Wednesday, November 25, 2020

I, Said the Fly

Three wise men of Gotham
Went to sea in a bowl
And if the bowl had been stronger
My song had been longer

Anyone read The Poe Clan? Not a formal mystery tale, but I really like the Cock Robin story there...

After writing three short story collections and one novel about the adventures of the mohawk-bearing punk police detective Kidd Pistols, his girlfriend Pink Belladonna and the crazy murder cases they handled in Parallel Britain on an almost annual basis, author Yamaguchi Masaya decided to pause the series for a while. Which explains the title of the fourth short story collection: Kidd Pistols no Saitei no Kikan or as the English title on the cover says: The Fuckin' Return of Kidd Pistols. This 2008 volume was long-awaited, as the previous book (The Self-Conceit of Kidd Pistols) was released thirteen years earlier, in 1995! Nothing much has changed though in these thirteen years, so we still find ourselves in Parallel Britain, where criminal cases are usually handled by members of the Masters of Detectives Assocation. As the only two detectives assigned to Scotland Yard's National Unbelievable Troubles Section (NUTS), Kidd and Pink are often put on the type of cases that require the extraordinary skills of MDs like Dr. Bull (disciple of Dr. Fell), but despite his anarchist looks and sarcastic attitude, Kidd is actually in possession of a rather sharp mind, and it's usually Kidd who manages to solve the weird cases they come across, exactly because he's a punk who won't conform to rules and is used to thinking outside the box. This fourth volume collects five new adventures with Kidd and Pink.

All the short stories in this series are patterned after Mother Goose rhymes, and the title story of this book is themed after one of the best known ones. Dare ga Cock Robin wo Korosou ga - Kidd Pistols no Saitei no Kikan also has the English title Who Killed Cock Robin, I Don't Care and introduces us to Robin Cockrill (Count Manford), and his wife "Lady Dove" Sophia. Dr. Bull is visiting his former student Cockrill, who has a collection of weapons. The Manford Manor consists of a main building flanked on both sides by two towers, but all parts are not directly connected. As impoverished nobels, the manor's maintenance is subsidized, though in return, they have to receive viewers a few times per week. Cockrill's weapon collection is therefore found on the top floor of one of the towers, while the corresponding room in the other tower showcases the family jewelry. While Cockrill and his wife are showing Dr. Bull, Kidd and Pink the jewelry exhibition room, the count explains he's been into Japanese archery lately. But unable to grasp the spiritual aspect of Japanese archery, Cockrill has been having arguments with his teacher Robert Jakuemon Komadori lately, so they made a bet. Jakuemon is to fire an arrrow from the weapons exibition room in the other tower into the jewelry exhibition room to prove his skill. Given that the distance is over a hundred meters, it's very unlikely he could pull it off, and indeed, the experiment seems to fail. As an archer's courtesy however, Cockrill also fires an arrow back to the other tower. When the party decides to go to the weapon's exhibition room however, they find it locked from the inside. The door is broken down, and inside the room they find Jakuemon dead, with an arrow in his body. It seems impossible that anyone could've shot Jakuemon with an arrow as he was high up in this room, but Cockrill seems intent on claiming his arrow must've actually crossed the hundred meters to kill his master. That also seems very unlikely, but how was Jakuemon then killed so high up?

A story that didn't turn out as great as I had hoped it would be. The very limited circle of suspects makes it easy to guess who's probably the guilty party (especially after a certain intermezzo), and once you know that, it's also fairly easy to guess how the impossible murder was committed. The trick behind that is also predictable for fans of the genre. I guess the most interesting part was seeing how the story included the parts of the Who Killed Cock Robin rhyme as a story theme, but as a standalone mystery tale, we've seen much better locked room mysteries in this series.

Alibi no Awa or Bubbles of Alibi is a very short story, set outside Parallel Britain for a change. As the various Masters of Detective have been taking the credit for Kidd's exploits, it didn't take that much pressure for Kidd and Pink to blackmail their boss to give them an extended holiday. While enjoying their vacation in a holiday resort in Australia however, the two punk detectives are asked by the owner (a friend of their boss) to assist in a murder investigation. Chiang was a wealthy businessman who was having a holiday with his adopted triplet sons. Their three brothers each run a different branch of the Chiang empire, but they had messed up big, and Chiang was going to have them know about that really good during their stay here. When Chiang's body was found dead on board of their cruiser, it was only natural his sons became the main suspects, but they have an alibi. While their father remained on the cruiser, the three sons were out scuba diving and at the time of the murder, they were staying in one of the various "underwater houses" of this resort, providing a place for divers to rest up a bit at the bottom of the sea. While the brothers are indeed seen on the security footage of the underwater house, it appears there are always only two of them simultaneously on the screen as they walked around in the house, which gives the police the idea that one of them committed the murder on the cruiser, while the other two pretended to be three for the camera. The solution is very simple, with a simple slip of the tongue, and ultimately, there's very little that makes this short tale stand out.

In Kyouso to Shichin no Nyoubou no Nanabukuro no Naka no Neko or Gur, Seven Wives and Cats in Seven Sacks, Dr. Bull, Kidd and Pink are on their way to St. Ives when they are stopped at the outskirts of Capeville, right in front of the lonely nine-mile road leading to St. Ives. Asking around, they learn that there's a small sect in St. Ives called The Lost Sheep, led by a certain Ferchi. Seven women (and their children) live with him, and all consider them Ferchi's wives. The women's families obviously want to save the women from Ferchi and have formed a little group to watch Ferchi's every step, though legally, there's little they can do. However, today's different, as the team in St. Ives saw him leaving town in his big truck, and more importantly, they saw children in the back in sacks. Having an excuse now to arrest him for child abuse, the group arranges with the Capeville police to have him detained the moment his car arrives there. The nine-mile road from St. Ives to Capeville is just one long stretch, flanked on one side by the Dover Sea, and on the other side by a steep cliff, a remnant of old mining days. With men on both sides of the road, Ferchi has no way to go. But after an hour, Ferchi's truck still hasn't arrived in Capeville, so curious, the men decide to check the road out, only to find a crashed truck around the midway point. While Ferchi and some of the women are around, the group is surprised to learn there's no sign of the children. Ferchi claims there never were children in sacks in his car, and shows that while he had sacks in his truck, they were filled with cats (which they were going to bring to a shelter) and litter sand. The men in St. Ives know they saw and heard children though when the truck left St. Ives though, so where are they know?

Interesting story in the sense that the solution of the disappearing children is fairly simple to think off, especially after one fairly crude piece of foreshadowing, as well as the set-up for the conclusion where Dr. Bull makes a very short lecture about impossible disappearances. But I really like how it's all fleshed out into a full story. The misdirection with the sacks filled with cats is absolutely brilliant and fits wonderfully with the solution of the disappearance. It's a story that is designed to be very fair, I think, with perhaps a bit too obvious clewing, but I've rather have that than a story that genuinely assumes you to think of the most ridiculous things based one minor clue and then pretends it's being fair. And there's even a nice surprising endgame to the story, which makes this tale overall the most consistent and tightly-plotted story of the whole collection.

Nezumi ga Mimi wo Sumasu Toki (When Mice Listen) is another short one. Kidd, Pink and Dr. Bull are enjoying a performance by the band Three Blind Mice, featuring three blind musicians. Their old manager "Cat Fish" who made off with their money some years ago has returned, having learned Three Blind Mice is going to sign a record deal and still in possession of their (valid) contract. During the performance, Cat Fish is killed, but how could any of the three blind man have done that? The trick... is not pure science-fiction perhaps and can work in some contexts, but even despite the admittedly well-intended attempts by Yamaguchi to ease the reader into the conclusion, the trick behind the murder still feels out-of-there. 

Interestingly enough, Chou Kodomotachi no Ansokujitsu or A Sabbath of Super Children feels fairer, despite it actually featuring supernatural elements. In this story Kidd and Pink are reunited with the Master of Detective Beverly Lewis (from The 13th Detective). Beverly has received a letter by "Monday," one of the children living the Royal Research Laboratory for the Supernatural. This institution researches children with supernatural powers like telepathy and teleportation. Some months earlier, Beverly was investigating rumors of child abuse there, though she could not find any evidence to support those claims. But today she found a note by the child with the code name "Monday" in her inbox, where he pleads for help because he will be murdered at five o'clock on Monday. Beverly, Kidd and Pink travel to the Research Laboratory to see Monday and figure out what's going on. Kidd and Pink learn at this Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters that the children here do indeed have various supernatural powers, ranging from mind reading to psychokinesis. When they're finally ready to meet Monday however, they're told he's in his room. They find his brother Sunday in front of the room, seemingly puzzled by the locked door. When they break the door open, they find Monday has died inside the locked room. An alluring story, as it first presents itself to be a kind of locked room mystery with a supernatural angle, but you soon learn that the powers of each of the children is fairly limited and can not be used to straight-out create a locked room murder, so then the story changes into something else: how to use each of the children's special abilities to solve the murder? As a standalone locked room murder, this story is nothing special, but once it moves beyond that, it's a really good story that uses the special abilities to do a very different kind of mystery story (explaining it would be spoiling it too) and both the clewing and the misdirection is really good here.

Weird to see actual supernatural powers in this series by the way, though I have always had slight problems envisioning what's possible and not in Parallel Britain. It's supposed to be mostly the same as comtemporary times, but in the videogame adaptation of The 13th Detective (which was how I first got into the series), you also had a talking intelligent robot and stuff like that, so I always imagined Parllel Britain to also be slightly more advanced than ours, or at least a bit different.

Kidd Pistols no Saitei no Kikan is on the whole not a bad collection per se, but I do feel it misses a genuine standout story. The previous volumes all had at least one story that was really worth reading and then some others that were good as "side dishes" to that main course, but this fourth volume doesn't really have a highlight story that feels as a pure must-read. Again, I wouldn't label this volume as a bad mystery collection, just too tame, especially compared to earlier volumes. But anyone who has come this far and is still having fun with Kidd and Pink should also read the fourth volume,  and with only one more volume to go, I'll obviously continue reading the adventures of Kidd and Pink.

Original Japanese title(s): 山口雅也『キッド・ピストルズの最低の帰還』:「誰が駒鳥を殺そうが - キッド・ピストルズの最低の帰還」/「アリバイの泡」/「教祖と七人の女房と七袋の中の猫」 /「鼠が耳をすます時」/「超子供たちの安息日」

Saturday, November 21, 2020

An Exercise in Fatality

「胸がドキドキ」(The High Lows)
I don't know if it's cool
But I had an uncontrollable dream
"The Pounding of my Heart" (The High Lows)

Given that that only one single new volume of Detective Conan was released this year, and that this year's theatrical release Detective Conan: The Scarlet Bullet was pushed back to a 2021 release due to the pandemic, it's been a very disappointing year for Detective Conan fans, with nothing new to enjoy. And yes, I know the collected volumes of the spin-off Detective Conan: Wild Police Story are being released in these last two months of the year, but as far as I know, it's not a mystery series, so I'll probably not be discussing them here, even if I'm going to get those volumes.

So the last few months, I've been watching anime original episodes of Detective Conan on and off, i.e. episodes which are not based on the original comic, but which are especially written for the animated series by a varied team of writers: some are specialized screenplay writers for Detective Conan, some are freelance screenplay writers who write for a variety of shows (not just mystery shows) with no fixed attachment to Conan, and sometimes there are special guest writers like mystery author Ookura Takahiro who also wrote the 21st Detective Conan film The Crimson Love-Letter. I started looking for the more interesting anime original episodes about two years ago, and as you may remember, I've come across a few genuine gems.

Detective Conan anime original episodes
Scenario by Ochi Hirohito: 
88-89: Dracula-Sou Satsujin Jiken ("The Villa Dracula Murder Case")  
184: Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau ("The Cursed Masks Laugh Coldly") 
379-380: Hitou Yukiyami Furisode Jiken ("The Case of the Furisode of the Hot Spring Hidden In The Snow Darkness")  
603-605: Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken ("The Case of the Séance's Double Locked Room") 
905-906: Nananengo no Mokugekishougen ("Eyewitness Testimony, Seven Years Later")
Scenario by Hashiba Chiaki
208: Meikyuu he no Iriguchi - Kyodai Shinzou no Ikari ("The Entrance to the Maze: The Anger of the Giant Statue of the Heavenly Maiden")

Scenario by Mochizuki Takeshi
210-211: Gosai Densetsu no Mizugoten ("The Water Palace of the Legend of the Five Colors")
214: Retro Room no Nazo Jiken ("The Mysterious Case in the Retro Room")
Scenario by Saitou Kenji
159-160: Kaiki Gojuutou Densetsu (The Legend of the Mysterious Five-Storied Pagoda)
Scenario by Mikami Koushirou
730: Kanpekisugita Figure ("The Figure That Was Too Perfect")
753: Share House no Shikaku ("The Blind Spot in the Share House")
859: Kurayami no Sangaku Route ("The Mountain Route in the Darkness") 

Obviously, not all anime original episodes are anything near memorable. Most of them are passable, but usually not special enough to make me want to write a review about them. The stand-out episodes I have reviewed until now on the blog do have one major point in common: length. The episodes I've discussed are either two-parters (or even a three-parter) or one hour specials, meaning these episodes have quite some time to set-up a proper mystery and work towards a satisfying conclusion with proper clewing. And it's a lot harder to do that within the confines of one single twenty-minute episode. Most single-part anime originals usually have problems to present a mystery that's deep enough to make an impression in that short period of time, so few of them really make an impression. But as I have the feeling I've already gone through all of the must-see anime original Detective Conan episodes, and there's a Detective Conan shortage this year anyway, I thought I'd discuss a few of these single-part anime original episodes. Most of them have interesting ideas or settings even if sometimes undeveloped or slightly rushed.

Oh, and before I forget this point: I do have to say that Detective Conan is a fantastic fictional world for anime original episodes. There's not only an insanely rich cast of secundary characters but it's also rich in established locations and habits, and any screenwriter can easily fit any idea they have into the world of Detective Conan. Want to write something about a videogame company? Have Dr. Agasa and the Detective Boys visit it. A mystery plot set at a television studio? Have Mouri Kogorou appear in a television show. In a university? Ran visiting someone who graduated from Teitan High. Country house murder? Kogorou, Ran and Conan are out driving and get lost. Seriously, practically any setting will work in Conan and feel completely natural.

Episode 214 Retro Room no Nazo Jiken ("The Mysterious Case in the Retro Room") was originally broadcast on November 20th, 2000 and written by Mochizuki Takeshi, who also wrote the enjoyable two-parter Gosai Densetsu no Mizugoten ("The Water Palace of the Legend of the Five Colors"). Mouri, Ran and Conan are on their way to Dolphin Land, when they become acquainted with a group of three women at the station. The women are old college classmates who are going to have a nice day together. A fourth member of the group is staying at the renewed Dolphin Hotel and the plan is for the three to pick this Naomi up and go enjoy Dolphin Land. Naomi has a room on the Retro Floor, where everything is decorated in a retro Japanese inn style. When they arrive at Naomi's room, they find a Do No Disturb sign hanging from the door, but Naomi does not answer her friends' calls and when they try the door, it's not locked. Inside they find the corpse of Naomi, who has been stabbed. Her hotel room is decorated in a retro style complete with traditional furniture, old-fashioned snacks, and a coin-operated television and it's the latter which is important: the television switched off right as they discovered the body, and the television runs for exactly one hour on one 100 yen coin, and you can only insert one coin at a time. The police suspects therefore Naomi was killed soon after she started watching television, but Conan soon realizes that the murderer could've faked this alibi. While it's fairly easy to guess who the killer is, I have to say I really like the retro room setting, as well as the trick used by the killer to fabricate an alibi for the time of the murder, as it makes optimal use of the prepared props, leading to an original color variation on a trick that's otherwise very familiar. Funny thing is how the incriminating piece of evidence is actually also becoming a bit retro nowadays. Things changed a lot in the twenty years since this episode first aired!

Episode 730 Kanpekisugita Figure ("The Figure That Was Too Perfect") first aired on February 22, 2014 and was written by Mikami Koushirou, a screenplay writer who also works on television dramas. Dr. Agasa and the Detective Boys are visiting a figurine/diarama exposition. Mitsuhiko is in particular impressed by the work of Kitajima Masahiro, a professional modeller. It's Kitajima's body which is found in one of the backstage rooms, and with some help of the Detective Boys, the police soon find three suspects in Kitajima's girlfriend, a rival modeller and a sleazy magazine writer, who were all three present at the event. The police however can't find the murder weapon with which the victim was stabbed, and none of the suspect should've been able to get rid of a weapon that size without anyone noticing. The solution to the hidden weapon is really original and works fantastic in this setting. It's a bit of a shame the episode didn't have a few more minutes to present this more as a Queenian problem, with a grand search of the whole complex to emphasize the impossibility of the murder weapon disappearing. I really like the trick, but the episode kinda undersells the problem, which makes it not as memorable as it could've been.

Mikami Koushirou was also responsible for episode 753 Share House no Shikaku ("The Blind Spot in the Share House"), originally broadcast on October 4th, 2014. Ran's visiting Yayoi, a former student of Teitan High who's graduated and now living in a share house while going to college. Ran likes the idea of living in a share house, but also learns it's not all sunshine. During her stay, she's witness to a fight between two of the other residents: Katsuko has telling lies to their landlord, accusing Suzuki of peeping in order to get him (the only man in the house) out, figuring it would be more convenient if there were only women here. Katsuko and Suzuki both go upstairs to their own rooms, while Yayoi and the other resident Yasuko take turns in taking a shower and keeping Ran company in the kitchen/dining room until her father picks her up. A cry by Suzuki has everyone running upstairs, where they discover that Katsuko's been murdered in her room. Because Katsuko and Suzuki were the only one upstairs, and Ran had clear sight on the hallway in front of the staircase from the kitchen, Suzuki becomes the only suspect, but as the title of the episode spoils, there's a blind spot. This is an episode with a lot of potential, but which sadly doesn't work quite as well as it could've. The trick used to create the blind spot is good, but the presentation is done in a way so it's not exactly clear what's going on until it's revealed in the conclusion, and it's not completely fair to the viewer. In hindsight, you could probably guess how everything fitted together, but considering this is a twenty-minute show, the presentation could've been a bit more generous towards the viewer, while in return one other clue could have been less obvious. A weird episode, as it's a story that really works well in the short runtime, it's just that the presention is intentionally not showing something that they could've shown without attracting to much attention in the first place.

By now you'll have noticed I was specifically watching episodes written by Mikami. Episode 859 Kurayami no Sangaku Route ("The Mountain Route in the Darkness") aired on May 13th, 2017. Dr. Agasa has taken the Detective Boys out on camping on a mountain. At the mountain lodge, they become acquainted with another group staying there. The group of four used to be one of five, but one of them died three years ago, falling off a mountain and since that accident, the remaining four have been climbing mountains together on this day to commemorate their deceased friend. Takemi is the odd on out in the group: the egoistic woman had gone out climbing alone at night three years ago, and their friend only died because he went after her. Takemi's attitude has not changed since however, and after another fight with the other three, she decides to go down the mountain and camp near the river on her own, while the other three sleep in the lodge together with Dr. Agasa and the Detective Boys. The next morning, Genta decides to check up on Takemi all the way down with his binoculars, only to find that she's been stabbed to death. They run down the mountain path to make their way to Takemi, who's beyond rescue. Her backpack is found a bit further down in the forest, suggesting someone killed her and then took her backpack as they fled. During the police investigation, the three friends are also investigated just to be sure, but it becomes clear none of the three friends could've killed Takemi: Conan saw them late at night when they held a small service for their deceased friend, and after that time, it would've take ntoo much time to go down the mountain path, kill Takemi, take the backpack to the forest and climb the mountain again before the others would start on breakfast at the lodge. Even the weather balloons one of the friends brought with him wouldn't be any help, as they can't lift a person and there are too many left anyway. Conan however soon figures out what the secret route is the murderer must've taken to kill Takemi and make it back in time. The trick is pretty simple to guess, especially once the props of the story are introduced, but I think the scriptwriter did a good job at introducing several false solutions to distract the viewer within the twenty minute limit and the trick used by the murderer itself is also pretty original. It's a story that works really well within the time limit, as I couldn't even imagine how you'd want to expand on this in a meaningful manner. One thing this episode shares with the other Mikami episodes I discussed however is that Mikami does like to leave certain clues (especially objects) very clearly for Conan and the viewer to find, and often you wonder why the murderer didn't think of cleaning up better, because sometimes it's like they're literally lying everywhere. I guess that's a problem of the runtime, but some clues are just left on the crime scene as is for no apparent reason save for the twenty minute limit.

One final episode I want to highlight was written by Yamatoya Akatsuki, best known for his work on Gintama. Episode 961 Glamping Kaijiken ("The Curious Glamping Incident") was broadcast a year ago on November 30, 2019 and is about Ran, her friend Sonoko and Conan going out glamping. They have a fun time at the camp, but at night, they hear a cry from the group of four next door, and when the three come and check, they find a dead cross-dressed man with awful make-up on his face, a piece of crab in his mouth and a piece of paper in his hand. What happened here? I should probably warn you that I'm not writing about this episode because it's a good mystery story. It's not. It's just the craziest anime original episode I have ever seen. It doesn't even try to make any sense. The writer probably just came up with the wackiest murder scene he could think of and then tried to make something out of it, but it doesn't even remotely hold together and when the episode is over, you'll realize the writer has forgotten to address a lot of story details that really beg for explanation. But this episode is absolutely HILARIOUS because it's unapologetically nuts and the characters are all acting like complete psychos.

Anyway, I hope this post will be helpful to the people who want to try out some Detective Conan anime original episodes and don't know where to start. I'd definitely recommend trying the specials/multi-parters by Ochi first, but after that it can be a bit trickier and it really depends on what kind of stories you like. For I will say this, the anime original episodes can be very varied, in terms of setting but also of atmosphere. I'll probably do these anime original episode write-ups once in a while, but I do hope I'll be able to write about some new Detective Conan releases soon...

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵コナン』214話「レトロルームの謎事件」 / 730話「完璧すぎたフィギュア」/ 753話「シェアハウスの死角」/ 859話「暗闇の山岳ルート」/ 961話「グランピング怪事件」

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The Greenhouse Jungle

薔薇が咲く 薔薇が散る
君の中に 僕がいる
「薔薇が咲く 薔薇が散る」(愛内里菜)

Roses bloom, roses scatter
I live inside of you
"Roses Bloom, Roses Scatter" (Aiuchi Rina)

Huh, I'd swear that when I read The Jellyfish Never Freezes, this series didn't really have a set series title yet, but now apparently the series is named after the series detectives. Not original perhaps, but at least it's a clear title.

The blue rose has been considered the Holy Grail of horticulture, but sometimes miracles happen. Twice even. When the news broke that a pastor had managed to grow a genuine blue rose by coincidence in the church greenhouse, people with green thumbs and academics alike were baffled and figured the man must have had a bit of help from above. What really surprised everyone however was the press conference of Professor Tenniel the following day, who too announced they had succeeded in creating a blue rose titled Abyss and the genetics scholar also seemed to imply that the pastor's blue rose was very unlikely to be a genuine blue rose. Police inspectors Maria and Ren of the Flagstaff Police Station didn't have much to do after the events concerning the inventors of the Jellyfish, but immediately after the two consecutive announcements of the blue roses, they are approached by their colleagues over at Phoenix and asked to, discreetly, poke around both Professor Tenniel and pastor Cleaveland and their blue roses. Figuring something must be up, Maria and Ren visit the two and ask some questions, but as they had no idea what was about, the two detectives can hardly be blamed for the subsequent murder on Professor Tenniel. All the people attached to the professor's lab were to attend a conference in the state of A that day, and as the professor had a second home there, the professor and one of the students would be staying there the night before, to prepare documents and drive from there to the conference. When the professor didn't arrive, the police was notified, and the two 'lucky' officers stumbled upon a horrid sight: bloody words were written on the inside of the doors of the greenhouse in the back garden, and inside, they found the head of the professor with the greenhouse key, together with the bound and gagged student. And to top off the mystery, the greenhouse had been locked completely from inside when the police found the victims. The doors and windows were all locked from the inside, and while they could theoretically be manipulated with strings, the problem is that all the greenhouse windows and walls are covered by long, interlocked rose vines: their combined weight, thorns and vulnerability make it impossible for anyone to have left the greenhouse through any place but the door, but the bloody letters on the door make it clear the doors were not opened after writing the message, and the greenhouse key was found inside the professor's mouth. The case is mysterious on its own already, but then Maria and Ren are shown fragments from a diary dated one year earlier retrieved from a house that had gone up in flames recently and they are shocked to learn how this diary details how Professor Tenniel had succeeded in growing a blue rose and was murdered in a greenhouse. Maria and Ren have to find the missing link that connects the old diary, the murders and the blue roses in Ichikawa Yuuto's Blue Rose wa Nemuranai (2017), which also has the English title The Blue Rose Never Sleeps.

Earlier this year, I reviewed Ichikawa Yuuto's debut novel The Jellyfish Never Freezes, the first novel in this series and you may remember I liked it a lot. It was a novel that was quite open in showing where it took its inspiration from: Like Ayatsuji Yukito's The Decagon House Murders/Jukkakukan no Satsujin (Disclosure: I translated Ayatsuji's The Decagon House Murders), The Jellyfish Never Freezes followed a dual narrative structure, with two simultaneously developing narratives in alternating chapters: the reader jumped back and forth between chapters that portrayed the serial murder case in real time, and chapters set a few days after, focusing on the subsequent police investigation. The Blue Rose Never Sleeps does the same: we follow Maria and Ren's investigation into the blue roses and Professor Tenniel's murder in the so-called "Blue Rose" chapters, while in the "Prototype" chapters, we follow the story of a boy named Eric who ran away from home and was taken in by Professor Tenniel and his family.

Mystery stories with such dual narrative structures often feature some kind of narrative trick aimed at the reader, urging you to assume certain connections between the two narratives even though they are not there in reality, or the other way around. The revelation that the two characters by the same name in the two narratives were actually different people or something like that is then sprung at the end on the reader. The Blue Rose Never Sleeps however starts off making it quite clear there's something not right between the two narratives. The names and people Maria and Ren find in the diary are very similar to the people involved in the actual murder case, as is the theme of the blue rose, but there are all kinds of minor differences with reality, and a large part of the mystery revolves around figuring out why the narratives are so alike, and yet not the same. It's pretty refreshing to see a mystery story which tells you right away there's something wrong between these two narratives. The reasons behind these discrepencies as revealed are at times a bit farfetched (wait, that was all done just in the hope that something else would occur?), but I have to say I was quite amused by the dual narrative and even though I was ready to suspect everything, I still didn't quite manage to evade that piece of misdirection that was created due to the dual narrative, even in essence, it's fairly simple (and even if you saw through the misdirection, there was still a lot more the reader needed to solve).

Early in the novel, the reader is 'treated' to a mini-lecture by Professor Tenniel about genetics, DNA and how to create blue roses. It can be a bit technical, and while you don't need to have a PhD in genetics to be able to solve the mystery in The Blue Rose Never Sleeps, one part of the plot does kinda involve a "Oh, by the way, this could be done with genetics too!' surprise which no reader is going to guess. It's a bit unfair, and while not directly involved with the locked room murder in the greenhouse, it's definitely an important building piece, so readers might feel a bit cheated there. The locked room murder itself is interesting. The trick the murderer used to escape from the locked greenhouse covered in thorny vines falls a bit in the mechanical category and the set-up to the reveal of the trick could've been more comprehensive, but I do like the idea and it definitely fits the theme of the roses. There are more mysteries that build upon this locked room mystery by the way: at one point, the student witness actually sees the dead professor inside the locked greenhouse, but is knocked out. When the police later found her, she was tied up inside the greenhouse herself, but that means the murderer unlocked the greenhouse to put the student inside and sealed the greenhouse again. Ichikawa skillfully builds several mysteries like that on top of the actual act of murder itself, making The Blue Rose Never Sleeps a fairly complex novel, with the locked room murder only a part of the whole picture.

You could say the book not only has a dual narrative, but also a dual mystery, as ultimately, the motive behind the murder remains quite vague until the denouement. Like I mentioned above, the backstory can be come across as slightly farfetched and contrived, but on the whole, I do like how everything tied together and how you kinda end up with a second mystery plotline. I guessed the second part of the mystery and who was behind it, but it wasn't really based on any clear evidence: I wasn't really happy when it was revealed my gut feeling was right, as I had no proof and that feeling didn't improve when Maria did manage to point out all those little things I missed that proved who the culprit was!

The Blue Rose Never Sleeps was another satisfying mystery novel by Ichikawa after The Jellyfish Never Freezes. While the sequel uses the dual narrative structure too, its application is quite different, and unlike the first novel, which took inspiration from And Then There Were None and spy thrillers, The Blue Rose Never Sleeps feels more like a "conventional" mystery story focusing on an ongoing murder investigation. Personally, I think I liked this novel better, but they're both great reads, and I do hope the third novel will see its pocket re-release soon!

Original Japanese title(s): 市川憂人 『ブルーローズは眠らない』

Sunday, November 15, 2020

番外編: The Decagon House Murders Released Once More, with Feeling

Five years ago, Locked Room International released The Decagon House Murders, my translation of Ayatsuji's monumental 1987 novel Jukkakukan no Satsujin, about the members of a university mystery club who plan a visit on an abandoned island, only to be killed by a mysterious killer one after another. It would be the first novel of the so-called shin honkaku (new orthodox) movement in Japan, which was a call for authors and reader to return to intelligent puzzle plot mysteries. Many writers would follow in the wake of The Decagon House Murders, making it one of the most important novels in recent detective fiction history in Japan. The release of the English-language version of The Decagon House Murders was of course a personal milestone, but putting it in the wider context, for many it was probably also their first steps into shin honkaku, and since then, I've been fortunate enough to be able to work with Locked Room International to bring more Japanese mystery fiction to the English-language world (In case you missed it, take a look at The Red Locked Room!). Since its release, The Decagon House Murders has seen some interesting and positive reviews. Personally, I have to admit that the Dirda piece in the Washington Post back in 2015 still made the most impression on me, especially as it really helped the word honkaku spread.

For some time now, Pushkin Press has been publishing Japanese mystery fiction, with prominent writers like Shimada and Yokomizo seeing both new translations, but also re-releases of older translations that had gone out of print. Some of the readers may have been aware of this already, but Pushin Press required the rights for The Decagon House Murders some time ago. And now their version's out! At least, I believe the e-book is available right now, while the physical book will follow in only a few weeks. It's a re-release, but the text has been brushed up by the new editors, and some help from myself of course and it's got a nifty new cover. Seriously, Pushkin has been hitting home-runs with these covers, and the first I was contacted over this new release, I couldn't help but be utterly excited about what kind of cover it would get!

Pushkin Press is based in the UK, so the e-book is out now and the physical release follows in the first week of December, while I think the US release is scheduled for next year, though that's kinda a moot point since you can just order anything from internet nowadays... Anyway, if you were still wondering about gifts for the holiday season, or just something to read yourself in the upcoming darker months, why not The Decagon House Murders?

Saturday, November 14, 2020

The Case of the Caretaker

 'T is strange,—but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction; if it could be told 
"Don Juan"

The Mysteries! Newcomer Award is essentially the sister award to the better-known Ayukawa Tetsuya Award: both awards are organized by the same publisher and are meant for unpublished works of authors who haven't made their major debut yet as writers. The Mysteries! Newcomer Award is meant for short stories, while the Ayukawa Tetsuya Award accepts full-length novels/short story collections. Ayukawa Tetsuya Award winners are obviously published as standalone book releases, while in the case of the Mysteries! Newcomer Award, publication means being published on paper in the mystery magazine Mysteries! and as a seperate e-book release. Almost exactly one year ago, I reviewed two Mysteries! Newcomer Award winners together and I already noted that there at least seemed to be a wide range in the stories, as the situations/type of mystery in those stories were quite different, but both very satisfying stories. Still waiting for that second story of Yukashina by the way...

About 400-500 entries are accepted each year for the Mysteries! Newcomer Award, but even with those The two numbers, there's no guarantee a winner is declared: there have been years with no winning work, like 2011 and 2016. This year however, we have no less than two winners of the 17th edition of the Mysteries! Newcomer Award. Interestingly enough, the authors of the two works were both called Ooshima. However, one of them changed their name between the announcement of the winners, and the publication of the stories in the October 2020 issue of Mysteries!, so the fact that two Ooshimas won the same award in the same year, will be forgotten in the near future...

Anyway, so while Ooshima Kazuhiro won the award, it's now the name Yamato Hironori which accompanies the story Kamu Roujin ("The Biting Senior"). Konori Ken works at the Care & Social Welfare Section of City Hall and is one day visited by Kadota, who runs Yuimaru, a small day care services for the elderly. Each morning, they pick up their clients at their home to bring them to a central location where the seniors are taken care for during the day, and at the end of the day, they bring everyone back again. Yesterday however, an incident happened with Takizawa Ryoujirou, an elderly man in a wheelchair who's suffering from Alzheimer and can't speak anymore. The man is usually very peaceful and docile, but yesterday he suddenly bit the arm of the poor caretaker who was trying to put a bib on the man at lunchtime. While the woman was wearing a uniform, the man bit her so hard the bite marks were clearly visible on her arm and Kadota even had to bring her to the hospital. When Kadota later informed the daughter-in-law of what had happened however, she accused the caretaker of having messed up somehow, leading to the biting incident, and she said she'd bring her father-in-law to another daycare service. Kadota wants to know why Takizawa suddenly bit her employee, also because he fears the incident might be repeated even if Takizawa would go somewhere else, and asks Konori to investigate the incident.

This is certainly not a situation you're likely to see as the main mystery in a detective story! With a 'vague' problem like "why did the old man bite a young caretaker?" and the theme of the care for the elderly, you might be tempted to assume that this will be a mystery story that's more interested in exploring social problems, but it's actually surprising how Yamato does manages to write construct this premise into a proper puzzle plot story with clues and all. Granted, a lot of the clewing is a bit crude: one section in particular stands out like a sore thumb because you know that those few sentences are only there because they are to serve as a clue and once you see that, it's honestly not hard to figure out why old Takizawa bit the caretaker's arm. But still, Kamu Roujin is written as a proper mystery story, structured around the attempts of Konori to find a plausible explanation for Takizawa's sudden change in temperament and constantly stumbling upon facts that seem to deny his suggestions, until he finally manages to put everything together and even organize for a very satisfying denouement scene. Given that the story revolves around finding a motive for the "crime", it can definitely be difficult to present a convincing enough reason for the "culprit" to have done something and also present it in a way that allows the reader to figure it out beforehand based on clues, but it's done fairly well here. And I'd definitely want to see more of the premise of a municipal care service offical detective explored in a short story collection!

The other winner of the award was Ooshima Kiyoaki's Kagefumitei no Kaidan ("Ghost Tales of the Kagefumi Inn"), which is like the complete opposite of the motive-focused Kamu Roujin with its realist angle. Umeki Kyouko is an author of real horror stories, which she approaches from an investigative and folklore angle: she not only writes about these stories about ghostly appearances, but also interviews the people who actually experienced these supernatural phenomena and also attempts to pose her own interpretations of these odd occurances, analyzed from a folkloristic point of view. A few days before the new year starts, her younger brother is sent by their parents to check up on Kyouko in Tokyo and bring her some new year treats from her parental home. When there's no answer to the doorbell, he uses his own key to get inside the apartment, where a horrible sight awaits him. His sister is taped tight to her office chair and her eyes have been sewn tight with her own hair. While she remains unconscious in the hospital, she's fortunately going to survive the ordeal. But who did this to her and why? Her brother suspects it has to do with the new story she was working on, about the Kagefumi Inn in the Gozu Hot Spring region close to their parental home in the Tochigi Prefecture. A few weeks ago, Kyouko stayed there to investigate the ghost stories connected with the annex in the Japanese garden of this inn: while it's not in use anymore as a guest room, it appears that people staying the night (like staff members) there will receive an anonymous phone call on their mobile at 02:17 a.m. and if you take the call, some freakish misfortune will befall upon you in the near future. The brother decides to stay at Kagefumi Inn himself to see what his sister worked on exactly. The owners of the inn have heard of the incident with Kyouko too and are very willing to help out the brother, and there's even an exorcist staying in the annex at this very moment to see if there's really some ghost hanging around there. The brother is invited by the exorcist to come at night to the annex room to see if there's really a phone call at 02:17, but when the brother arrives at the annex, he finds it's locked and when he peeks inside through a gap in the window blinds, he finds the exorcist is lying dead in the room, with both his eyes scooped out of his skull! The owner and the brother break in through the window, but to their surprise they find all the doors and windows of the annex had been taped tight with demon-warding seals and that no person could've escaped from this room after taping every exit shut from the inside. So was it a ghost who killed the exorcist?

So this story is also a horror story, or perhaps I should say that Kagefumitei no Kaidan is mostly a horror story? Throughout the tale, the reader is presented with various supernatural and scary situations, some through the eyes of the narrator (the brother of Kyouko), some through the excerpts from the manuscript about the ghost stories happening at "K Inn" which Kyouko had been collecting. Stories about ghostly telephone calls, about children's voices coming out of nowhere, about monsters roaming the garden of the inn. But as this is a detective story, you'd expect most of these phenomena would be explained right and that there's perhaps one supernatural part that's left vague on purpose? Kagefumitei no Kaidan is the exact opposite: most of these phenomena will remain unexplained as supernatural horror stories, while only a small part of the tale will actually be explained in a rational manner. The result is a strange story where a locked room murder is solved in a classic manner by presenting a rational explanation supported by proper clewing, while at the same time we're also asked to accept the stories about ghostly children hiding between the dining tables at K Inn. The locked room murder where everything's been taped tight is a classic situation now and while the solution is okay and I like the clewing for it, it's pretty difficult for that part of the story to really leave a lasting impression considering we also have really nasty situations with the eyes sewn shut and eyeballs being pulled out of the head and stuff. The atmosphere is fantastic, with the jumping between the brother's narrative and the manuscript of Kyouko and overall, Kagefumitei no Kaidan is a good horror story, with a decent locked room murder plot included, but don't expect a straightforward mystery story where everything is explained at the end.  

The two winners of this year's edition of the Mysteries! Newcomer Award probably couldn't have been anymore different, but I guess that shows how diverse the mystery genre could be. Kamu Roujin was a story I wasn't sure I would like when I first heard about the premise, but I have to admit I liked it a lot more than I had expected. Kagefumitei no Kaidan too was different from what I had expected, with a more distinct focus on the horror angle, but I did enjoy it as a nasty-feeling scary story with a locked room murder hidden in there somewhere too. It'll be interesting to see if these two authors will release more in the future, as both of them have found fairly unique angles with their stories.

Original Japanese title(s): 大和浩則「噛む老人」 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

The vision of your own dreams
You might see it through
It's in your voice... 
"Your Voice" (Nadia Gifford)

It's almost like eight out of ten books discussed here will feature supernatural or science-fiction elements, whether it's "just" the suggestion of, or actual supernatural powers. And in general, the latter category actually seems to have an even better track record...

Kuramochi Yuika, a receptionist at a department store, approaches her friend and mystery writer Kougetsu Shirou to accompany her on her visit to a spirit medium. Yuika's been seeing weird visions of a weeping woman and a fortune teller has advised her to go see the spirit medium Jouzuka Hisui, as she's supposed to be the real deal. Kougetsu is not only a mystery writer, but also occasionally assists the police in their investigations as a criminal profiler, so he's a bit sceptical at first, but the way in which Hisui manages to sense both Yuika and Kougetsu's professions from their aura is astounding, giving his first moments of doubt. The beautiful spirit medium senses some lurking danger from Yuika's aura, and wants to take a look at Yuika's apartment. They agree to meet a few days later, but Yuika doesn't appear at the station as promised and when Jisui and Kougetsu make their way to Yuika's address on their own, they find Yuika lying dead in her apartment. The crime scene suggests someone pushed Yuika, causing her to hit her head on the table, killing her. The initial police investigation focuses on two scenarios, the murder being either the work of a notorious neighborhood burglar or one of Yuika's personal acquaintances with stalker tendencies, but Hisui reveals she can in fact channel Yuika's spirit in her dying moments. Hisui's vision is vague, but it does reveal the culprit was a woman, who was apparently looking for something as Yuika's consciousness faded away forever. Kougetsu is now however facing a problem: the police isn't likely to believe Hisui's vision, so now he has to figure out who killed his friend based on Hisui's vision and also find supporting proof, as the vision alone won't have any value when talking to the police. After the duo manages to solve Yuika's murder, Kougetsu and Hisui run into more mysterious cases that require Hisui's unique powers, but Hisui's also foreseen her own imminent and only Kougetsu can prevent her death in Aizawa Sako's Medium - Kourei Tantei Jouzuka Hisui ("Medium - The Medium Detective Jouzuka Hisui" 2019).

Medium - Kourei Tantei Jouzuka Hisui has been one of the more prominent releases of 2019: it managed to rank in several of the annual top ten mystery rankings organized by Japanese publishers and in the period between me purchasing this book and actually reading it, it also won the 2020 Honkaku Mystery Award, which usually means fans of puzzle plot mysteries will enjoy the work. Personally, it was the premise that really manage to hook me in. As you may have noticed, some of the best, fair-play mystery fiction I've read these last few years feature supernatural elements, like the murder-fable short story collection Mukashi Mukashi Aru Tokoro ni, Shitai ga Arimashita, the mega-hit Shijinsou no Satsujin and its sequels/adaptations, Kobayashi's wonderful mysteries based on Alice in Wonderland and E.T.A. Hoffman's works, the time-travelling mystery Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei and the yokai mystery Invented Inference. Medium - Kourei Tantei Jouzuka Hisui obviously features a spirit medium and while often mysteries featuring spirit mediums feature frauds, you also have examples of great mystery fiction featuring real spirit mediums and where their powers serve as a source for original mystery plots like in the 3DS game Gyakuten Saiban 6/Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Spirit of Justice.

Medium - Kourei Tantei Jouzuka Hisui follows an interlinked short story collection format and the first story, The Weeping Woman Murder, serves as a good introduction to show how Hisui's visions can still work in a fair-play mystery plot. It's established right away that Hisui's powers definitely have their limitations. For example, Hisui can sense emotions and feelings like guilt from people's aura, and also sense whether one's aura is being under attack by someone else, but obviously, she can't just go to the police and say that this or that person 'feels' suspicious. But her powers do allow Kougetsu to deduce who isn't the murderer, allowing him to focus on the real culprit and finding tangible evidence. Basically, the stories revolve around Kougetsu being put on the correct rail right from the start thanks to Hisui's powers, but it's Kougetsu who has to reverse-engineer her visions and find real proof and come up with a supporting line of reasoning. It reminds of Morikawa Tomoki's Snow White, in which a magic mirror would show the answer to a mystery, but where the detective still had to think of a convincing deduction herself, because people would not believe her if she'd just say the answer. Invented Inference falls in the same family too, where Kotoko invents inferences to lead to the conclusion she already knows beforehand because ghosts and other supernatural beings help her. In The Weeping Woman Murder, fragments of Hisui's vision and what she senses from auras help Kougetsu on the right path straight away. Hisui even reveals she knows the murderer's a woman the moment they discover the body, but ultimately, it's Kougetsu who has to figure out the meaning of the actions of the woman seen in the vision, its implications and who the murderer is. And on top of that, he has to come up with a line of reasoning that supports his theory, a line of reasoning that doesn't rely on Hisui's powers, because obviously, the police wouldn't believe any of that. The result is a truly interesting story that shows what makes a mystery story so fun, as it plays with the notion of what a mystery is and also with the idea that a logical deduction doesn't need to be true, only convincing and entertaining.

In the second story, The Murder in the Water Mirror Manor, Kougetsu and Hisui are invited to a small barbecue party at the Water Mirror Manor, the lakeside second home of the celebrated mystery writer Kurogoshi Atsushi. Having heard about Hisui from Kougetsu, Kurogoshi hopes Hisui can find out whether his home is really haunted like his family thinks and if so, he hopes she can do something about it. But this is kept hush-hush, and Kougetsu introduces Hisui as his Plus One to other mystery authors and editors invited to the party. Kougetsu and Hisui are to stay at the Water Mirror Manor that night, as do three other guests. The detective duo stay up most of the night in the living room that connects the manor's two wings to see if there's any spectral activity and it's during this period that the three other guests all pass by the living room at one time or another, as the bathroom in the wing with the guest rooms is curently broken. The following morning, Kurogoshi is found to have been bludgeoned to death in his study in the other wing. Kougetsu and Hisui were in the living room during the estimated time of death, so the murderer must be one of the three persons who passed by the living room, but... Hisui can tell right away who the murderer is based on their auras. The problem remains the same however: how is Kougetsu going to prove that? A strange vision seen by Hisui serves as a clue to what happened, but can Kougetsu also find supporting evidence for that?

Unlike the first story, this story straightout reveals who the murderer is by name, which might make you think it'll be easy, but oh-no! This is a very tricky story: the deduction chain that revolves around Hisui's vision is something you'd expect to see in Queen's work, revolving around the actions taken by several characters and the implications of those actions. The story makes good use of the backstory of the manor, but what really seals the deal is that even if you figure out what Hisui's vague visions actually mean, you still have a lot to do, as Kougetsu's ultimate goal is always to come up with a line of reasoning supported by the physical evidence! So even if you've "done" Hisui's part of the mystery (identifying what the vision was about and its implications), you still have to figure out a seperate line of deduction that will lead to the same conclusion, a line of deduction that will convince the police to act. The clewing for that is pretty clever too: it's not super surprising, but I have to admit I don't think I've come across this particular version of the idea before, though older variations are fairly common.

In The Serial Murder Case of the Female High School Student Strangulations, Kougetsu is having a signing event, when he's approached by a fan. In the last year or so, several of Natsuki's schoolmates have been strangled to death. The police investigation has led to no results at all, so Natsuki hopes that Kougetsu can help find the killer. Because of his track record, the police allow him and his "assistant" Hisui to join the investigation and start snooping around the high school. Hisui soon senses the police is on the right track, but before they can act, another victim falls... Fearing the culprit may be feeling cornered, they try to act before more victims follow. This story is a bit simpler in set-up compared to the previous stories: Hisui's powers don't really lend them well for this type of case, so while she's able to point the police investigation to the correct direction early on, it's actually Kougetsu who has to do a lot of the heavy lifting himself this time, using the few hints Hisui manages to convey to him to figure out who's the serial strangler. The focus lies a bit more on the interpretation of physical evidence this time, but the climax of the story really works well a supernatural-themed mystery.

The final story VS Eliminator Kougetsu and Hisui are asked to find another serial killer: several women have fallen victim to this murderer for the last few years, who has been mentioned a few times in previous stories as well as in the story intermezzo parts. It's hard to explain this story without giving too much away, but this story is excellent and works wonderful as the conclusion to the whole book, and it elevates the work to a genuine must-read of the genre. Early on in this story, we find out that Hisui's powers actually don't really mesh well with this type of case: the previous stories established that Hisui usually needs to be physically at the murder scene to be able to have her visions, or she must come in close contact with suspects to feel their aura. It's because of this that Kougetsu doesn't feel much for involving Hisui in this case, as her powers may attract the attention of the killer and in any case, her powers don't really apply here, but Hisui's still determined to find the serial murderer. What follows is a fantastic tour-de-force in deduction that show off Hisui's real powers in full might: whereas the previous stories seemed to prove the limits of Hisui's gift, VS Eliminator actually turns everything around: in a mesmerizing super-flashback scene we see how all those moments that only seemed to prove the limitations of Hisui's supernatural powers and all the other events actually all line up in a single arrow, proving in fact how utterly overpowered Hisui's skills really are. This story really invites you to read the book all over again from the start, as many scenes suddenly take on a different meaning, and you see how carefully author Aizawa has been planning this climax, with Hisui's power being proven to be much more than the reader is first led to believe. Each previous story turns out to be foreshadowing this conclusion with proper clewing, while also telling a good mystery tale on its own, so it's like each story was telling two stories at the same time: one "front" story, and a "back" story that is only revealed in this final tale. But while Hisui's newly revealed powers ultimately allow them to catch the serial killer,  the book still holds on firmly to the fact that this is a fair-play mystery novel, built on brilliant deductions and actual physical proof.

Medium - Kourei Tantei Jouzuka Hisui is definitely a masterpiece of the genre, one that really shows off how supernatural elements do not hinder a mystery plot, but can actually greatly open up possibilities when used well. The individual short stories are entertaining on their own, showing off several ways in which pure logic and supernatural elements can work together, but it's really the final chapter that makes this novel more than 'just' a memorable mystery. This is an absolute must-read, and I wish most mystery novels would spend at least half the amount of planning effort Aizawa poured into this novel: the chains of deductions displayed in this novel are fantastic and the pay-off at both the micro and a macro level of this novel is something indeed very few novels manage to accomplish.

Original Japanese title(s): 相沢沙呼 『Medium 霊媒探偵城塚翡翠』

Friday, November 6, 2020

A Taste of Danger

Something old, something new, 
something borrowed, something blue

You know, I really should use my short shorts tag more often. Originally, I intended to use it as a corner to collect short, usually unrelated reviews and other observations that can't fill a complete post on their own. But nowadays, I usually just end up not writing about smaller things, or at least wait until I've got enough material for a full, standalone post. But the last one I did was back in 2016...

Anyway, so just a few random short pieces this time. And let's start with a short look at the eighth volume of  Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo ("The Case Files of Kindaichi, Age 37"), which was released in October. It collects a large part of The Poltergeist Manor Murder Case, which started in volume 7, but the volume ends with Hajime having started on his summation of the case (the identity of the murderer hasn't been revealed yet), so I'll wait until the release of the next volume in March to go in detail. Hajime and Marin are this time sent to a Scottish manor which had been moved brick for brick to Japan thirty years ago. The large company Denpoudou now has plans to change the manor into a pension and has started a pilot panel. Hajime's company is a subcontractor of Denpoudou, and Hajime and Marin are there just for the menial work under the supervision of Denpoudou's Shiratori Reo, a young, but very capable manager. The Scottish manor breathes atmosphere, but apparently, some poltergeists were brought to Japan too when they moved the building.The guests have only just arrived when they are greeted by candles in the corridor suddenly lighting up on their own and falling wineglasses and it doesn't take long for ghostly murders to occur, like a poisoned arrow which decided to fly straight into a victim's neck or a woman being attacked by a suit of armor in her locked bedroom. 

Like I said, the story is still on-going, so I'll save my detailed thoughts for later, but I do wanted to note how I didn't really like the chapter before Hajime started his explanation of the case. Basically, up until that point everyone's just in a panic because of the ghostly pranks and the murders, and eventually, Hajime finds the time to investigate on his own with Marin, but this part is so... boring. It's literally Hajime and Marin visiting each crime scene, and Hajime immediately noticing some clue which tells him exactly how the impossible murder was committed. So they move on to the next room, and again, Hajime solves it immediately. It's incredibly boring with Hajime just walking from room to room and instantly solving the murders This is hardly a chapter about an investigation, this was writer Amagi just wanting to serve the readers the necessary clues without actually wanting to pour any effort in the presentation, as this is more-or-less just a grocery list. There is of course an inherent problem with serialized series like Kindaichi Shounen and Detective Conan that have to cut the narrative in distinct chapters that are released weekly/biweekly, but for some time now, the 'clue-gathering-parts' of Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo have felt dry and business-like. Anyway, more on this rather Carr-like story somewhere in March or April!

Originally, the short shorts tag was used for a post which was partially about mystery storylines/homages/parodies in series that weren't strictly works of mystery. About a year ago, I also wrote about how broad the definition of the mystery genre could be, and how for example a film like Iron Man uses proper mystery grammar to tell part of its story. Recently, I've been enjoying some works of fiction that aren't really mystery, but can be studied as such, and I think it's worth mentioning them to give people an idea of what I meant when I said that the definition of mystery can be very broad.

Herakles no Eikou ("Glory of Herakles") is a series of role-playing game that originally started in 1987 on the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System) and has seen a few sequels since, with the latest entry being 2008's Glory of Heracles (the only one released in the west). It's a very classic JRPG like Dragon Quest, but as the title suggests, this series is set in a mythological Greek world and with stories partially based on actual Greek myths. Last week, I played Herakles no Eikou III - Kamigami no Chinmoku ("Glory of Herakles III - Silence of the Gods, 2008), a feature phone remake based on the 1992 original created for the Super Famicom (Super Nintendo Entertainment System). While you might not immediately associate "Greek mythology" with the mystery genre, it's surprising how well the story of this game works as a proper mystery ! The story starts in a rather familiar manner for RPGs: the protagonist wakes up with amnesia, having no recollection of himself. But he does learn he has been made immortal for some reason: he can fall off cliffs and land dozens of meters below without dying. Meanwhile, strange events have been happening all over the world: monsters start appearing everywhere because of holes to the underworld being opened, while at the same time, the sun decides to not set anymore. The protagonist decides to find out what's happening, because he suspects his immortal state has something to do with all of this too, and during his quest, he finds new companions who like him have gained an immortal body in exchange for their memories, and they all join our hero to find out the truth about why the gods of Olympus stay silent during this crisis.

The story was written by Nojima Kazushige, a game scenario writer best known for his work on all-time classics like Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X, but he has also written for mystery games like some of the earliest Tantei Jinguuji Saburou ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou") videogames, and it's his writing which changes a story about a quest of a band of immortals in a mythological Greek world into something that's actually a pretty darn interesting mystery! Throughout the game, our party comes across many mysterious events that occur in the world, and each time you think you've found an answer to the question of why everything's happening, another mystery is added to confuse the characters (and the player). Why are they suffering all from amnesia? Why have they been made immortal? What are the gods planning? Near the end of the game, there's a really neat section where everything is explained and suddenly every pieces falls into place, with even a few very early events taking on a very different meaning now you know what really happened. Yet this reveal doesn't come out of nowhere, as Nojima's been making use of foreshadowing and very carefully articulated dialogue to prepare the player for what was coming, utlizing the techniques of a mystery writer. So I'd say this game is pretty interesting for those who want to see how techniques of the genre can be used for very different types of media. The original Super Famicom version of the game is supposed to be a bit outdated when it comes to gameplay by the way, while the feature phone remake recently ported to the Nintendo Switch makes it a very easy game to play (but ideal if you just want to know the story).

I've also been enjoying the anime version of Oishinbo recently, which is a long-running classic manga about food. Everything food. The story is about the newspaper writers Yamaoka Shirou and Kurita Yuuko, who are tasked to compile "the Ultimate Menu" as a special project for the 100th anniversary of their newspaper the Touzai Shimbun. Their search allows them to try out a lot of very delicious dishes, but also puts Yamaoka in the path of his estranged father Kaibara Yuuzan, a famous and influential gourmand who puts cuisine above his own family. The series is perhaps remarkable for its realism: there's obviously a lot of research done on all the ingredients and recipes that are discussed, and the series even looks at "food" as a very broad theme, also focusing a lot on food production/distribution/culture and more.

The interesting thing is that a lot of the stories are also written like they could've featured in a mystery series. Many episodes revolves around Yamaoka getting involved in some kind of argument with a professional cook/critic about food and how a dish should best be prepared, and Yamaoka managing to prove that he was right, even though the opponent appears to have all the advantages. This is basically the same set-up as Liar Game, where characters manage to win games even though that seems impossible at first. In one early episode for example, Yamaoka claims he can prepare a better sashimi dish with a dead fish, than someone who'll use a fresh, living fish, which sounds utterly impossible of course due the matter of freshness, but this mystery can actually be solved by the viewer with some very basic knowledge of food (nothing specialistic, nor does it even require the reader to be able to cook). To make it clear: most of the stories are less likely to be solved beforehand by the viewer because they do require knowledge of lesser-known facts, but you'd be surprised how many of the Oishinbo stories do actually work as proper mystery stories.

And now I want to go eat sushi...

Anyway, that was it for this short short post! Any good recommendations you have for works-that-aren't-really-mystery-but-actually-do-feature-mystery-plots? And your favorite sushi?

 Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸(原)、さとうふみや(画)『金田一37歳の事件簿』第8巻;『ヘラクレスの栄光III 神々の沈黙』; 雁屋哲(原作)、花咲アキラ(画)『美味しんぼ』

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Virtual Villainy

"The third one is always the worst."
"X-Men: Apocalypse"

Okay, in reality, of the mystery series I read, it's seldom the third one that's actually the worst. Also: when I ordered this book, I was totally expecting it to end up somewhere on my end-of-year best list due to the previous two volumes... Pretty frustrating when errr, that doesn't happens.

There are a lot of fans of mystery fiction on the internet, but few are as fanatic as "aXe," "Zangya-kun," "The Mad Header,"  "Professor Ban Douzen" and "044APD". These colorful five members of a private video chat group know nothing of each other's private lives, and always use masks and voice-scramblers too hide their faces/voices whenever they appear on the webcam, but they regularly gather in their chat room to play a certain game. A deadly game of intellect. Each time, one of these five acts as the 'quizmaster', providing the others with a locked room murder mystery to solve. The catch? These locked room murders have really been committed by the respective quizmaster! The quizmaster will provide the others with some basic information about the case, and the others are also free to gather information on their own through the news or by investigating the crime scene themselves if possible, but the question will always remain the same: how did the host of the problem actually commit the impossible murder? However, things have also changed since our previous encounters with "aXe," "Zangya-kun," "The Mad Header,"  "Professor Ban Douzen" and "044APD." In Utano Shougo's Misshitsu Satsujin Game - Maniacs (2011), a mysterious figure called "MadHeadaXeDouzen044-kun" has been uploading captured footage of these chat sessions to video streaming sites, making the locked room murder game public to not only the police, but countless of mystery fans who too want to be able to win at this game.

Misshitsu Satsujin Game - Maniacs is the third volume in Utano's Misshitsu Satsujin Game series and you may remember that I've enjoyed the previous two volumes a lot. The various locked room murder mysteries that appeared in the linked short stories were usually very well constructed and a delight to read, but Utano also made brilliant use of the overarching storyline of the chat room. There were all kinds of little surprises that really made the chat room and its users feel alive and were used as meaningful concepts for the plot, like when one of the murderers had a perfect alibi for their "turn" because the murder occured during a video chat session where they were discussing a different murder. Manics however is a bit different from the previous volumes. It's definitely not considered the "3.0" of the series, more like a side story. That's obvious immediately when you see the actual physical book, because it's barely half the size of the previous volumes and the contents too are considerably weaker than the full-sized volumes: usually all five characters get a chance to act as quizmaster, but in this volume, we only have like two-and-a-half case to solve.

The opening story Q1: Rokuninme no Tanteishi ("Q1: The Sixth Detective") is by far the strongest story of the whole volume. Over the course of nine uploaded videos to a major video streaming site, we see the usual five participants in the chat room: The Mad Header wearing their Darth Vader mask, aXe with a hockey mask, Zangya-kun and their turtle, Professor Ban Douzen with sunglasses and an afro and the silhouetted torso of 044APD. It's aXe's turn and he reveals he has killed a tech writer called Idei Kenichi in his studio apartment in Tokyo. On the night of Idei's murder, his neighbors and downstairs neigbor heard a loud noise from the apartment. The downstairs neighbor thought it a bit strange and when Idei didn't answer the door both at night and the following morning, the neigbor decided to notify the owner of the apartment building and when they entered the locked apartment, they found both a toppled bookcase and Idei lying on the floor. He had been hit fatally on the back of his head, but the door and all the windows had been locked from inside and the police is inclined to rule it an accident. However, this was a genuine murder committed by aXe, but the locked room isn't the only problem the others have to solve. For on the night of the evening, aXe had also been videochatting with Zangya-kun and 044APD and those two saw live how aXe had been driving around all the way in Nagoya and that he had been stopped by the police and fined there for using his phone to videochat while driving. So how could aXe have committed the locked room murder in Tokyo at the same time he was being presented his one-of-a-kind fine in Nagoya?

The new plot about these chat sessions being uploaded on a video streaming site adds a weird new dynamic to this series, as we are introduced to a new character: Sagashima Yukio is an ordinary fan of mystery fiction who is absolutely fascinated by these videos a friend sent him, and like any true mystery fan, Sagashima too tries to figure out aXe's murder scheme (not realizing that countless of other people on the web have seen these videos already and that the web's drowning in theories written by everyone). The concept of a third party trying to solve the case serves as the overall storyline for this volume (previous volumes, while short story collections, also worked towards a climax in a way). The case itself is... perhaps a bit simple, but a lot of it does make good use of the unique story setting, justifying the shakier parts of the plot. The way the locked room itself is made is a very modern variant on an otherwise very, very old way to create a locked room, and that also holds for the actual murder method (the murder weapon is also part of the mystery). The underlying concepts are pretty corny, but the variations are undoubtedly very, very modern and yet realistic, making use of normal objects we consumers can buy. aXe's trick with which he got hold of their alibi for the murder is basically an extension of the ideas seen in the actual murder and as a whole, one can definitely say aXe's 'quiz' has a clearly defined theme, even if the actions he actually took were surprisingly simple.What I did really like however was when the weaker points to the plot were shown: Utano makes clear that what is usually considered to be a weak point in an attempt to create a locked room murder, doesn't hold for this particular setting and he makes a convincing argument. The result is that Utano is able to create locked room murder situations that a reader might usually dismiss as unrealistic or unreliable, but which do make sense in the context of this series, allowing for pretty unique murders.

Q2: Hontou ni Mienai Otoko ("Q2: The True Invisible Man") also consists of two problems, but unlike aXe's problem, this story revolves around two unrelated murders, though tied by the theme of "the invisible man." The first murder victim of The Mad Header was Honnouji Haruka, a stage actress who had a solo act in a small theatre for three days. She was murdered between the afternoon and night act of her last day, but nobody saw the killer walk in or out of her dressing room. When one of the receptionists came to deliver some flowers sent to Haruka, they found her lying dead in her dressing room. But for the last three quarters of an hour, while Haruka was still alive and overheard rehearsing in her dressing room, both sides of the little hallway in front of her dressing room was watched by the props man backstage on one side, and the receptionists on the other side. The second problem is set at a tech lab in a university, where one of the students was sitting at one of the desk in the back of the lab. Other students were sitting at the front side of the lab, but couldn't directly see the victim because of bookcases blocking the view. But while the hallway door was always in view of the other students in the lab, The Mad Header still managed to kill the victim sitting in the back of the room, without anyone noticing them. Both problems feature really lame solutions. And that's done intentionally. In previous volumes, there were always shorter intermezzo stories with joke solutions that were just silly or really outdated wedged in between the masterpieces of the volume. This story falls in that same tradition, but the problem is that this volume is really, really short and almost half of the volume is therefore used to present two locked room mysteries that were never intended to be memorable or impressive. The one in the theatre is basically a slightly updated version of a very old trick to create a locked room mystery (and Sagashima too notes this solution is pretty boring), while the university murder borders on science-fiction, being reliant on a very specific type of technology that may or may not exist. In the previous volumes, these kind of problems were usually posed by Professor Ban Douzen as fictional time-wasters while waiting for the actual problem, but it's just disappointing to see almost half of the volume dedicated to this.

Q3: Soshite Dare Mo Inakatta ("Q3: And There Were None") and the follow-up story don't even really have a locked room murder mystery to solve, but tie up the overall story of the person who's been uploading the chat sessions on video streaming sites. Professor Ban Douzen wants to switch things up a bit and not tell the other participants about the murder afterwards, but have them participate in real-time. He has started a live video stream of their chat room, showing the familiar chat windows of the five in one window. In the stream, we can also see Professor Ban Douzen has posted the other four others at specific locations surrounding a certain building. A sixth chat window is also visible on the screen, which shows a man in a bathrobe. X is to be the victim and he is present in a room in the surrounded building. Professor Ban Douzen claims he'll be able to kill X even with aXe, Zangya-kun, The Mad Header and 044APD standing near all the exits/vital points and he dares them to stop him either going in or out. I won't go on, because that would definitely spoil the surprise, but let's just say this isn't really a locked room murder mystery anymore. The story is used to spring a surprise on the reader regarding the uploaded videos of the chat sessions and how these three cases relate to each other in secret, and there's some admittedly interesting meta-musings going on, but it feels like a concept that should have had a full volume to build up to. Now the build-up to the 'punchline' feels lacking, and you're left with a story that might have been more, but which feels imcomplete and rushed.

Misshitsu Satsujin Game - Maniacs is not touted as a full-fledged third volume in this series, but even as a side-story, it feels lacking. There's basically only one single serious locked room murder story here and while I think it could've served perfectly as an opening story for any of the volumes, I don't think it's impressive enough to be basically carrying this whole volume, which is, sadly enough, what it has to do, as the remaining stories lack the depth and originality we have learned to expect after the previous two volumes. There are some interesting ideas here that the book tries to explore by making these video chats public and having a third party attempt solving them, but as this book is really short, there's simply no room to work out any of these ideas into something substantial. I hope that we'll see a full-fledged 3.0 volume in the future, because I wouldn't want this to be the end of a series after the previous two high points.

Original Japanese title(s): 歌野晶午『密室殺人ゲーム・マニアックス』