lives and the various sub-series all have a different theme and tone that fit the ages of the characters: the classic High School chapters for example seldom feature murders and focus solely on the students of Hazuru High School (you hardly see any teachers or adults around, as most of the 'crimes' are kept inside the school), while the Pre-Stage chapters make use of the idea that Kazuki is doing all these part-time jobs to introduce a diversity in settings. I only named the main sub-series above, but there are eleven titled sub-series, and they all feel distinctly different, even if they all feature the same protagonists. The three Puzzle Game - Maternity chapters for example all focus on mysteries revolving around pregnancies, while Puzzle Game ☆ Hong Kong Connection is like full-blown HK crime thriller. But as I said, these chapters are not published in chronological order, so for example the reader had already seen Hinako appear several times as a ten-year old detective before the Maternity chapters were published, and it's fairly common to see a few The Professionals chapters followed by a Jr. High chapter. The story The Goddess of Fortune makes interesting use of this plot-device by the way: the first chapter of this two-parter is about a money theft at Hazuru High School. While the school is sealed off immediately, the student council can't find the money even though it's a pretty large sum (meaning the bills are bulky). Kazuki and Daichi of course figure out the hiding spot for the money, which is actually quite clever. They identitfy the thief, but they can't figure out why that person out of everyone would ever want to steal the money The second part of The Goddess of Fortune is set six years later, when Kazuki and Daichi have established their own detective agency. The thief is finally released from prison, but now they finally learn why the thief committed the crime. This second part is not as surprising plot-wise, but it's a nice story that transcends time (and sub-series). The mini-series Tea for Two also spans across time: three tea-themed stories, one for every year in high school. The first one is the best: Daichi is living on his own now his parents have to move to the US for work, and he becomes a customer of a nearby cafe specialized in tea. Daichi and Kazuki learn that the wife of the owner died in a car accident nearby some years ago and Kazuki remembers she did saw that two bouquets and some drinks had been placed at the accident site out of respect. But when Kazuki visits the place again, she notices how one bouquet has been removed, but why, and why only one bouquet? The solution is perhaps a bit easy to guess, but it's a nice short mystery you of the type you aren't likely to come across in other mystery manga soon.

In general, the stories in Puzzle Game ☆ High School are fairly easy to solve for yourself, also because Noma is playing the game very fairly and offering fair-play puzzle plots. She definitely set the template for successors like Detective Conan, Kindaichi Shounen and Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou, coupled with the series set-up with a regular cast of main characters and recurring characters and an internal chronology, with characters sometimes re-appearing after a few years. But while the stories may be a bit simple at times, there are still quite a few stories that stand out: as I'm writing this I can already see I'm not going to mention all the titles on my list, because there are just too many. In my earlier article, I already mentioned The Secret of the Red Pool in my first post, a fantastic school mystery about they mystery of why someone would throw red paint in the swimming pool, ruining the water. The motive for this 'crime' is both original and fitting the setting. Yasashii Hanzai ("A Gentle Crime") is set at the school festival, which has been threatened by a bomber. The gang of the Mystery Club eventually reveals a rather surprising truth lurking behind this truth. It's the type of story you might see in Q.E.D. or C.M.B. but not told like this.

Most of the series consists of The Professionals chapters and some of these stories take on a rather large scale: in the three-parter Tokibus Tour, Daichi and Kazuki are hired by Nonose, their former student council president who is now a lawyer. One of his firm's clients owns a touring bus company, but rumors have it that these touring buses are used to sell stolen art: potential buyers are given instructions to board certain buses on certain days and then the thieves will somehow contact them. The client has information that a recently stolen painting will be offered on one of the buses soon, and Daichi and Kazuki decide to go undercover by planting allies in and outside the bus to figure out who the thieves are and where the painting is. The story features a lot of familiar faces from the high school days who help out Kazuki and Daichi by pretending to be normal passengers and as a kind of ransom story like you'd see in Kindaichi Shounen (like the Shinsengumi story), it's fairly entertaining. The two-parter Panic in Hospital feels like Detective Conan movie: Daichi, Kazuki, Mimei and Takuma are visiting Nonose in a private clinic. At least, that's their excuse, because their real reason to come is to spy on one of the other patients. During their visit however, the clinic is taken over by an armed gang who take everyone on the floor hostage. Kazuki happened to be disguised as a nurse at the time, and with the help of the real nurses and doctors, manages to keep up the game and given some freedom to go around the floor to 'check on the patients.' As time passes by however, she starts to suspect that the gang's real goal isn't the ransom money.

There are some other minor gems in The Professionals: Listen to the Eternal Song is a fantastic everyday life mystery, where at a small party in a karaoke hall, Kazuki notices that the young man in the room opposite theirs is constantly repeating the same old song, but he does not sing and just sits there looking at the television. The young man is also visited by an elderly man, who seems to have a minor argument with him. The gang follows the man when he leaves the karaoke hall, only to find he's gone to another karaoke hall, where he plays the same song again! The explanation for this seemingly meaningless act is touching and very original. A Small Affair puts Mimei in the spotlight: her appearances in the series tend to be minor as Daichi and Kazuki are the main detectives, but she's not a founding member of the Mystery Club for nothing. In this story Daichi is investigating a doctor who's selling inventory to a dealer. He follows the dealer to his home and instructs Kazuki to tail the dealer by telling her where the dealer lives. When Kazuki arrives at the apartment the following morning however, she finds the man has moved everything away. She doesn't manage to pry information from the estate agent, but Mimei miraculously manages to find out where the dealer has gone too. It's pretty easy to guess what Mimei did differently than Kazuki, but the set-up is really good. In Worthy Juniors, Daichi, Kazuki, Mimei and Takuma are invited to the school festival by the current members of the Hazuru High School Mystery Club, who are dying to see the 'legendary' gang. Their project at the festival is a mini-murder play: a room has been changed into a murder scene and it's up to the participants to guess who the murderer is. But it turns out that the body in the room is really dead.  The reason why there was a real dead body in that room is quite original and it's really fun to see how these new members of the Mystery Club seem to have some of the guts the original members have.

The chapters with Hinako can be fun too: the single chapter Puzzle Game ☆ Angel is about Hinako's first model gig as a baby for a wine company. The night after an event of this company visited by Daichi, Kazuki and baby Hinako, the son of the company's owner is found murdered at home: a burglar stole several bottles of the wine collection of the father and killed the son. Hinako however helps Daichi and Kazuki solve the case despite being still a baby. The plot is based on a certain Columbo episode (not the one about wine...), but the punchline is completely original and really funny. Hinako relly shows of her own deductive skills in Police Station Chief for One Day, where she and her boyfriend Juri (also a child actor/model) are made "boss of the police station for a day" in a campaign to bring youth crimes under the attention. Naturally, this usually just consists of participating in all kinds of events during the day, but Hinako manages to stop a crime-in-progress that nobody had even suspected simply by combining all the information she hears over the course of the day.

There are more chapters I really though worthwhile, but this post has been going for too long now. As I mentioned earlier, the original series ran from 1983-2001, but the series continued more-or-less non-stop with other publishers and other magazines. These various series too focus on different phases in Daichi and Kazuki's life: some return to the high school setting, some continue telling stories about their lives as professional detectives etc. Puzzle Game ☆ Mystere was the eight follow-up series which had only just started when Noma passed away (she had only finished the first chapter), so unfortunately this is where the series stops.

Anyway, Puzzle Game ☆ High School turned out to be a very entertaining mystery series with a clear focus on puzzle plots that are perhaps a bit simple at times, but the plot idea of jumping through time and seeing everyone grow really gives this series its own face. The sheer diversity in plots is also very memorable, while the fact the series ran in Hana to Yume (a magazine aimed at girls) also allows it to tackle very different themes than the mystery series than run in boys magazines (even if it can feel a bit too melodramatic at times). Puzzle Game ☆ High School is a series that really grows on you due to its enormous scale in story and the focus on the growth of the characters while also constantly offering different kinds of mysteries to the reader. I do intend to read the post-2001 series one day, but for now I'll take a break to let it sink in a bit.

Original Japanese title(s): 野間美由紀『パズルゲーム☆はいすくーる』(花とゆめ版)

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

A Virtual Murder

"To Silicon Valley, huh? Now, let me get this straight. You made up an arcade game, is that it? What is it? One of those mind-numbing, blast-the-enemy space ships gizmos? Or, perhaps it's the one where one little face goes running around eating up all the other little faces."
- "Oh, of course not. Stop it. This is very fresh. It's a whole new technology and they call it virtual reality."
"Murder She Wrote: A Virtual Murder"

Still haven't played any VR videogames....

Xuni Jietou Piaoliuji ("A Wandering Tale In The Virtual Streets") may have been written in 2009, but it is set in the not-so-distant future year of... 2020 (ahem). While Taiwan has recovered mostly from the major earthquake that hit it in 2014, not everything is back the way it was. With city development projects concentrating on the east, Ximendeng, the popular shopping district in Taipei, never quite recovered from the blow, with most of the shops closed or moved away, leaving a ghost town behind. It is not forgotten however, and there is even a government-backed project by the company MirageSys to resurrect Ximendeng. Virtually, that is. In this computer-created recreation of Ximendeng as it was in 2008, customers can walk around, go shopping in the various shops manned by both NPCs and real people (purchases made are sent to your real address) and even go see movies. Plentiful of log-in booths are set across Taiwan, where people can log in and enter the virtual world simply by putting on a VR headset and haptic equipment. At the moment however, Virtual Ximendeng is still in the testing phase, with Luhua as one of the main testers. One day, Luhua is asked to oversee a server stress test by Yanshan, head of development, as he has added a new system to track client activity. Various beta testers log into the Virtual Ximendeng over the course of the day through the 800 VR booths to see if the system can handle varying streams of traffic, but Luhua and Yanshan stumble upon a problem at the very end of the stress test, when they notice that while the new client system says there are 0 clients logged-in, the old system says there's still one active client virtually shopping. Luhua and Yanshan both enter Virtual Ximendeng to see if they can find this zombie client and they split up to search the large virtual shopping district. Eventually they find their problem: a dead person. While the original system simply tracked log-ins and log-outs, the new system tracks eye-activity to determine whether a client is active, which led to the difference. Unfortunately this means that the man they see lying dead in the virtual world, is very likely to be dead in the real world too. They quickly find out which booth is still in use, and after a call to the police, a man is indeed discovered dead inside the booth. Because there was no sign of a third party having entered the VR booth itself to kill the man while virtually shopping, it is believed that the victim was actually killed by a person inside the virtual world. Someone must've hit the man very hard on the head inside the virtual world, and this virtual trauma was replicated by the haptic equipment, killing the man in real-life. While at first both Luhua and Yanshan seem to have an alibi for the time of the murder, suspicion towards Yanshan grows when the police unveils a tragic connection between Yanshan and the victim. Luhua however can not believe that her boss would kill someone inside his own creation and hopes to find out who really killed the victim.

In 2009 Xuni Jietou Piaoliuji ("A Wandering Tale In The Virtual Streets") became the very first winner of the Soji Shimada Mystery Award, a Taiwanese award obviously set-up with the help of Shimada Souji. Entries have to be unpublished works written originally in Chinese (though there are no restriction where the author's from) and several publishers around the world are involved with the project, with the winning works being translated and published in several countries, including Japan, China, Taiwan and even Italy. In the past I have reviewed the Japanese translations of Chan Ho-Kei's The Man Who Sold The World (second Soji Shimada Award) and Hu Jie's Who Shi Manhua Dawang (third Soji Shimada Award), and this time too, I have of course read the Japanese 2010 translation of Xuni Jietou Piaoliuji, titled Kyogi Gaitou Hyouryuuki. The Taiwanese author is Chongwu Xiansheng, though I'll go with their English name as featured in the Japanese translation: Mister Pets.

A comment posted a while back reminded me I still had this novel lying around and funnily enough, it meant I actually got to read this book in 2020 (*I actually read this book soon after that comment, but I always have this long backlog of unpublished posts). Which makes the depiction of virtual reality in this book a bit silly, as it's just a few steps further than we are now. The technology depicted in this novel is recognizable enough that you don't really feel it's science-fiction (the various elements are definitely possible now even for consumers), but the way it is all put together to create an actual virtual shopping district where hundreds of people can actually walk around and do their shopping and hanging around does make it like it's still a few years ahead from 2020. It's quite different from the virtual reality as depicted in Okajima Futari's Klein no Tsubo, which was published in 1989, but the things shown there are still not possible.

I quite like the premise of this tale: a mystery plot revolving around a murder in virtual reality and a 'game-esque' world has a lot of potential, and most readers will probably anticipate some trickery involving how the real and virtual world interact or cross each other (or don't). The problem I had throughout a very large part of the novel however is that the virtual world as depicted in this novel doesn't really make much sense practically. Virtual Ximendeng is conceived to serve its purpose in the plot, to creae the situation of a 'murder committed in a virtual world' but it doesn't take a genius to notice how silly it is to have a end user haptic system so powerful it can emulate a virtual lethal hit or blow. What purpose could such a system ever have in a world that was designed to be a shopping district? Why in heavens would the developer ever think: "Let's introduce a force feedback system in this virtual world. And have it replicate every stimulus to the character exactly. Even if the blow is lethal to the user." It makes no sense whatsoever. What if someone in the Virtual World would trip and fall on their head? You could say, 'but it's a bug' but no developer would even program a virtual reality in such a way that this could be possible in the first place: this has to be an explicitly programmed feature, but it has no sane reason for being there. In the story, they make it a point to say that the physical strength of every client logged into Virtual Ximendeng is reduced by 20%, so any action done in the virtual world is only at 80% strength compared to the same action in the real world. But why would you adopt such a system for what is basically a shopping hub in the first place! It becomes clear that the deadly haptic system was only added to facilitate the possibility of a murder in virtual reality, but there's no internal justification for such a thing to be even considered by the developers, let alone exist and being implemented in a beta of Virtual Ximendeng! The story is also a bit abritrary in regards to what data could possibly be overwritten afterwards to confuse the investigation, and what couldn't. It's not really convincing when the police says this part can be easily overwritten by a third party, and that other part can't, while both systems aren't really explained in detail to the reader. Overall, the idea of a Virtual Ximendeng is alluring, but it could have been fleshed out much better to make for a more convincing setting.

The plot does make better use of its virtual environment in regards to how/when the murder was committed, though the implementation of the 'rules' of the virtual world is fairly bland: it's pretty clear one feature of Virtual Ximendeng will be used the moment it is introduced in the story, and it is used in a pretty straightforward manner. I like the idea, and I've seen it in other virtual reality/fantasy-related mystery stories too, but the way it was used here is a bit simple. What is done isn't particularly original and you can also find similar tropes in mystery stories in "normal" settings, but the act itself is well-translated into the new context of a virtual world. Yet, it remains fairly basic, and while it may be more surprising to people not familiar with videogames 'grammar', the moment the 'device' that only could exist in a virtual world is introduced, you know it's going to be used in one way or another. Ultimately, I do think this is a mystery story that does make good use of the fact it is set in such a virtual world (killing someone inside Virtual Ximendeng to kill them for real, making use of the rules of the virtual world), but especially with such a 'non-standard' setting, it's better to have justification for every element in the Virtual world that is explicitly different from the real world, and that's where this story trips a bit. Especially when the truth about the murder is revealed at the very end, you're left wondering why in heaven the developer would add in all these features and parameters to the client avatars and connect all virtual input to a force feedback system in the real world.

The plot also has another surprise hidden within the investigation, though I think that one is telegraphed pretty early on. Feels more sprung on the reader than on the in-universe characters, and ultimately, it doesn't really do *that much* to strengthen the core plot of the murder in the virtual world, though it does help flesh out the background story, so your mileage on this may vary here: I think I would've preferred a short(er) story focusing only on the murder in Virtual Ximendeng.

So for me, Xuni Jietou Piaoliuji didn't quite live up to its potential. The setting of Virtual Ximendeng is definitely interesting, and there are some good things done here, but too much of the plot feels... contrived isn't exactly the word I'm looking for. Most of the mystery novels I love are in a way contrived, but I feel that the novel struggles a bit with presenting the underlying logic of the workings of Virtual Ximendeng, which are fundamental to making the murder possible in the first place. Perhaps it's easier to accept if you're not familiar with virtual reality/games, but I had difficulties getting into the story because the way Virtual Ximendeng is explained just didn't click with me. A different reader may find this a more satisfying experience.

Original Taiwanese title: 寵物先生 "虛擬街頭漂流記"

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Try Again

"Unagi is a total state of awareness, only by achieving true unagi can you be prepared for any danger that may befall you."

One of my favorite reads last year was Shirodaira Kyou's 2011 novel Kyokou Suiri, which carries both Invented Inference and In/Spectre as its official English titles. In a way, the novel reminded me of the work of authors like Christianna Brand and Anthony Berkeley, as Invented Inference was also about multiple false solutions and a challenge to the notion of one truth, which are themes that come up in the novels by the aforementioned writers. But Invented Inference went far, far beyond what Brand and Berkeley ever dared, and Invented Inference was also a great example of show how the supernatural can be incorporated in a fair-play mystery plot, as well as a good example of showing that a good mystery story really doesn't need to revolve exclusively around the pattern of murder/other criminal case and the subsequent search for the truth. When she was a child, Iwanaga Kotoko was chosen by youkai (all kinds of supernatural beings, spirits, etc.) to become their Deity of Wisdom: with her sharp mind, she would help these supernatural beings whenever they were in trouble they themselves couldn't solve, acting as arbitrator and detective. In the first Invented Inference novel, Kotoko had to face the fearsome Steel Lady Nanase: the powerful ghost of a deceased idol singer who was being a danger for both humans and other supernatural beings. She was powered by the belief in the urban legend of the Steel Lady Nanase, making her nearly unstoppable as stories about her spread across the internet.The only way to stop Steel Lady Nanase was to weaken the belief in her existence, and it's here where Invented Inference showed its brilliance. For while it was actually the truth that a ghost was going around causing trouble, Kotoko had to come up with an elaborate lie (an invented inference) that would explain all the supernatural events that had happened in a non-supernatural manner. Ultimately, the novel wasn't about finding out the truth (in fact, Kotoko knew what the truth was because some spirits already told her everything), but about cooking up a lie that was even more alluring than the truth. Invented Inference thus showed what people fundamentally like about mystery novels: it was a story based on logical reasoning, but it also provided a (false) truth that was entertaining.

Iwanaga Kotoko and her reluctant boyfriend Kurou (who has some supernatural powers himself) returned in the 2018 short story collection Kyokou Suiri Tanpenshuu - Iwanaga Kotoko no Shutsugen which also has the English title Invented Inference Short Stories - Appearance of Iwanaga Kotoko. You know this is probably the first time I've read a short story collection in a series which is simply titled "Short Stories"? What if Ellery Queen hadn't named his short story collections after the Holmes' collections, but simply "Ellery Queen Short Stories"? Anyway, this volume collects five short adventures of Kotoko that get her involved with cases that involve both supernatural beings and humans. As with the first novel, the unique aspect of this collection is that the stories here are often not really about figuring out the truth, or at least, not the the truth that human society is usually after. Often various ghosts and spirits will have witnessed something, so even when there's a murder case investigated by the police, Kotoko will usually know who the murderer is because some spirit hanging around happened to have been witness to the murder. The mysteries in this volume therefore revolve around different problems, and often, these problems are only possible because of the supernatural setting, providing an entertaining volume with thrills you really won't find elsewhere.

Though I'll be honest and say that not all the stories are gold. The very short Unagiya no Kouunbi ("A Lucky Day At The Unagi Restaurant") for example feels more like a short horror story to introduce Kotoko to new readers, almost like a The Twilight Zone story. The story is set inside an unagi (Japanese eel) restaurant, where Kajio Takaya and Juujuji Ryoutarou, two old friends, are having a meal. The two hadn't seen each other ever since Kajio's wife was murdered by a street robber six months earlier. When they notice a young-looking girl, beautiful but almost inhuman-looking, sitting all alone in the restaurant, the two start a little game of deduction to guess why a girl like her would be in a restaurant like this on her own, as it's not the type of restaurant even they would go alone to considering the prices and atmosphere. As they pile up their ideas about her presence here however, Ryoutarou slowly moves the discussion to a daring accusation. There's little 'real' deduction here though, as most of what we see here are fancy guesses at best. Weirdly enough, this is the second story in the volume, even though it'd work much better as the introduction story, showing us Kotoko from a third person's view before we get into the stories with more prounounced supernatural elements.

The first story for example, Nushi no Orochi wa Kiiteita ("The Lord Orochi Heard"), is one of the best stories in the volume, making great use of the supernatural to provide a unique problem for Kotoko to solve. An anime television series based on the first novel was broadcast at the start of this year, but it also included an adaptation of this particular story. Kotoko is asked by Lord Orochi (a Great Snake) of Mt. Chikuna to provide the answer to a problem that's been bugging him. One month earlier, a corpse was found in the swamp on Mt. Chikuna by some mushroom hunters. It didn't take long to identify the corpse as Yoshihara Hiroo, who worked at a construction company. The arrest of Tanio Aoi followed soon. Five years ago, her boyfriend had committed suicide together with another woman, because he had embezzled money from the company. It appears Yoshihara had actually been the real culprit, and he had killed Aoi's boyfriend (a colleague) to take the fall. He felt regret now and had confessed it all to Aoi, who had then killed him in a rage. Yoshihara's body was thrown in the swamp of Mt. Chikuna, right behind Aoi's own home. Lord Orochi actually saw Aoi dumping the body in the swamp, so there's no doub that the police got the right person, but there's one thing that bothers the Great Snake: after Aoi had thrown the body in the swamp, she was overheard muttering "I hope they find him quickly" by Lord Orochi. But why would she carry a dead body all the way up the mountain to dump it in a swamp, if on the other hand she hopes it will be found soon? What follows is a great story of invented inferences, where Kotoko has to come up with an explanation for the seemingly contradicting actions of Aoi. The brilliance is of course is that this situation is only possible because we're taking about spirits here: Lord Orochi only overheard Aoi muttering those words because Aoi never noticed there was a spirit around: a human could just go to the police and testify about this. Kotoko comes up with various theories for Aoi's actions, but Lord Orochi's not easily pleased and quickly pokes holes in each of Kotoko's theories, but with each rejected theory, she slowly builds a case that is likely to convince both Lord Orochi and the reader. Ultimately, the fun lies in the fact that Kotoko isn't looking for the truth though: she just has to come up with an explanation that will convince Lord Orochi. A great showcase of the multiple/false solution trope of mystery fiction.

In Dengeki no Pinocchio, Arui Wa Hoshi ni Negai wo ("Blitz Pinocchio, Or: A Wish Upon A Star"), the small fishing town of Todomizu is facing a crisis as every few days, they find countless of dead fish washing ashore. While a popular television drama last year did make the town a tourist destination, the local economy still revolves around the fishing industry, so people are quite worried to see the fish being killed by some unknown force in the sea. While nobody dares say it out loud, there have been some vague sightings of a wooden puppet walking around lately. The wooden puppet belonged to old Zenta, whose grandson was killed by some tourists visiting here in a traffic incident. People in town however seemed to care very little about the death of the boy, fearing that negative news would kill the stream of tourists. The grieving Zenta had been working on a wooden puppet until he himself died too, but the puppet was never found. People in town now fear the puppet has come to life and is taking revenge on the town. And that's actually the truth: every few nights, the wooden puppet descends from the mountains, makes its way to the sea and uses an electric shock blast to kill the fish in the sea. Not even the local spirits can subdue the Pinocchio figure, so they ask Kotoko to deal with the dummy. What troubles Kotoko however isn't the actual threat of this Blitz Pinocchio, but its actual goal. I really like the explanation behind the real intent of the Blitz Pinocchio, but oh, how I wish it had been clewed more fairly. The story first points out that the will of old Zenta and the actions of Blitz Pinocchio don't seem to match up completely, but in order to arrive at the conclusion Kotoko proposes, you need to think of something that may not be on your mind immediately, so it's not completely fair. Had this been extended into a longer story, with more fleshing out of the background story and for example included a mini-lecture on puppets as supernatural themes, this would've been a great story: now it's a fun story, but it feels a tad cheap because Kotoko points out something that you, as the reader, can not know for certain is relevant or not until it is mentioned within the universe of this story. But the solution is definitely original and wouldn't work in any other series except for this one, where we know the supernatural is very real.

In Guillotine Sanshirou we follow the illustrator Sayoko in the train. From her thoughts, we learn she has a connection to Miyaigawa Koujirou, a man who was recently arrested for murdering his brother-in-law and decapitating him with his own guillotine. Miyaigawa owned a genuine Japanese guillotine, constructed in Japan in the nineteenth century, but ultimately never used. When confronted by the police about the decapitation, Miyaigawa said that he had killed his brother-in-law by accident, after fighting over money, but when he saw his brother-in-law was dead, he wanted to try out the guillotine just once. Our look into Sayoko's mind however shows she too is involved with Miyaigawa's crime. When Kotoko and Kurou confront Sayoko however, she's very surprised. Kotoko tells Sayoko that she's hired by the spirit of the guillotine, who apparently is named Sanshirou. When Miyaigawa decapitated his brother-in-law, he muttered the words "Now it should be alright" which seems to suggest there was more to it than just trying out the guillotine. But what? This story is not completely fair to the reader, as Kotoko is told something by the guillotine which she doesn't mention until the conclusion and it's pretty damning information. It does lead to an interesting situation though, as it gives a very good explanation (the foreshadowing in particular is good) as to why Miyaigawa would want to decapitate his brother-in-law like that and it also makes good use of the idea that it was the guillotine itself which provided Kotoko with that information, as nobody else would ever be able to tell her that. So I do think that the plot justifies the use of the supernatural, as it leads to a situation you normally couldn't have in a mystery story (a witness seeing a very important moment, but not able to tell that to others/the police), but that the information gained from that isn't conveyed in a fair manner to the reader, so it feels slightly cheap.

Maboroshi no Jihanki ("The Phantom Vending Machine") is my favorite story of the collection, as it features a truly original conundrum. We learn that a few shape-shifting tanuki (raccoon dogs) have been making some really delicious udon noodles, and they had been selling them to fellow beings of the other world through an udon vending machine in a small building in a phantom rest area along a mountain road. The rest area is located not in this world, and therefore only accessible for supernatural beings. At least, that's normally so, but occassionally humans driving up the mountains do end up at the interdimensional rest station, giving birth to the urban legend of the "phantom vending machine" with the delicious noodles. The tanuki didn't mind the urban legends, but now they're involved with a criminal case! Honma Shun had killed his business partner accidently in self-defense after accusing him of drug smuggling and being attacked himself. After the murder, Honma drove around in a daze, ending up in the mountains. When he arrived at a small rest area, he talked a bit with the maintenance man of the udon vending machine (actually a tanuki who had transformed into human form), had a bowl of noodles there and then drove on to arrive at a coast town in the neighboring prefecture. The problem is that when Honma left the interdimensional phantom rest station, he was not put back in the exact same spot on the mountain, but further down the mountain. Because of that, he arrived at the coast town much sooner than usual and that inadvertently gave him an alibi for the murder, for nobody could've committed the murder and arrive in the coast town at one in the morning! While Honma admitted to the murder, the police find it puzzling that he didn't seem to realize he has an alibi, but the problem is that they can't find the rest area, nor the maintenance man who serviced the vending machine. One detective in particular is very keen on finding the rest area, which is making the tanuki very nervous, so they hope Kotoko can think of a solution that can explain the situation without actually revealing there is a real phantom rest area.

Absolutely brilliant premise for an alibi story! The culprit is been given a perfect alibi by accident because he wandered into an interdimensional space, and now Kotoko has to crack this real alibi by coming up with a logical, believable solution that does away with the supernatural even though that is what actually happened. It's really fun to see Kotoko build a logically sound case based on the known facts, even though you know it's not even remotely true. Like I mentioned in the introduction, it's at these times where you see how Shirodaira dares to go beyond Berkeley and Brand, by actually rejecting the truth and opting exclusively for the false solution as the "correct" solution, even if it's not the truth. Seeing Kotoko spinning a tale based on the facts to explain how Honma got his perfect alibi, makes you realize that mystery fiction is really often not about finding the truth: it's about finding an amusing solution and that's exactly what's done here fabulously.

Kyokou Suiri Tanpenshuu/Invented Inference Short Story Collection has a few stories that I'd have liked even better with some tinkering, but the first and final story in the volume are absolutely great must-reads. They do great things with the supernatural premise of the series, providing you a type of mystery you simply can't get with other 'conventional' mysteries. I mean, how many series do you know where you know the murder weapon can actually explain what happened in person, or where someone is given an alibi by accident due to interdimensional shenigans!? It's easy to assume that this would make this series not a fair-play mystery because of the use of the supernatural, but by shifting the focus of the mystery from 'finding the truth' to 'finding a logically reasoned solution that does not rely the supernatural even though it exists', Invented Inference can offer some great moments not seen in any other detective fiction.

Original Japanese title(s): 城平京『虚構推理短編集 岩永琴子の出現』:「ヌシの大蛇は聞いていた 」/「うなぎ屋の幸運日 」/「電撃のピノッキオ、あるいは星に願いを」/「ギロチン三四」/「幻の自販機」

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Twisted Tale

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

So the open-world mystery game Paradise Killer is out, which feels like a mix between Danganronpa and JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. It's been getting fairly positive reviews, so I decided to get it too... but after I started the game I remembered I'm rather prone to motion sickness with first-person games! Any other perspective, I have no problems and I do play shooters like Splatoon 2, so it's really the first-person perspective that gets to me... I'll eventually get around to finishing Paradise Killer, but it'll probably take a while because I just can't do long play sessions...

And speaking of play sessions that aren't very long, I also remembered I hadn't written anything about MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files "Executioner's Wedge" yet, a very short, but entertaining mystery game by developer Ekke, which was released two weeks ago on iOS and Android. A lot of people spoke very positively about the game on the release day on social media, which made me rather curious, so I got the game right away, and I too found the game very charming. The game features both a Japanese and English title, but I don't believe it actually has an English language option though. The game starts with a grandfather sitting on a bench, telling his grandson about a case that happened back in the early eighties, when he was a police detective. His tale starts with the discovery of a decapitated body hanging from a utility pole, with the mark of a sect drawn nearby. Similar murders had occured two times earlier, though with some interval between the deaths, but it appears this is the third in a series of cult-related murders. As the detective digs into the identity of the corpse and who killed him, he uncovers a rather curious plot.

The visuals are probably what stands out most: MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files "Executioner's Wedge" features some really nice and unique-looking sprite work to portray a stylized hardboiled world of deceit and murder. It kinda reminds me of the sprites in the GameBoy Color game Scooby-Doo! Classic Creep Capers (a game which is much better than you'd ever expect!). The music is great too, and this game is definitely really nice to listen to and look at. 

As a mystery game, MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files "Executioner's Wedge" is very simple though. Each section, you have to collect a number of evidence/testimonies by questioning the witnesses at various locations, like the crime scene or a bar where the victim was probably last seen. Once you have all necessary clues for that particular section, you'll proceed to the "Inference" section, where you'll have to answer a few questions in the shape of walls that block your way which will help you sort out all the information you've collected until then. Answering all these questions correctly will allow you to move on to new locations with new witnesses, and rinse and repeat. It's very simple and ultimately, the game will only take a hour or so to complete, but given you play a cop, the emphasis on questioning people does not feel out of place. I do have to say the system of questioning people can be very cumbersome. You have to "set" a piece of testimony or evidence beforehand and then start a conversation with a witness: if that person has something to say about the set piece, they'll have an extra piece of conversation and otherwise, there's nothing. But you have to set every single piece of testimony/evidence seperately and start a new conversation with a witness each and every time just to see if they can tell you something about that, and after a while it's really annoying you have repeat the cycle of "Set piece of testimony → start conversation → see if there's a new option → end conversation → set other piece of testimony → start conversation" It's a short game, luckily, for this system could've killed a longer game.

The mystery itself is not super surprising, though it is fun to follow all the clues and slowly uncover what has happened as a simple police detective just doing his job. The way the story ultimately ties back to the story device of the police detective telling his grandson about this case gives the game a nice touch, though I have my doubts about a grandfather telling a child about a series of gruesome ritualistic murders! 

The game can be downloaded for free, but it does incorporate a funny income model through advertisements: if you answer one of the questions in the Inference sections wrong, you'll have to watch a 30 second ad. So if you're the perfect detective and get all the questions correctly in one go, you'll never have to watch any ads in this game! Interesting how it 'rewards' good detectives in this manner.

MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files "Executioner's Wedge" may be a short game, but its presentation really make this a memorable experience and while it's not some mystery masterpiece and can even be a slightly weird in terms of mechanics, it's a great way to spend your time if you have a spare hour somewhere. I'd love to see a more fleshed out version of this game!

Original Japanese title(s):  『和階堂真の事件簿 処刑人の楔』

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Three Coffins

「 懐かしい密室」

"Shaddup, a mystery without a locked room, that's like coffee without cream."
"A Nostalgic Locked Room"

Kinda weird the cover doesn't actually feature coffins.

While most titles usually give you some idea about the contents of the book, few titles are as informative as Orihara Ichi's Nanatsu no Hitsugi - Misshitsu Satsujin ga Oosugiru ("The Seven Coffins  - Too Many Locked Room Murders", 1992). Just a glance at this title allows you to guess a lot about this short story collection. For example, it shouldn't come as a surprise that this book is about locked room murders, considering the subtitle. Or that there are seven stories collected here. And doesn't this title sound a bit familiar? So the reader can also make a safe (and correct) guess that this short story collection has a minor parody angle/is inspired by famous locked room murder mysteries and writers of the sub-genre, like of course John Dickson Carr. The seven stories in this collection all "star" Inspector Kurohoshi, a middle-aged police detective who was once in the career fast track, but he was transferred to rural Shirooka because he was too much a fan of detective novels and locked room mysteries: he always tried to make his own cases appear more complex than they actually were. Kurohoshi's only hopes of returning to the capital is by solving a big case here, but nothing ever happens here... or perhaps they do? In this collection, Inspector Kurohoshi is put on seven different locked room murders that occur in Shirooka, but perhaps it's about time someone told him that he's not the detective character in these stories...

In 1985 author Orihara Ichi reached the final round of the All Yomimono New Mystery Writers' Prize with his short story Osekkai na Misshitsu ("A Busy-body Locked Room"), but lost there. But he was offered a new chance later, and in 1988, he made his debut as a professional writer with the short story collection titled Itsutsu no Hitsugi ("The Five Coffins"), which included Osekkai na Misshitsu. In 1992, Nanatsu no Hitsugi - Misshitsu Satsujin ga Oosugiru was released as the revised version of this book, adding two stories (hence the title change). I hadn't read anything by Orihara before by the way, though I had known about this collection for like forever, as it's a pretty well-known book. As mentioned above, this collection has some parody-like qualities, as most of the stories in this collection are named after other stories and there are also plenty of references to famous locked room mysteries. The stories all have a light, comedic tone to them, also by always having everyone but Inspector Kurohoshi solve the case.

The book opens with Misshitsu no Ouja ("The King of The Locked Room"), which also has the alternate English title No Smoking in the Locked Room. The Japanese title is a pun on the Japanese translation of Knox' Solved by Inspection. Inspector Kurohoshi is put on the case of a dead amateur sumo wrestler in the local community gymnasium. The night before, the local shopping arcades had their annual festival, with a sumo tournament as its finale. For the last few years, the finalists have been the same two people: Tokitou Kenichi of the East Exit Shopping Arcade, and Satou Hiroshi of the West Exit Shopping Arcade. While Satou had been on a winning streak the last few years, Tokitou won this year and naturally, the victory was celebrated with his friends and a lot of liquor, while Satou had to lick his wounds. Tokitou and his gang eventually ended up drinking in the local community gymnasium after borrowing the key, and fearing the neighbors would complain or that Satou and his gang would cause trouble, they had locked themselves inside the gymnasium, covering the windows and taping the doors down. Kurohoshi and his subordinate Takeuchi are sent to the gymnasium when someone says he saw Satou and his gang trying to get inside, and that when that person returned later, he wasn't getting any replies from the people inside in the gymnasium, which made him worried. When they break inside, they find that everyone is dead drunk, save for Tokitou himself, as he's rather dead. The circumstances suggest that Tokitou had been wrestling with someone, who threw him on the floor to break his neck, but who else but Satou could even stand a chance against this amateur sumo wrestler? While the set-up with the taped doors is promising, the solution is a bit easy to guess: it's a bit weird that this possibility is ignored by the narrative at first, as the actual solution seems, to me, to be a lot easier to swallow and even easier to think of than some fancy locked room murder trick. I think something like this can work depending on how good the misdirection is, but I at least thought the solution was a lot more obvious than the narrative tried to paint it.

Dickson Carr wo Yonda Otokotachi ("The Men Who Read Dickson Carr") has the alternate title The Locked Room Without Key, but the Japanese title is of course a reference to William Brittain's The Man Who Read... series. Inspector Kurohoshi is asked to come to the house of the wealthy recluse Kazami Akira, who lives there with his grandson. Kazami Tomoko, Akira's niece and last living relative, has been studying in the United States for the last four years, but when she returned here, it appeared like the house hadn't been lived in for years. She could not find anyone inside, but her uncle's study was locked from the inside. When Kurohoshi has the door opened, he finds two skeletons in the room, as well as the key to the door, and several murder weapons like a rifle, a bat and knife lying around the floor. What happened here? This is a fun little story, with each of the four sections focusing on a different character, slowly revealing what exactly happened in this locked room. There are lot of little questions that float around when you first read about the locked room, like why the key of the door was inside the room, or why there are so many murder weapons there, and those elements really make this an entertaining read. The answer to why this turned into a locked room is pretty funny and while the story does rely a bit on coincidence/luck, I really enjoyed this one.

In Yakuza na Misshitsu ("A Yakuza Locked Room"), also known as The Locked Room Is Dead, Inspector Kurohoshi has to protect a yakuza gang leader in a gang war. Miwa used to be a high-ranking captain in the Yamada-Gumi, but when the previous head of the Yamada-Gumi died, he decided to start his own group, resulting in a gang war between the new Miwa-Kai and Yamada-Gumi. While the widow of Yamada is trying curses and other occult ways to kill Miwa, the men of the Yamada-Gumi have bought rockets from Hawaii to take out Miwa himself. Because the Yamada-Gumi has openly declared at what day and time Miwa will meet his maker, the Miwa-Kai prepares against the rocket attack by buying a cheap survival shelter container to protect their leader. While the shelter seems to withstand the tremendous rocket attack on the Miwa mansion, the police and the men of the Miwa-Kai are surprised to learn that Miwa still died even though he was safely inside the shelter. Was it widow Yamada's curse which finished the gang leader off inside his container? This is again a story where I think the actual solution is a lot more obvious than the story pretends it to be, so a lot of the time you're wondering why a certain point isn't raised. There's a lot of clever misdirection going regarding how the shelter was used though, so while I think the trick behind the locked room wasn't surprising, I think this is a well-plotted tale.

Natsukashii Misshitsu ("A Nostalgic Locked Room") is also called The Third Locked Room and is about the mystery author Tsujii Yasuo and his Misshitsu no Fugou Keibu, a parody on Tsutsui Yasukata and his Fugou Keiji series. The best-selling Tsujii disappeared three years ago from his cottage, saying he wanted to travel to recharge again. His disappearance was an utter mystery to his editors at the time, for Tsujii disappeared from the study in his cottage, while the three editors were waiting for him in the room outside his study. The men had been waiting for Tsujii to finish his manuscripts for them that day, but he managed to leave his study, even though the windows were locked from the inside and the only door was observed by the editors. Now three years later, the men are invited to the cottage again as Tsujii has announced his return. The editors arrive early, as Tsujii isn't in his study yet, but after some time, the men get suspicious again, and when they check the study once more, they find a decapitated Tsujii inside, even though the study door had been under their observation!  A very tricky story because it revolves around both an impossible disappearance in the past and the introduction of a body inside a locked room. It's definitely a well-plotted story, with a lot of steps to make the miracle reality. Perhaps even a bit too complex, as there's a lot going on here. There's even a Story-Within-A-Story narrative about a very similar locked room disappearance/murder in a serialized story by Tsujii (hence the alternate English title The Third Locked Room), so we're talking about a lot of content here. Plot-wise, an impressive story, though it does rely a lot on coincidence or hoping that people react in a certain way.

Wakihonjin Satsujin Jiken ("The Secondary Honjin Murder Case"), AKA The Perfect Locked Room is obviously inspired by Yokomizo Seishi's Honjin Satsujin Jiken, featuring a lot of familiar elements. We follow the retired teacher Okuyama Kyousuke writing about the horrible murder that occured in the manor of the Ipponyanagi family. The manor used to be a waki-honjin, a secondary inn reserved for travelling daimyo in the Edo period. While the Ipponyanagi's used to be an important family, the family grew impoverished, and now thirty-seven year old Hiroko (an old student of Okuyama) lives there alone with her sick mother and one old servant. Their financial situation is the reason why Miyaji Takeshi, a former servant of the Ipponyanagi's, returns to his old master. The uncouth middle-aged man made a fortune in the black market, got hold of some of the debts of the Ichiyanagis and now demands to marry the beautiful Hiroko unless they want to lose the house. Ipponyanagi Hiroko eventually agrees to marry Miyaji to protect her mother. They marry on a cold winter day, and in the evening, the couple retreats to the annex to spend their first night as a married couple. The following morning however, the servant finds Miyaji dead in the annex bedroom. For some reason, he had taped the door and windows of the bedroom shut, while heavy closets had been also been pushed in front of the bedroom door from the outside, effectively locking the door from both sides. Hiroko was nowhere to be found, but there were no footprints in the snow between the main building and the annex and for some reason, a bloody handprint of a man with four fingers was found outside the annex... People who have read Honjin Satsujin Jiken will definitely recognize a lot of the elements, but the solution to this problem is completely different. Like most of the stories in this collection, the mystery is mostly constructed because of the independent actions of various characters coming together in a rather 'fortunate' manner, creating an utterly impossible situation. The same holds here, with coincidence playing a big role in creating the mystery. I really like the reason why the victim had taped the door shut from the inside though and the set-up of that part of the mystery, but it's hard to ignore the fact that a lot of coincidences had to occur in a relatively short period of time to create this locked room mystery.

Futoumei na Misshitsu ("An Opaque Locked Room") has the alternate title Invisible Man and has a Chestertonian problem. The owner of a construction company suspected of corruption is found in his locked office in his house, and the suspect is a rival owner of a construction company who was lurking around the neighborhood around the time of the murder, but nobody saw him actually go in the house and commit the crime, even though a lot of the victim's employees were hanging around the house and the victim was actually a well-trained martial artist. A short story, with a surprisingly interesting variation on the concept of the invisible man as seen in Chesterton's Father Brown stories. The clewing of how this crime was committed was really cleverly done, though this story may be hard to solve if you're not very familiar with certain elements of Japanese culture.

I mentioned Osekkai na Misshitsu in my introduction of this book, but that story was retitled to Tengai Shoushitsu Jiken ("The Case of the Disappearance of the Face of the Earth") and also given the alternate English title The Locked Room In the Air. The Japanese title is based on the Japanese title for Clayton Rawson's short story Off the Face of the Earth and similarly deals with a disappearance of a person from a very small space, in this case, the disappearance of a murderer from a moving cabin of a ropeway. The Mt. Shirooka ropeway has been newly opened, but one day, a woman is found stabbed to death in one of the cabins arriving at the ground station. Soon after, witnesses appear who had been in the cabins moving up the ropeway while the victims' cabin was going down. They swear they saw the woman being assaulted by a man, but how did that man disappear from a suspended railway cabin that can only be opened from the outside in mere minutes? Man, I can easily imagine this as a Detective Conan episode for some reason. While the disappearance from the cabin is obviously an impossible situation, there's also a light focus on the times of when the cabin was spotted by the witnesses and the time it takes for the ropeway to move/characters to move around, which kinda reminds of a railway mystery, but overall, this is again a story that is cleverly constructured, but that does rely on various characters just happening to see or do something at a certain moment, all of that resulting in a seemingly impossible situation, rather than it actually being planned as such. I'm not against that per se, but most of the stories follow this pattern, which does make it a bit more obvious how hard Lady Luck must've been working in the background for this volume.

I might sound a tad negative about Nanatsu no Hitsugi - Misshitsu Satsujin ga Oosugiru, but I do think the seven stories collected in this volume are clever and well-plotted locked room murder mysteries on their own. Taken together however, some of the underlying mechanics with which Orihara constructs his mysteries become a bit obvious, even if the settings of the stories themselves are quite varied. Still, you can do a lot worse than this volume if you're looking for a good short story collection about locked room mysteries. A safe, and ultimately rewarding read if you want some impossibilities.

Original Japanese title(s): 折原一『七つの棺 密室殺人が多すぎる』:「密室の王者」 / 「ディクスン・カーを読んだ男たち」 / 「やくざな密室」/ 「懐かしい密室」 / 「脇本陣殺人事件」 / 「不透明な密室」 / 「天外消失事件」

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Lack of Evidence

"I walk in eternity."
"Doctor Who: Pyramids of Mars"

Umineko no Naku Koro ni Saku on Switch and PlayStation 4 will be released in January 2021! Let's hope I'll be able to finish the game and write a review by December 2021...

Videogames can provide a unique experience in the mystery genre, as it's an active genre: in most mystery games, the story won't proceed unless you (the player) actively interact with the story and characetrs and solve puzzles, as opposed to mystery plots in novels or films, which will go on regardless of how involved  the reader/viewer is with the plot. Of course, the other side of this story is that in novels or films, you at least don't get stuck in the story simply because you don't know what to do next...

While crime might not be rare in Washington D.C., the murder of Walter Edwards near the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame was one that caught the attention of everyone. Edwards was not only the chief of the Liberty Town police, he was also in D.C. conducting a secret investigation in cooperation with the FBI. Secret documents pertaining to this investigation, believed to be in Edwards' possession, also disappeared after his death, so initially the police suspects Edwards' death has to do with his assignment, which is also why everyone was shocked to learn that the pistol thought to have killed Edwards was found in the apartment of his eldest son Frederick, who goes to college in Washington D.C. The local police is satisfied that they have found their man with Frederick, who apparently had a fight with his father earlier that day. Many people who know Edwards and his family personally aren't quite convinced though and the Liberty Town Police Station decides to send their man J.B. Harold to Washington to investigate the death of their deceased boss. Not only is J.B. personally acquainted with Edwards and his wife, J.B. also knows Washington D.C. well because he studied here ten years ago and as he starts poking around in the city, he finds he still has some old college friends in the city who are willing to help him with his investigation in the videogame D.C. Connection, originally released in 1989 for PC-98 systems, but it was later ported to other systems like i-mode feature phones. The most "current" version of D.C. Connection is the 2011 iOS version, which is the version I played.

D.C Connection is the fourth J.B. Harold game published by the late Riverhillsoft, a Japanese company which specialized in mystery-themed adventure games for the PC in the late 80s-early 90s. While it follows Murder Club, Manhattan Requiem and Kiss of Murder, it's considered the third numbered entry in the series, because Kiss of Murder is considered a parallel world version of the second entry, Manhattan Requiem. In terms of gameplay, D.C. Connection is very similar to the previous Riverhillsoft adventure games (which also includes Kohaku no Yuigon), so when I started this game, my intentions were to complete it in just a few hours, a perfect way to spend my Sunday afternoon. I mean, I already knew very well how Suzuki Rika designed these games, so I could hardly be that far off with my estimate of how long it would take me, right? In the end though, it took me at least double the time I had anticipated, and I had to spread it across three days...

As always in this series, D.C. Connection starts in a non-linear manner: after the short prologue, the player (J.B.) has the freedom to visit more than a dozen different locations spread across Washington D.C., where you'll find suspects, witnesses and other persons willing or unwilling to assist you with your investigation. You can decide the order in which you tackle these persons yourself and you progress, you'll uncover more locations and people to see, and in the end, you may have to interact with over 20-30 different locations and persons. Speaking with these people on various topics like other characters or their alibis will provide you with information and ultimately, the J.B. Harold games are about collecting information: by collecting all available information on a character or a certain topic, you can induce characters to give you new information, for example because you noticed a contradiction in the statement of Character A after you collected the statements of everyone else. This new piece of information allows you to press everyone again on old and new topics, and rinse and repeat to progress in the story. These games are about collecting a lot of information on a lot of topics (I'd estimate about 50 different topics) in a non-linear manner: this is what gives these games a unique vibe, as they are really focused on bringing you the experience of a cop who does his job by going over the crime scenes dozens of time and repeating procedural questionings of witnesses, but it can definitely be a boring experience too, and at times very frustrating too.

I have the feeling the story of D.C. Connection is a bit longer than previous games, but what really made my playthrough of this game take so long was I got stuck a lot. In the original PC-98 version of the game, it was possible to get actually stuck in a way you could never proceed again (a bug), but while it's technically not possible to arrive at a state where it's genuinely impossible to proceed anymore in the iOS version, it can be veeeeeeery difficult finding that one piece of statement you missed that allows you proceed in the story. With approximately 30 characters who at any time have about 20-30 topics to talk about, and other locations you can check, it's pretty easy to miss that little piece of dialogue that is necessary to move the plot forward, especially if it's a very insignificant message. In D.C. Connection, the plot can move forward if you have collected all information about a certain character or topic, or when you reach certain percentages of the total game progression (there's a bar that shows how far you are in the game). Sometimes, you're just stuck because a story event will only happen at 46,6% of the game, while you're at 46,5% and accidentally skipped that one single piece of dialogue with that one character who obviously has nothing to do with the crime, telling you how they have nothing to do with the crime, but which will still add that 0,1% to the bar... It happened more than a few times I really didn't know what I had missed, so then I was forced to talk with every character about every topic once again just to see what I had missed. And this takes ages of just sifting through dialogue you have seen already. And despite the age we live in, there's strangely enough no full walkthrough/guide or even a full Let's Play of D.C. Connection available anywhere, so whenever I got stuck I had to do with that hint book came with the original PC-98 release and only explains specific parts of the game (and naturally, I always got stuck on the parts not explained in that hint book). D.C. Connection really feels like an old PC adventure game: looking for that necessary piece of dialogue is at least as vexing as old-fashioned pixel hunting and it's always something small you missed.

Despite these frustations though, I think D.C. Connection is one of the better J.B. Harold games. Like I said, I have the feeling the story is a bit grander in scale this time and we also have a new mechanic in this game where you can make allies out of certain characters who can help you in different ways: the taxi driver Nelson for example can shadow suspects for you and find out where they were going, adding new locations on your map (Is the fish market ever used in this game by the way?). Story-wise, D.C. Connection is also plotted more tightly than previous games, with a plot that keeps you guessing who murdered Edwards and for what reason. There are also some major plot developments halfway through the game that keep you on your toes. The plot also involves J.B.'s own past a bit, as he meets old college friends and reminisces about days past (certain parts were already mentioned in Manhattan Requiem). If I hadn't get stuck so often in D.C. Connection on very minor obstacles, I have no doubts this would've been my favorite entry in the series.

Despite a few minor innovations, D.C. Connection follows the same formula as the previous J.B. Harold games and thus offers a very sober, down-to-earth mystery adventure where you, as the player, simply have to digest a lot of information through conversations with other characters. There's not much genuine puzzle solving to be done by the player themselves, but it can be very difficult finding the right triggers that allow the story to move forward, more so than in previous games I think. Definitely wouldn't recommend anyone to start playing these Riverhillsoft adventure games with this one, but for fans of the series, D.C. Connection is certainly an entry you shouldn't miss as it's perhaps the most polished one in terms of story and characters.

Original Japanese title(s): 『D.C.コネクション』