Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Reader is Warned

Caveat lector

I might be deceiving the reader about today's book's contents in this review without actually lying too. Or not. *dundundun*

I have read locked room mysteries with locked room lectures, I have read mysteries about a dying message with a dying message lecture, I have read mysteries about a perfect alibi with an alibi lecture, I have read mysteries with decapitated corpses with a decapitation lecture, but I have not yet read a mystery novel with narrative trickery or unreliable narrators that feature a lecture about narrative trickery. Today's book however comes close: Nitadori Kei's short story collection Jojutsu Trick Tanpenshuu ("A Collection of Short Stories With Narrative Trickery" 2018) is surprisingly open and up-front about the main gimmick of the stories in this collection. The book opens with a daring Challenge to the Reader and openly declares that each of the stories you are about to read, will feature some kind of narrative trickery aimed at the reader. The stories are all about some, usually light-hearted mystery to be solved, but at the same time, these stories are written in a way to deceive the reader in one way or another, making it impossible for them to solve the mystery. But a warned reader won't be fooled.... right?

I've been interested in this book ever since I first saw the very literal title and the cute cover. There have been many (excellent!) mystery novels that feature some kind of narrative trickery aimed at the reader themselves, but usually, this is kept a secret until the twist ending where it's suddenly revealed that even though the reader believed that something was X, it was actually Y. Never before have I seen a detective story advertise the fact that it's about to deceive the reader directly and then dare them to see through the trickery! Note that 'narrative trickery' is broader than just the 'unreliable narrator' trope. I think these stories are actually at their best when they don't feature an unreliable narrator who blatantly lies to the reader in the narration or intentionally omits crucial facts that pertain to the mystery. A good mystery story with a narrative trick uses its narration to make the reader assume a certain fact, without ever saying so in that many words. The reader should be tricked to believe some fact, for example that character A is a male while she's actually a female, but the narration should never blatantly lie about it. A good mystery story with narrative trickery is simply written very carefully and skilfully to make the reader mistakenly assume something, but never resorts to simple lies. Some people find the unreliable narrator or narrative trickery in general unfair in mystery fiction, but I don't agree: a well-written mystery story with narrative trickery is fair in the sense that the wrong assumptions are always made by the reader themselves, and nobody (narrator/author) explicitly told them lies.

What's also important is that the mystery plot should never only revolve around the truth behind this narrative trickery and I think that's where Jojutsu Trick Tanpenshuu especially shines. Each of the stories in this volume revolve around a core mystery plot, though usually fairly light-hearted. The reader can usually solve most of the mystery 'as usual', but the reader is also always led to mistakenly assume certain facts or circumstances, and that's what prevents the reader from making that one final step to solve the mystery completely: this is not the case for the characters in the story themselves, which is why they do manage to solve the mystery before the reader and that's also what makes these stories feel fair, because the stories are solvable as shown by the characters who don't make the same false assumptions like the reader.

The collection opens with Chanto Nagasu Kamisama ("The God Who Makes Sure to Flush"), which is set at a small office. One of the toilets in the women's room upstairs has been clogged and the repair man has already been called, when the people at the office find out the toilet has now been unclogged. But the strange thing is: nobody at the office will admit to the fact they unclogged the toilet. But why would anyone lie about it, and why not just wait for the repair man who had been called already? What deepens the mystery is the fact there were witnesses outside in the corridor, so nobody could've brought all the necessary cleaning tools from the floor below to the bathroom without being seen, and yet that's what happened. A very fun opening story: the mystery of finding the 'culprit' who cleaned the bathroom is so wonderfully silly yet mundane. The motive of the culprit to remain silent about the act ties wonderfully to the narrative trickery aimed at the reader, who is expertly led to believe certain circumstances which makes the case harder to solve for them, but the characters in-universe quickly figure out who did it and why. The story's an excellent showcase for the narrative trickery employed in the book, for any assumptions about that made are entirely on the head of the reader.

The second story is relatively easier to solve: Senaka Awase no Koibito ("Lovers Back to Back") juggles between two narratives. At one hand, we follow Horiki Hikaru, a second-year college student who one day stumbles upon the SNS of a certain 'drizzle', the username of a girl called Hiramatsu Shiori. Hikaru loves the photographs and the interesting comments she posts on SNS and he slowly starts to become interested in the person behind the pictures. Surprisingly, he starts to recognize the backgrounds of the photographs however and comes to the realization that Hiramatsu Shiori is actually a student at the same university. Harboring feelings for her, he starts to look for her. Meanwhile, we also follow the story of Hiramatsu Shiori, an introverted member of the university's Photography Club, who has fallen in love with a kind senior student whom she doesn't know personally, but has seen helping other people around campus. She eventually learns the name of this student: Horiki Hikaru, brother of a fellow member of the club. The two come closer, when an incident occurs at the Photography Club: someone has switched the filters in the darkroom, ruining the photographs of the club president and both Shiori and Hikari get involved in this case. This one was the easiest case to solve in this collection, as it revolves around a certain narrative trick that is seen relatively often (the first story in comparison was really original), but the clewing in this story is also well-done, with a few lines of dialogue that should allow the reader to escape the misdirection if they hadn't caught on already.

Tojirareta Sannnin to Futari ("The Confined Trio and Duo") is the shortest story and starts with Adam, Hamilton and Will arguing over the death of Samson: the four of them have just committed a robbery and hid in a little cabin in the mountains, figuring the oncoming storm will certainly prevent the police from finding their trail. They found two Japanese persons in the cabin, who were promptly tied to their chairs. When the four armed robbers notice there's no connection on their phones, Adam, Hamilton and Will go out to see whether there's reception somewhere, leaving Samson alone. When they return however, they find Samson lying dead beneath the cliff outside the cabin. None of the robbers believe Samson just fell of the cliff, but the Japanese hostages are still tied tight to their chairs, so the shotgun-wielding robbers start to suspect each other of killing Samson to get a better cut. There's not much hinting to signify the 'punchline' of this story, but it's really funny and once you read the story again, you notice how wonderfully careful this story was written and how ingeniously the misdirection was set-up.

Nantonaku Katta Hon no Ketsumatsu ("The Ending of the Book Bought on a Whim") has the narrator recount the plot of the latest Inspector Saejima novel she recently bought to her boss, a bored bartender who likes puzzles and quizzes. The story is about a murder committed on an ordinary man who was out fishing on a Sunday. Rocks were thrown from the cliff overlooking his fishing spot, and it appears the man was targeted especially. Inspector Saejima starts poking around and ultimately arrives at the family of a faint acquaintance of the victim. Saejima figures the motive out, but can't seem to figure out which of the three family members did it, as they all have an alibi. The solution to this problem might perhaps miss the impact of other stories in this collection. The 'problem' is that the impossibility of this story isn't dwelled upon long enough, which kinda weakens the 'shock' the story could have, but I do think it's one of the best set-up stories, with an act of misdirection that is sooooo easy to miss and yet so ordinary. It's one of the most realistic narrative tricks, one hat any of us might have encountered in real life too by accident too and also a great example of how (socio-)linguistics can be featured in mystery fiction (socio-linguistics being a personal field of interest).

Binboushou no Kaijiken ("A Curious Incident With Poor People") is set in the Yuumeisou, a university dormitory reminiscent of Kyoto University's infamous Yoshida dormitory: it's an old, decrepit building (almost a ruin), but that's also reflected in the ridiculous low rent. Yuumeisou is mostly inhabitated by poor Japanese students, and poor international students from China, Thailand and more Asian countries. One night, the Chinese student Li cries out that something has been stolen from his room: a culinary delicacy which his mom sent over from China has been stolen from his bedroom. All the students in the dorm are gathered and eventually, they find out during what period in the night it must have been stolen, but it seems that none of the suspects could've stolen it, whether because they have a solid alibi or because they have proven to have not broken into Li's room. The story kinda plays with cultural stereotypes in terms of characterization, but it ultimately does tie in with the mystery plot in a meaningful manner and to be honest, I thought that piece of misdirection was a bit mean towards the reader, but I have to admit I fell for it completely.  There's also a deduction scene about who entered Li's room based on a set of sake bottles which was surprisingly clever: these stories aren't just about fooling the reader.

Side note: I've visited the Yoshida dormitory once while I was studying at Kyoto University. It was nuts inside.

In Nippon wo Seou Kokeshi ("The Kokeshi That Carries The Weight of Japan"), the narrator and her boss (the owner of a detective agency) are hired by a retired big-name politician of the ruling party. He wants them to track down the Headhunter, a progressive-liberal activist who has been active in Japan lately. The Headhunter's M.O. is to pull of some prank with statues all over Japan: in one case, a Darth Vader mask was put over a statue's face, while in another case, the head of a statue made from plastic was cut off and replaced with something different. While their client won't explain his reasons in detail, he ensures the detectives that "the fate of Japan" depends on them tracing down the Headhunter, and acting on a tip, everyone of the detective agency is sent to Sendai, as they have reasons to believe the gigantic kokeshi figure in Saikawa-chou will be targeted. The almost seven-meter tall doll at the station attracts tourism, so it's important they will protect it from the Headhunter's pranks. While the trains are still running, there's little fear of the Headhunter due to passenger traffic and the stores in the gallery, but things are different after the last train. The only way to reach the kokeshi is through the station gallery passage, so the detectives split up in two teams and monitor both the east and west exit of the passage. They carefully keep their eyes on everyone who passes through the gallery at night, as they can only perform a citizen's arrest if they catch the prankster red-handed. But the stake-out fails and they discover that the Headhunter succeeded in drawing two extra faces on the sides of the kokeshi doll. But strangely enough, they did not see one suspicious person enter or leave the passage: as the kokeshi's face is about six meters above ground, the Headhunter must have used some equipment, be it a ladder or rope, to climb up there, but nobody caught on camera had that much luggage with them, nor was anyone long enough in the passage to be able to draw two extra faces on the kokeshi. The explanation behind how the prank was pullled off is a bit silly if you visualize it, but it's a good ending to the book, as it incorporates elements from earlier stories.

Be sure to read what follows next to: I usually skip or just skim through afterwords, but points raised in the Challenge to the Reader at the beginning of the book are explained in detail here. The Challenge to the Reader also contained vague hints for the stories that followed, and the explanation of those hints (what they actually meant) can also be found here, so be sure to read on after Nippon wo Seou Kokeshi.

I enjoyed Jojutsu Trick Tanpenshuu a lot more than I had even anticipated though! It's really dangerous to declare out loud that you'll be trying to deceive the reader with the narration: by alerting the reader beforehand, the reader might be more inclined to see through the trickery employed and some people might find misdirection aimed explicitly at the reader to be unfair. I find that Nitadori Kei did a great job with Jojutsu Trick Tanpenshuu in terms of these points: the misdirection aimed at the reader employed is clever and often original, but always fair in the sense that he never blatantly lies and the attentive reader can actually avoid falling for his traps as long as they don't assume facts or circumstances just because they want to. And the way the misdirection aimed at the reader also ties in with the core mystery plot is also done well: the mysteries don't depend solely on the deceiving of the reader, but the misdirection is only one step in the process, and anyone who doesn't fall for the misdirection can just skip that step in the thinking process. The individual stories are actually quite interesting on their own too, even without the narrative trickery gimmick. Definitely one of my favorite reads of the year!

Original Japanese title(s):  似鳥鶏『叙述トリック短編集』:「ちゃんと流す神様」/「背中合わせの恋人」/「閉じられた三人と二人」/「なんとなく買った本の結末」/「貧乏性の怪事件」/「ニッポンを背負うこけし」


  1. I really like the idea of a short story collection devoted to narrative tricks. The misdirection in mystery stories is often my favorite element and narrative tricks are, when properly done, one of the most awesomely grandiose types of misdirection. My favorite narrative tricks are in The Nine Wrong Answers, where you're told upfront that each footnote will be true but open to misinterpretation, and in The Decagon House Murders, where my jaw dropped when I read *that* sentence and realized exactly what type of game was being played.

    I have a notebook in which I keep a list of Japanese mystery writers and their novels, so as not to forget their names before I'm able to read them, and I knew before I finished the first paragraph of your review that this novel would wind up in that list. I especially like the sound of Nantonaku Katta Hon no Ketsumatsu, as it has both the meta-element of a mystery story inside a mystery story and a socio-linguistic clue, linguistics being an area of interest to myself as well. I also love that it has a challenge to the reader, which is hands down one of my favorite things to find in a mystery story (plus, I've noticed that I'm more likely to solve stories that have a challenge to the reader, so no objection there). (Also, is it just me or does that cover kind of look like the covers of the Ikagawashi series?)

    1. I thought the cover styles were similar too, which led to a funny discovery. This book's cover was by mangaka Ishiguro Masakazu (SoreMachi), while the new covers of the Ikagawashi series are by mangaka Arai Keiichi (Nichijou, City). I always thought their styles looked similar and for the longest time, I mistakenly assumed City was by Ishiguro :P

      Usually, a book isn't going to advertise the fact they're going to use narrative trickery, so I'll avoid mentioning it in the review, so it was pretty unique I could actually start this post with explaining what it was going to do :P It's not like I can add a tag here with 'narrative trick' to all the relevant books ^^'

    2. That's interesting. I never realized that the Ikagawashi covers were by Arai Keiichi. I'm not especially familiar with his work, but, given how distinctive his style is, I feel like I should still have noticed the similarity.

      It's always fun when you can talk about a book's narrative trick without spoiling it. Whenever I recomend a book with one, I always fall into the dialogue of "You should read this book, it's really good." "What's so good about it?" "I can't say. Just go read it," which gets kind of old after a while.

      This review has got me thinking about the boundries between normal misdirection and narrative tricks. There's one novel (which I can't really name without possible spoilers) where the narrator says that something isn't relevant, which is true, but multiple things associated with it are relevant, which the reader might not realize. This seams like straight misdirection, but it's not all that different from the footnotes in The Nine Wrong Answers. The more I think about it, the less I'm able to decide which category it falls into.

    3. That's also a reason why I'd love to read a narrative trick lecture. At least we'd have a framework we could all complain about while we discuss what is a narrative trick or not ;)

    4. Yeah, a narrative trick lecture would be great. The problem comes from the fact that, unlike locked rooms or alibis, there is such a large field of potential narrative tricks that I can't see a way to comprehensively classify them. Given the nature of narrative tricks, someone could come up with one that deliberately doesn't fit in any of the categories. I guess Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem applies to narrative tricks.

      Although, it might be possible to categorize the motives for constructing a narrative trick, assuming that there is an in-universe reason aside from fooling the reader.

  2. Man, this sounds awesome. I look forward to reading it in 20 years when we eventually get a translation.

  3. This sounds interesting - but unfortunately a Chinese translation doesn't seem available... Sigh.

    1. This is one book where I can honestly see why publishers would hesitate picking it up, because it's such a mystery novel focused on such a specific trope, so the audience might seem a bit too limited.