Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Case of the Constant Suicides

さくらさくら今、咲き誇る
刹那に散りゆく運命を知って
「さくら」(森山直太朗) 

Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms, they bloom now
Knowing the destiniy awaiting them is to fall
"Cherry Blossom" (Moriyama Naotarou)

I mentioned earlier how I always take ages to get pass the first sections of the books in this series. I think almost six months passed since I read the first pages of this book, and when I was finally finished...

Toujou Genya series
1) Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono ("Those Who Bewitch Like The Evil Spirits", 2006)
2) Magatori no Gotoki Imu Mono ("Those Who Are A Taboo Like The Malicious Bird", 2006)
3) Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono ("Those Who Cast A Curse Like The Headless", 2007) 
4) Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono ("Those Who Sneer Like The Mountain Fiend", 2008)
5) Himemuro no Gotoki Komoru Mono ("Those Who Stay Inside Like A Sealed Room", 2009)
6) Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono ("Those Who Submerge Like The Water Spirit" 2009). 
7) Ikidama no Gotoki Daburu Mono ("Those Who Turn Double Like The Eidola", 2011)
8) Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono ("Those Who Resent Like The Ghostly Courtesan", 2012)
9) Haedama no Gotoki Matsuru Mono (2018)
10) Maguu no Gotoki Motarsu Mono (2019) 
11) Ina no Gotoki Nieru Mono (2021)

Sakurako grew up in a poor, rural village but she was happy living with her parents, siblings and friends. She even became friends with Aya, a girl from a family with means living in the neighborhood, who taught her to read and write. But with ever-lasting poverty going on, Sakurako agrees to be sent off to the red light district Momozono so she can earn money for her family, even though she doesn't know what a courtesan is. She's brought the Kinpeibairou, a courtesan house, where the 13-year old girl receives education and taught skills she will need in the future by Granny, who keeps on an eye on the women working in the house. Sakurako becomes friends with Yuuko, the daughter of the owner of Kinpeibairou, but after a while Yuuko stops appearing at the house. Meanwhile, Sakurako also senses there's something wrong about the courtesan house, and there are multiple rumors of ghostly figures haunting the hallways at night or looking into the rooms through the windows. At first young Sakurako also doesn't really understand what the Kinpeibairou is, wondering why all the courtesans here get to wear such nice dresses and how they seem to be earning money just by spending time with men in a room, but it's at age 16 when Sakurako is old enough to be put to work when she's confronted with the hellish reality. Sakurako is given the courtesan name Hizakura and manages to attract quite a few customers early on due to her inexperience and Granny selling her "virginity" multiple times. One night, one courtesan throws herself from the window of the exclusive courtesan room on the third floor of the annex, but she miraculously survives the fall. However, two more courtesans follow in her footsteps, attempting to throw themselves from the same window, though luckily, they manage to be saved. Hizakura is also one of the persons who attempted to throw herself from the window, but she was luckily stopped just in time, but Hizakura doesn't actually know why she tried to jump out of the window, and suspects it has to do with the spectral presence roaming in the courtesan house. Afraid for her life, she plans to escape her nightmare and run away from the Kinpeibai.

A few years later, during World War II, Yuuko has taken over the house of pleasure from her mother, renaming it the Baiyuukirou. Circumstances are of course different now during the war, with the courtesan business being seen as a way to support the troops. It's hard to get hold of good new courtesans however, so when Granny brings in a new woman named Someko who reminds Yuuko of Sakurako, she decides to give Someko the courtesan name Hizakura. The idea is to create some gossip about the original Hizakura having returned, and they put Someko in the exclusive courtesan room on the third floor. Meanwhile, there's also a pregnant woman staying inside the courtesan house, a friend of Yuuko's mother who has to give birth discreetly. Half a year passes and the woman gives birth, but soon after throws herself out of the window of the exclusive courtesan room. And then another, and another... After the war, the courtesan house was bought by a third party, who renamed it the Baienrou, making it a restaurant with a special back-establishment where the waitresses sell their bodies. Sako Sousuke is the nephew of the new owner and a newly debuted writer of horror stories, and he has been looking into the case of the constant suicide leaps in the past. Interestingly, a new waitress has been hired who has been given the name Hizakura, which might have been tempting fates, for once again, a series of suicide leaps from that room starts. When mystery writer Toujou Genya comes into possession of the diaries and manuscripts of Sakurako, Yuuko and Sako respectivelly, he arrives at a startling conclusion regarding the haunted courtesan room in Mitsuda Shinzou's Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono ("Those Who Resent Like The Ghostly Courtesan", 2012)

The sixth full-length novel and eight book overall in Mitsuda Shinzou's series about the horror-mystery writer Toujou Genya takes on a completely different form than the previous entries and while it's far from my favorite entry in the series, it's quite a unique and memorable experience, and as a mystery novel, it's one that has made a lot of impression on me in regards of the theme. The previous novels basically all followed the same basic premise of being set in a rural place, with an impossible happening occuring during an esotoric religious ceremony with a certain historical meaning, which in turn is interconnected with the motive and means of the how the trick was done. That is definitely not the case here. There's no clear crime committed in this long novel and folklore doesn't even play a big role in this novel. There's talk about a ghostly figure roaming the hallways of the courtesan house throughout the generations, but there's no elaborate analysis into it from a folklore point of view, no views and thoughts presented on it from historical, sociological, economical and religious angles. These eleemnts were a delight to read in the other novels, as Mitsuda always built these stories on actual folklore studies, but the religious angle and how it ties to folklore is next to non-existent here, making it very different from the other novels.

The four chapter structure is another notable change. Toujou Genya himself only makes a minor appearance at the very end of the novel, with the previous three parts making up the bulk of the novel, being the diary of Sakurako (the three leaps out of the window when the first Hizakura was at the courtesan house), an account written by Yuuko about the war period (the second series of leaps, during the second Hizakura's tenure) and a manuscript written by Sako (third series of leaps, during the third Hizakura's time). Throughout the three different accounts, you'll see how the courtesan house changes, and sometimes surprisingly doesn't change. Some courtesans like the first Hazakura disappear from the narrative, some courtesans stay working at the place despite all the owner and name changes, the time changes from pre-war, to during the war and after: it makes the courtesan house a character of its own and throughout the generations, the three narrators also comment on strange, mysterious happenings that occur in the establishment, from figures suddenly disappearing from hallways and footsteps being heard from floors where there's nobody, to of course the repeating series of leaps from the window of the exclusive room each time a courtesan is given the name Hizakura. There's no "clear" crime like a murder or impossible disappearance however, so the mystery of this story is more focused on the atmosphere of the place, which is quite different from the previous novels. I myself found it difficult to stay constantly focused on this book because of this, as it's a very slow book in a series that usually has very slow starts already.

While I said that this book doesn't look at some religious ceremony from various angles like previous books and tie it to the crime, it does look at the theme of courtesans from historical, sociological and economical angles and in that regard, it's like this book uses the method it usually utilizes to examine youkai, religious ceremonies and other folklore topics to examine and analyze the function of courtesans/prostitutes between 1930-1950. Even the setting of the closed-off entertainment district (to make sure no women escape) reminds of the secluded, rural communities with their own customs and rules like we see in the other books. In Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono, you'll get a glimpse in the lives and customs of the women who lived in the courtesan houses, how they were viewed by society in contradicting ways, how their lives changes in and after the war. Mitsuda has clearly done his research and you'll learn a lot about this topic as you read this book, but while it's incredibly informative and interesting, it's obviously not an entertaining topic. The first part of this book, being the diary of the 13-year (and later 16-year) old Sakurako is absolutely horrifying, as you follow a young girl who doesn't even what a prostitute is and who dreams of helping her family by working in the city and slowly realizing what a nightmare her life is. It's incredibly heavy material, and it took me quite some time to get through this first part, because it's really effective at painting the life of young Sakurako and it honestly feels uncomfortable reading this part. The other accounts, being from completely different people, are luckily easier to go through. But in hindsight, I thought it was really a very informative and interesting angle this book focused on, as you're not likely to come across it any time soon elsewhere.

But back to the mystery plot. Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono doesn't feature the same clearly-defined core mystery previous books had, though it still utilizes the method of offering a lot of minor mysteries too, that ultimately tie in together (no Genya making a list of 70 questions to be answered though!). The main mystery is of course the question why people keep throwing themselves out of the window of the exclusive courtesan room on the third floor throughout different periods of time. I really like the core idea behind this, even if it is slightly unbelievable and some parts rely perhaps too heavily on coincidence. But the core notion is one that really fits the unique setting of the red light district, and the concept is worked out quite well throughout the three different periods, but Mitsuda does rely on coincidence a few times to make it a clear three series of three jumps for this novel, so some elements don't feel as strong as others. Genya also addresses the various minor mysteries that pop up throughout the three accounts, like the disappearing figures in the hallways or the footsteps that come from nowhere, and most of them have convincing explanations, though not always hinted at as strongly and they don't always connect that well, so whereas in previous novels usually everything connected back to the main mystery, there are a lot more disconnected nodes in this tale, or nodes that are only connected to the main plot after multiple steps. Plot-wise, Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono is definitely not the brilliant monsters of synergy previous novels were, where everything was connected and written to support other elements. This is anothe reason why this book feels so different from the other novels.

Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono is a weird book to explain and recommend, as it's very different from the previous Toujou Genya novels. It feels like author Mitsuda Shinzou became interested in the topic of courtesans in the 1930-1950s, did tons of research in the topic and afterwards decided to use all that research for a Genya novel. The result is a book that tackles a topic that is quite unlike anything we've encountered before in the series, focusing on a plot quite unlike anything we've seen in the series, but I have to admit, I thought the setting and the theme of courtesans was really interesting, so ultimately, I think it was a worthwhile detour the series took. I wouldn't want all the novels in this series to be like this, but once a while, a book like this is also fun and I have to repeat I really liked the core idea of this book, which is complex in its simplicity, even if the execution isn't as brilliantly neat as we saw in the previous books (which were, to be honest, of an exceptional level in terms of mystery plotting). Don't read this as your first Toujou Genya novel, but if you're looking for a palate cleanser after reading three or four other books in the series...

Original Japanese title(s): 三津田信三『幽女の如き怨むもの』

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Triple Jeopardy

" There must be something comforting about the number three. People always give up after three."
"Sherlock"

I have mentioned it before that in general, I like the short story format more than a full novel, but when it comes to reading them, I have to admit I usually read these short stories when they are collected in short story collections and published as a single book. And in my case, that's basically always a short story collection of the same author, and very seldom anthologies. So I usually consume short stories as part of a bigger release, and rarely do I read just one short story on its own. Today however, I'll be briefly discussing three stories that I have read exactly in that matter, as just a single short story release. And strangely enough, all three of them were released in rather different ways.

The first one some readers might have expected already: while not exactly planned, the last two years I have discussed the winners of the Mysteries! Newcomer Award around this time of the year (here (2020) and here (2019)). Simply put, the Mysteries! Newcomer Award is the sister award to the better-known Ayukawa Tetsuya Award, as both awards are organized by the same publisher and aimed at 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!. This changed however this year, as the magazine Mysteries! was cancelled, but a new magazine came its place: Shimino Techo (lit: "A Notebook for Silverfish") started in October 2021 and is of course a mostly mystery fiction-focused bimonthly magazine. So the winner of the Mysteries! Newcomer Award of 2021 was published in the inaugural issue of Shimino Techo, which the publisher Tokyo Sogensha was kind enough to send me, so I guess I'll be discussing the winner this year too! Aaaaand, no, I don't know why the award is still called Mysteries!

Yanagawa Hajime's Sannin Shobou ("Three Men's Bookshop") is named after the used bookshop Edogawa Rampo, the father of the Japanese mystery story, ran with his two brothers before he became a professional writer and took on the name of Rampo. As you can guess, this story is about Rampo himself, or rather Hirai Tarou (his real name), though the story uses "Rampo" for convenience. The narrator of the story is Inoue Katsuki, a friend of the real Edogawa Rampo who is also mentioned in Rampo's essays. Rampo wrote that Inoue was staying with Rampo and his brothers in the bookshop for a while, and this story is set during that period. One day, when two frequent female visitors/friends are at the shop, Rampo and one of his brothers happen to going through a collection of used books they bought, when inside one of the books, they find a note signed by a Sumako, that appears to be a farewell or suicide letter of some kind to a lover. Based on the writing style and the name Sumako, they quickly realize that this note was written by Matsui Sumako, the actress who committed suicide a few months ago, following in the footsteps of a director with whom she was having an affair, who died because of a disease. But the note they found seems to indicate Sumako had another lover besides the director. Curious to the person who received this note, Rampo and his brothers start to look for the previous owner of the used books they bought, as they fear the note might shine a different light on Sumako's death. 

An interesting story, though not completely my cup of tea. The best part of this story is without a doubt the historical setting, based on the life of the father of the Japanese mystery story. The idea of having Rampo and his brothers solve cases while running their used bookshop is pretty fun, and having actual persons like narrator Inoue, but also the link with actual Japanese history is done really well: at first I didn't even know Matsui Sumako was a real person, so it was interesting learning what kind of news/scandals were on the mind of the people in Tokyo in the early 1920s. In that sense, the way this story uses some familiar Rampo tropes like letters/correspondence and the hidden meaning/messages in them in combination with Sumako is pretty inspired. As a mystery story however, the plot feels a bit too slow for me: there is no clearly defined mystery for the reader to solve, more like vague questions raised about the note and Sumako's suicide, as well as other characters' actions, and then the story moves to an interpretation of the situation that addresses these questions, but you never deal with a clear-cut problem to solve. That's just something I personally don't always like, though I think that if you like (well-researched) historical mysteries, and Rampo of course, you'll find a lot to like here. Personally I do think the mystery plot has some nice ideas, like how it reveals how a certain situation is mirrored elsewhere, but things move just a bit too slow for me.

The whole world had to adapt to a new situation last year and to cheer people up, playwright and film creator Mitani Kouki decided to bring back Furuhata Ninzaburou in his long-running been newspaper column Mitani Kouki's Mundane Life for the Asahi Shimbun. Furuhata Ninzaburou was a highly succesful comedic inverted detective television series that ran between 1994-2006, which followed the adventures of the somewhat eccentric Lieutenant Furuhata of the Tokyo police. Heavily inspired by Columbo, each episode would show the viewer how the culprit committed the crime and the mystery presented to the viewer was figuring out how Furuhata was going to solve the case. Inspiration was also taken from the Ellery Queen television series, as each episode, Furuhata would turn to the audience and challenge them to guess what put him on the trail. While the show had stopped long ago, Mitani decided to bring Furuhata back last year by serializing the very short story Isshun no Ayamachi ("A Moment's Mistake") across four installments of his column. While obviously there's only that much you can do in the space of four newspaper columns, the story was actually quite fun to read. Earlier this year however, Tamura Masakazu, the actor who played Furuhata Ninzaburou on television, passed away, and as far as Mitani is concerned that means Furuhata will never return on television again. However, on paper is a different story, so this year too, Mitani decided to use up his columns between September 30 - October 21 2021  to bring back Furuhata Ninzaburou for a special appearance.

Satsui no Yukemuri ("Steamy Intent to Kill") follows Mitani, who is enjoying a stay at a hot spring inn when a new guest arrives at the same inn: the actor Chateau Jirou (a thinly-disguised Satou Jirou) has worked on many productions of the great director Mitani Kouki, but there's one thing that has always bothered Mitani: Chateau Jirou improvises too much! Nothing is left of the original script whenever Chateau Jirou is in the scene, and it's about time Mitani finally confronts Jirou about this. Late at night, Mitani manages to corner Chateau Jirou in the outdoor hot spring and pleads with Chateau to finally stick to the script from now on, but the two get into an argument and a push and an unlucky landing on the head later, Chateau Jirou is dead. After fleeing the scene, Mitani is sure no clues have been left at the scene, but surprisingly, Furuhata Ninzaburou wants to have a talk the following day regarding the death of Chateau Jirou. But how did Furuhata figure out it was Mitani who did it? Like the story last year, Satsui no Yukemuri is incredibly short due to its publication format, but it's actually surprisingly well-plotted. Sure, it's kinda a one-trick pony because 4 columns worth of text is really, really little, and to be honest, the dying message featured in this story is really, really not interesting at all, but there's some good clewing going on regarding the fatal mistake Mitani made, and there's even a genuinely shocking conclusion to the case, when Furuhata reveals how he managed to connect all the seperate clues and immediately figure out it could only have been Mitani who did it. I would love to see this idea worked out into a more substantial story, but even as it is now, I have to say it was a very nice surprise. Definitely a must-read for fans of Furuhata Ninzaburou, or Mitani Kouki's work in general. I wonder if Mitani will be killing off another actor he often works with next year too!

The last story to be discussed today is also a "continuation" of  a post of last year, in a way. Ooyama Seiichirou's Alibi Kuzushi Uketamawarimasu ("Alibi Cracking, At Your Service") was a great short story collection that focused completely about perfect alibi stories. The unnamed narrator (a rookie police detective stationed in Nano Ciy, Nano Prefecture) is a very frequent visitor of Mitani Clockmakers, run by Mitani Tokino who inherited the shop from her grandfather. Tokino, a young woman in her twenties, does not only sell and repair clocks, but she also offers a special alibi cracking service. The concept of one single series on cracking alibis was not only fairly unique, but the quality of the stories was very high. Ooyama started working on the "second season" of this series soon after the first book was done, publishing a new story once every few months, which for some reason can all be read for free on the official site. The previous three I have already discussed, so I figured, I might as well discuss the fourth story too!

Tokeiya Tantei to Niritsu Haihan no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Antinomic Alibi") starts in the familiar fashion, with the narrator needing Tokino's help to crack the alibi of the main suspect in a murder case. However, what is unique about this case is that Nakaishi Junichi is the suspect in two different murders committed in different places around the same time, even though it would only be physically possible to commit one of them! On the fifth of November, the narrator is forced to cancel a dinner date with Tokino due the discovery of the body of Nakaishi Satoko, who was found in her house by a friend with whom she had a lunch date earlier that day. The Nano Prefectural Police soon start to suspect her husband Junichi: the couple had been living seperately for a year now. They trace Satoko's last known movements on the night before, and find out she must have been killed on the fourth of November, after having dinner at a restaurant. Confronting the husband with his history of infidelity and the fact a neighbor saw someone like him leaving the house around the time of the murder, the husband claims he was alone in his home, but can not prove his story. The detectives of the Nano Prefectural Police are pretty sure Junichi's their man and hope to nab him after Satoko's funeral, when they run into homicide detectives of the Metropolitan Police Department, who reveal Nakaishi Junichi is the main suspect in the murder of Kawai Aki, Junichi's mistress who was slowly turning into a nuisance. It turns out that this Aki was also killed around eleven o'clock of the fourth of November in Tokyo, and the MPD too have enough evidence to at least bring Junichi along for questioning, but this leads to a problem: Both the local Nano detectives and the MPD detectives are sure Junichi is the culprit of their own case, but obviously, he can only have committed one of those crimes, because the murders were committed around the same time and whether you take public transport or the car, it's about ninety minutes between the two crime scenes. Both investigative parties refuse to admit they are wrong, but the harder the Nano police detectives try to prove they are right, they are just proving Junichi's innocence in the other case, while the work of the MPD detectives in turn weakens the Nano police's case, resulting in neither party being able to pin anything on Junichi!

A story with a very interesting premise: Junichi is the suspect in two different cases that occured at the same time, so proving his guilt in one case, would only provide him with an alibi for the other case! Considering this series is about perfect alibis, you can of course guess that Junichi is in fact involved with both murders, and that his trick naturally does not rely on him having hired an assassin to do the other murder. I have to admit that at first though, the story seemed a bit too obvious to me: one of the most important clues in this story is very similar to a (good!) idea from the first collection, so that allowed me to guess what Junichi must have done fairly easily, because the connection is quickly made in your head. But when Tokino explained the crime, I was pleasantly surprised by the way the story actually builds up to that solution. While I had correctly guessed the main trick behind the double murders, I had completely missed the two clever hints that serve as the first step towards the 'big' solution. They are very cunningly hidden in the story, and result in a mystery that really benefits from a well thought-out structure: it doesn't allow, or expect from Tokino, nor the reader, to just jump to Step 3: The Trick in one go, but you also have Step 1 and Step 2 to go through first in terms of clues, to have the proper build-up to the final reveal. It makes this a story that is more than "just a clever trick meant to surprise the reader", because it shifts the focus more to the logical process behind how to solve such a mystery, and it succeeds because of that.

Three completely unrelated short stories, published in three very different ways, being via a magazine, being serialized within a newspaper column and online. And contents-wise, they are really different too, now I think about it, from the historically grounded Sannin Shobou to the more comedic, single idea-focused Satsui no Yukemuri to the tricky puzzler Tokeiya Tantei to Niritsu Haihan no Alibi. As a matter of personal taste, it's of course the puzzler that I liked best of these three, but all three stories have interesting angles to them. And that about wraps things up for this post. The next time I'll be discussing individual, seperate short stories again outside of short story collections? I guess... next year, around this time of the year agan?

Original Japanese title(s):  柳川一「三人書房」/ 三谷幸喜「殺意の湯煙」/ 大山誠一郎「時計屋探偵と二律背反のアリバイ」

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Foul Play

「これなら五手で詰める」
『名探偵コナン 緋色の弾丸』
 
"With this it'll be a checkmate in five turns."
"Detective Conan: The Scarlet Bullet"

Last year I wrote about Dash Shaw's comic adaptation of the board game Clue (Cluedo) and I mentioned there that while I play a lot of (mystery) videogames in general, I basically never touch analogue board games. Even my experience with Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, likely one of the best known mystery-themed board games, is solely though the videogame adaptation of said board game. It's just a genre I never had much interest in, much more enjoying digital games in general (not just mystery), but the last few months, I started to become more interested in these physical games, so I tried a few mystery board games out myself.

First up is Decktective: The Gaze of the Ghost (2020), a cooperative card-based game designed by Martino Chiacchiera and Silvano Sorrentino, and I believe first released in Italy. This game is one entry in a longer series and is one of those games you can only play once, as you'll have unraveled all the mysteries when you're done with the session, but it's actually quite fun and because you don't need to cut things up or fold things over, you can easily just hand the deck of cards to a friend when you're done. In The Gaze of the Ghost, you and your fellow players take up the role of an investigator, who's been called to a museum which is said to be haunted. It's after closing hours, and the guard has notified the police because the cleaning lady had vanished from the museum, even though the doors were locked and the guard has the key. The story starts with the investigators arriving at the museum, ready to search the place.

As said, this game is cooperative and card-based and the most eye-catching feature of The Gaze of the Ghost is of course how it actually utilizes the cards and the box that holds those cards to create a 3D reconstruction of the scene. It's really clever, as while the game is very compact and consists only of cards, it manages to really sell the visual design of this game. The players are encouraged to really examine the crime scene from all angles in search of clues, and you'll definitely be rewarded for looking carefully at everything. The cards are also what dictate the gameplay loop and the story developments. The deck of cards is numbered, and each turn players are to take a card. Some cards are for everyone to read and detail the early story set-up and/or significant story developments, but most cards are initially only intended for the player who draws the card. A card could contain an interview with the guard for example about the missing woman, or the card could be detailing some observations about the museum gallery or some strange object found lying around. A player whoever may not divulge the information on the cards they hold to the other players. If they think a certain card contains significant information, they have to play the card and put it in the shared pool, allowing everyone to read it and discuss its contents. However, every card has a certain value written on it, and you can only share a card with the others, if the value on the card is equal or lower to the number of discarded cards. Players can also choose to discard cards if they think the information is not relevant to the case, but that means they can't share that information with the others anymore and also that they themselves can't keep it in their hand. So a player has to decide which cards in their hand are worth sharing with the others, and which cards they can "sacrifice" in order to play certain cards, but there is always the risk that a card they discarded turns out to have relevant information after all. 


This makes for a game that's more than meets the eye, as you'll draw cards in a set order, meaning the game can sometimes play tricks on you by feeding you a seemingly irrelevant card first only to make you draw a card near the end of the game that shines a different light on the earlier card. The idea of the necessary clues being divided among the players, that there's a "shared pool of information"  but also imperfect information because cards have to be discarded, and that the players have to work together to puzzle the truth together is quite interesting. I played this game on my own, which the game says is possible, though I think this game is best played with two or three players. If you play on your own, you'll have to draw all cards yourself, so while you will have to discard cards, you will have at least taken a look at all cards in the game, meaning the idea of "imperfect information" that makes this game interesting is less strongly present. What also makes this a fun game is the fact that because the cards are drawn in a set order, the game also allows for story developments to occur. What starts out as a search for a missing woman, soon turns in a much bigger case once a few cards have been drawn, and that keeps the players on their toes. You really have to examine each card carefully to decide whether you're going to put it in the shared pool so everyone can take a look, or discard it all together. Once all cards are drawn, the story is "over" and you're asked a few questions to prove whether you figured the case out or not. It's a fairly doable mystery and while it's not an Ellery Queen-esque mystery that requires you to do 20 steps of deductions, I'd say Decktective: The Gaze of the Ghost provides for a fun hour of entertainment, and it's certainly also very accessible for those who seldom play board games (like me).

Decktective is a very compact game you could play with a friend on a bench: MicroMacro: Crime City (2020) most certainly is not. If you're into board games, you probably heard of MicroMacro: Crime City ages go, as this game designeed by Johannes Sich is quite popular, and truth be told: it deserves that reputation because it's really an incredibly fun mystery game. But you really need space to play this game. Because when you open the box, you'll find a gigantic map inside (75 x 100 cm), and you'll have to fold the thing out completely and place it somewhere where all participating players can have a good look at it. The map provides an isometric view of the titular Crime City and all of its inhabitants. It is seemingly a nice town with the usual shops, museums, a harbor, restaurants etc., but if you take a careful look at the map, you'll see all kinds of crimes occuring in the city, from robbery and stalking to outright murder. With the little magnifying glass included in the box, the players are tasked to work together on the investigation of 16 different cases that occur in Crime City.

Having to look at a gigantic illustration to look for clues of course reminds of the Where's Wally/Waldo books and Pierre the Maze Detective illustration books, but the most important thing to understand about the super charming map of Crime City is that is not actually a "snapshot" of a singular moment in Crime City. Imagine each event occurring in Crime City as a comic strip, with several panels detailing each event. These panels are basically all plotted simultaneously on the map of MicroMacro: Crime City, meaning you'll find the different stages surrounding a certain happening all across the map. For example, the box of the game actually already has a puzzle for the players: you see a dead man lying in a park and you're asked to solve the murder. If you then look a street up, you'll see the victim walking on his way to his murder scene. And a few streets away, you see him with a bag of money, etc. You can follow him all the way back across the map of MicroMacro: Crime City and eventually, you'll notice that there's a suspicious fellow following him around the map, and you can even find out where they came from and where they went after the murder. So all "comic panels" of a single event are drawn in the map, allowing you to trace everything happening before, but also after a crime. And now imagine 16 different cases being draw like this on this map, and on top of that a lot of other happenings occuring at the same time, and you can see why the map is so big.


Each case is represented by a number of cards, and the first card always points you towards a crime, usually a murder. For example, it will ask you to locate the corpse lying on the corner of the hardware shop and the supermarket. From there, it's up to the players to figure out what and why this happened. This is relatively simple in the earliest cases: you can trace the movements of the victim just by looking around to find where they were a few moments ago, and thus find out where they came from. As you do that, you might see the victim having a row with someone, so then you decide to follow that suspect across the map, and perhaps you'll see them go buy a weapon. But the difficulty soon ramps up, and the game will ask a lot more of your observative and deductive powers. A person you were following might take public transport, forcing you figure out where they got off or on, or perhaps you find a corpse that seems to have appeared out of nowhere: perhaps then you need to find clues on the victim that indicate where they worked or what places they often visited, find that place on the map and see if you can find the victim there. The later cases have you going across the map in multiple stages, following not only the victim, but also checking out what persons they met during the day, pick up on clues that may indicate a motive, find the means of murder or perhaps where the murderer has gone off too. 

It's a highly enjoyable game that also does a great job at easing you into the higher difficulties. Like I mentioned, each case is represented by a few cards. Personally, I enjoyed playing this game in the "expert mode": you only look at the first card of each case, the one that points you towards the crime you need to examine, and then try to figure out the who, how and why on your own without looking at the other cards in the set. The other cards do point you in the right direction as to how to progress next if you don't know what to do. They might tell you that you need to look for a clue that'll tell you where the victim was working, or point you to that curious object lying at the crime scene and ask you figure out where it came from. So even if you don't realize right away a character can ride public transport and appear all the way on the other side of the map, the hint cards will help and they help prepare the player for the trickier cases later in the game, which really demand a lot of your ability to observe the smallest details on the map and infer the meaning of what you see. This game is really enjoyable playing alone too by the way, and I think two or three players would be ideal too as everyone will be able to take a good look at the map and come up with suggestions where to look next, but I can imagine it becoming a bit too crowded around the map with four and more.

I know there are quite a few gamers among the readers of this blog, but I was wondering whether there are also people here who regularly play mystery board games and who could perhaps give some recommendations? I myself just tried these two, because both Decktective and MicroMacro: Crime City were easily available and seemed interesting, and MicroMacro: Crime City in particular is one I really want to recommend, because it's such a charming game that can become deceptively difficult. With the holidays coming up, perhaps these games would make for good gifts for others, or yourself!

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Blood Will Tell

 "It's in my blood. I can't help it."
"Mrs. McGinty's Dead"

Which such long times between my reviews for both Detective Conan and the Kindaichi Shounen franchise, perhaps I should find a third manga to do regular reviews of...

Hajime's cousin Fumi was a focus character in The Kindaichi Fumi Kidnapping Murder Case, the final case in Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files", 2013-2017), for the moment the last series in this long-running franchise still set in Hajime's teenage years. Part of the fun of the currently running series Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo ("The Case Files of Kindaichi, Age 37"), set many years later, is of course not only seeing how Hajime has changed (or not) in two decades, but also to see what happened to the other main characters, so there were probably quite a few fans who were interested to see what had become of that young, bratty girl who at times would show that she too was one of the talented grandchildren of the legendary detective Kindaichi Kousuke. Fumi finally returned in volume 9 of the series, first released in April 2021. I already wrote a little about the story that started in that volume, but The Ayase Serial Murder Case wouldn't be concluded until volume 11, which was released in October 2021, so it took a while for me to finally be able to write about this rather lengthy story. 

Blood will tell, so should it surprise anyone that the twenty-nine year old Fumi now works at a detective agency? In her spare time though, she's also dabbling with mystery writing, and she's finally making her professional debut by winning in one of the categories of the Osokawa Mystery Awards with her novel The Hinokawa Legend Murder Case, written under the pen name Kaneda Hifumi. Hajime is of course happy for his cousin, but perhaps even happier he managed to secure the organization of the award ceremony for his company. At the venue, Hajime and his assistant Marin meet Osokawa editors, fellow debuting winner Fuyuki Agatha and Fumi's boyfriend Yuuto, an accomplished mystery writer himself. The grand winner of the main award is Setokura Ryou and his The ABC Murders-inspired The Ayase Serial Murder Case, but Setokura disappears during the ceremony, and instead a creepy video is shown on the projector, showing a man being murdered inside an abandoned building in a city block named Ayase. Hajime quickly realizes that this murder is exactly the same as the first murder in The Ayase Serial Murder Case, that's about a series of murders in city blocks called Ayase. Because there's no proof of an actual crime, Fumi and Yuuto decide to go look for the building shown in the video themselves while Hajime tries to convince Inspector Makabe to do something. Fumi and Yuuto, as well as some other interested parties manage to locate the building and find a corpse there. But when a new murder video set in a different Ayase is mailed to Setokura's editor, everyone fears the copy-cat killer will continue with these Ayase murders and it's up to the two grandchildren of Kindaichi Kousuke to catch the murderer.

While Detective Conan has a very irregular publishing schedule nowadays, Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo has been rather consistent in its releases, so you don't get gaps of a year between volumes. Still, the stories in this series seem to take up more chapters than they used to be, so this is not the first time a story has been spread across three volumes. It takes about half a year to release three volumes normally if there's no delay, so still better than the year wait between Detective Conan volumes 98 and 99, but still, three volumes is pretty long for a serialized story and I can't say that I'm a big fan of that. I know a lot of the fans of this series prefer the longer format, one of the defining differences between this series and Detective Conan, but as I'm reading this volumes as they release, it's just so frustrating to see a story cut up in so many volumes...

But that's more a matter about the publication format than the story itself, let's get back to that. After The Poltergeist Manor Murder Case and The New Murders At The Foreigners Hotel, two not very impressive stories, I have to admit I liked The Ayase Serial Murder Case a lot more, even if as a detective story, it's not going to be very surprising or hard to figure out the major mysteries. I still enjoyed it a lot, partially I think because we actually get to see a lot of Fumi doing her own detecting now. The story is not solely focused on Hajime as the only detective, and Fumi, as a detective's assistant, mystery novelist and granddaughter of a rather well-known detective, gets to do a lot too. She's not as smart as Hajime, but that brings a different dynamic to the story we don't usually see in this series: while we'll see rival detective figures at times in the form of people like Superintendent Akechi, Fumi is unique in this series as an ally character, and this allows The Ayase Serial Murder Case to develop as a story from multiple angles and it feels rather fresh. I would love to see this Fumi more in the series: in the original series you'd catch glimpses of her talent in certain stories, but she was really by far the youngest character in the cast, which made usage of her sometimes a bit difficult in stories. Here she's really grown into a fuller character who could support her cousin in more interesting ways than we had seen before in this series.

The story starts in a real-time thriller mode, with Hajime, Fumi and the others realizing someone is copying the murders from the novel The Ayase Serial Murder Case, meaning first someone whose name begins with "A" will be killed in a place called Ayase, and then someone whose name starts with (the Japanese kana) "YA" in a different Ayase, etc. and a lot of the story focusing on them actually locating the crime scenes and trying to stop the killer in advance. As the story develops however, Hajime starts to notice little things that seem to not follow the book, and his attention is also drawn to the victims themselves, and it doesn't take long for him to deduce what of course most readers would have guessed: these are not random murders that are "just" copying a novel. By the time Hajime starts looking back at all that has happened and tries to figure out what is hidden beneath the surface of the case however, the story is severely handicapped by the series itself. For most people will be reading this series, because the franchise has always focused on impossible crimes. It's extremely rare for this series to have a story not focusing on an impossible crime, so when you know there's no locked room murder here or some murder without footprints, 99% of the readers will guess that this is one of those stories that focus on the murderer having a perfect alibi. And that means that everyone will at least have an idea who the killer is going to be, because there's basically only one character whose alibi is strong enough to be considered "perfect". And from that point on, all you're going to do is to pay attention to everything they do in each panel and you'll soon get a good idea of how the whole thing was pulled off.

Other series might have gotten way with this, but I'd argue that Kindaichi Shounen is the one mystery manga where it becomes too apparent immediately. While this franchise is never about the whodunnit only, once you know who to watch, a lot of the relevant panels will stand out a lot and because the underlying mystery plot ultimately uses fairly simple tricks (though woven into each other to make the overall picture more complex) to create the seemingly iron-clad alibi, it's rather easy to guess most of what's happening. That said, I have to admit the last act of The Ayase Serial Murder Case did manage to turn my initially somewhat lukewarm views on the story into something more positive. There's a great part in the story where Hajime decides to confront the suspect despite not having found any evidence yet, resulting in a very amusing game of shadows, where Hajime tries to lure the culprit into traps, while they carefully weigh each of their answers and tries to turn things around. The scene is tense and exactly because the reader will also have noticed a lot of the little questions Hajime asks, it's pretty interesting to see the suspect addressing them directly and trying to divert suspicion from themselves in a rather convincing manner. When Hajime finally manages to seal the deal with the support of both Makabe and Fumi, you'll realize the murderer was definitely one of the more trickier ones Hajime has encountered, which makes the moment Hajime reveals they were suspecting them right from the start even more satisfying: this moment is actually quite clever and I had completely missed the clue that set Hajime on the right trail at the start of the story. The story also ties back to the overall storyline of this series about Hajime slowly being drawn back into the life of an amateur detective again and about the incident that had made him stop in the first place, planting seeds for later story developments.

Volume 11 ends with the opening chapter of The Killer with Twenty Faces, about an Edogawa Rampo exhibition and a rather familiar-sounding name, but I'm going to guess that that story will also be spread across three volumes, so I'm guessing I won't be discussing it until the early summer of the northern hemisphere...

So The Ayase Serial Murder Case might not be an exceptional high-point in terms of mystery plotting in Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo, and the execution of the story in fact suffers a bit because it's this specific series, but on the other hand, I think fans of the franchise will enjoy this story exactly because it also feels a bit different in the way it presents the story, with fan-favorites like Fumi returning as an adult, as well as a rather determined murderer who is able to keep up a good fight with two grandchildren of Kindaichi Kousuke. After a story set specifically at the location of an older story, and a story that followed the familiar closed circle trope, the pacing of this story felt refreshing despite the core plot being fairly predictable. And I'm kinda looking forward to seeing The Killer with Twenty Faces unfold: it's been a while since we had a killer who dresssed up in a costume in this series!

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9, 10, 11巻

Thursday, November 4, 2021

The Case of the Silver Bullet

この真相、最高機密(トップシークレット)
「永遠の不在証明」(東京事変)
 
This truth is top secret
"The Eternal Alibi" (Tokyo Jihen)

Two weeks ago I discussed a book on the earliest trains in Japan, today a film focusing on a very modern train.

Detective Conan manga & movies:
Part 1: Volumes 1 ~ 10
Part 2: Volumes 11~20; The Timebombed Skyscraper (1) / The Fourteenth Target (2)
Part 3: Volumes 21~30; The Last Wizard of the Century (3) / Captured in Her Eyes (4)
Part 4: Volumes 31~40; Countdown to Heaven (5) / The Phantom of Baker Street (6)
Part 5: Volumes 41~50; Crossroad in the Ancient Capital (7) / Magician of the Silver Sky (8) / Strategy Above the Depths (9)
Part 6:  Volumes 51~60; Private Eyes' Requiem (10) / Jolly Roger in the Deep Azure (11)
Part 7: Volumes 61~70; Full Score of Fear (12) / The Raven Chaser (13) / Lost Ship in the Sky (14)
Part 8: Volumes 71~80; Quarter of Silence (15) / The Eleventh Striker (16) / Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17)
(You will find the links to the reviews of volumes 70, 72~76, 78, 82~100 and the films Quarter of Silence (15), The Eleventh Striker (16), Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17), Dimensional Sniper (18), Sunflowers of Inferno (19), The Darkest Nightmare (20), The Crimson Love Letter (21), Zero the Enforcer (22), The Fist of Blue Sapphire (23) in the library)

The biggest international sports event, the World Sports Games, are held every four years and this year, Japan's capital Tokyo will host the prestigious games. The opening ceremony will be viewed across the world, so it's also decided that the Hyperlinear bullet train, the pinnacle of Japanese technology, will commence operation on the same day. The Hyperlinear runs between Nagoya and the new Shibahama Station in Tokyo, connnected to the stadium where the WSG opening ceremony will be held, and the Maglev train can reach speeds up to 1000 km/h, meaning the trip between Nagoya and Tokyo won't even take thirty minutes! VIPs for the opening ceremony of the WSG will arrive by Hyperlinear from Nagoya to Tokyo. The Suzuki Zaibatsu is one of the sponsors of WSG Tokyo, allowing Sonoko to bring her friend Ran, and of course Conan and the other kids to an early reception for sponsors and other related parties to the upcoming festivities. During the party however, Sonoko's father (the president of the conglomerate) is abducted, but thanks to the Detective Boys, he's quickly found in relatively good health. It turns out that a similar incident occured 15 years ago too, in the run-up to the WSG in Boston. The directors of three major companies sponsoring WSG Boston had been kidnapped one after another. One of three was even killed by the kidnapper when the industralist was trying to run away. It appears that the same serial sponsor kidnapping case is repeating itself now in Japan with WSG Tokyo, but why? Conan of course has an interest in the case, as does the Sleeping Detective Kogorou, who is hired by automobile industrialist John Voit, fearing he may be the next victim. But there are more interested parties: high school student detective Sera Masumi and her "extraterritorial sister" seem to be involved too, much to Conan's surprise, but more dangerous are the FBI agents active in Japan right now under command of James Black, because they consider this a continuation of "their" case 15 years ago and they're determined to "clean up" themselves. When all of these interested parties learn that the likely targets will be riding the Hyperlinear on its maiden voyage from Nagoya to Tokyo to attend to the opening ceremony of the WSG, they realize that the kidnapper will likely try to strike on the "Japanese Bullet" but can they prevent a repetition of the tragedy of 15 years ago in the 2021 theatrical release Detective Conan: The Scarlet Bullet?

When I described Detective Conan as one of the biggest detective franchises ever, I honestly wasn't exaggerating. As a multimedia franchise, few mystery-related franchises can even come close to how absolutely massive the machine has become in over twenty-five years and one of the most obvious markers are of course the annual animated theatrical releases. Since 1997's The Time-Bombed Skyscraper, a new film has been released each year in April, and it's become a tradition of Japanese popular culture in general. Everyone just knows there'll be a new Conan movie out in April and over two decades later, they're still drawing massive audience numbers, with the movies usually ending up high on the list of best-grossing Japanese-produced movies each year. But even traditions and set plans can't stop a pandemic, so 2020 was the first year since 1997 that did not see a new Detective Conan movie released. The marketing campaign was already working full power, but due to the state of emergency declared in Japan just two before Detective Conan: The Scarlet Bullet was supposed to premiere, the twenty-fourth film in the franchise was first postponed, and later that summer it was officially announced the movie would be pushed back to April 2021, leaving 2020 Conan-less. I bought the home video release of The Scarlet Bullet by the way, which was released last week, and you can find traces of the "pandemic delay" in various ways by the way, with artwork, trailer and promotion material for both 2020 and 2021. So for fans, the wait for The Scarlet Bullet was certainly not short, though the push back to 2021 did make sense, because as you can guess from the summary above, the film was also created to coincide with the Summer Olympics of Tokyo, which were of course also delayed to 2021. The World Sports Games are the Olympics in all but name, though I guess it'd be hard to get official branding for a detective story about sponsors being kidnapped and killed and the FBI involved and operating in Japan and all of that! 


In the article celebrating the release of volume 100 of the Detective Conan comic, I also talked about the movies, and how the tone and atmosphere has changed in these two decades, partially because different directors with their own styles would take over. The earlier movies where basically like the original comic, with some added spectacle in the form of action scenes (explosions!). Then we got a few movies that seemed to focus more on the action, taking inspiration from panic action films and recently we had a few Detective Conan movies that seemed more inspired by political thrillers. Things come in waves though, and for example 2017's The Crimson Love Letter felt in my view a lot more like the earliest films, focusing more on a robust puzzler plot despite also featuring the bombastic action scenes of the movies we had become used to by then. In that sense, I think The Scarlet Bullet can also be described as a throwback to earlier Conan films, with the latter half of the story focusing on the Hyperlinear bullet train, the latest Conan movie reminds of the tone of the entries over a decade ago, like Magician of the Silver Sky (2004), Strategy Above the Depths (2005) and Lost Ship in the Sky (2010), but with current director Nagaoka's own touch.

Sadly enough, The Silver Bullet also seems inspired by those movies in terms of mystery plot, because it's rather light this time. The movie has a few minor mystery moments that are solved in a swift way with pretty good presentation too, preserving good pacing throughout these scenes: we already saw this technique in storytelling in the previous movie The Fist of Blue Sapphire, which had some fantastic scenes planned out to quickly show how KID would prepare a theft and then act, while also being clear to the viewer. The Scarlet Bullet has a few of these well-paced moments too, like the Detective Boys locating Sonoko's kidnapped father in the prologue and a few other moments, but the big storyline, regarding the series of kidnappings of the sponsors and the identity of the culprit, isn't really interesting at all. There are barely any suspects, so the moment when Conan and Sera figure out who did it doesn't even feel clever. It's basically a shrug moment, and at the same time, I can't say I was really surprised by this disappointing climax of the mystery, because throughout the film, the "overall" mystery plot just felt underwhelming, even if at specific, select moments, the film does have nice and even memorable scenes that involve some kind of mystery for the viewer to solve, like a certain chase scene at the end of the film and of course the part that actually involves the bullet. The action and explosions in this movie seem toned down compared to previous entries by the way, so for some it might might feel a bit disappointing, but after a pirate war fought out in Singapore previously and explosions and more that could wipe out whole city blocks or valleys a few movies back, I'm okay with them dialling back the chaos a bit. 


But while The Scarlet Bullet feels a bit like an "old" Conan film because it returns to the "panic on a moving vehicle" pattern, it also feels very like a modern Detective Conan fan due to its character focus. Ever since The Darkest Nightmare, the spotlight of these films have been aimed at different specific persons or groups from the original comic besides protagonist Conan, allowing select members of the secondary cast a chance to shine or to show a different side to them we usually don't see in the main series. This is also the case with The Scarlet Bullet, which naturally kinda expects you to be somewhat aware of, and up to date with the storyline of the main series. But that also means that this film will casually spoil some plot elements of the main story if you're still at like volume 70, as this film basically assumes you're up to date with the latest release at the time of the (original planned) premiere (so around 98). If you don't know who Sera and her "extraterritorial sister" are, you'll understand next to nothing about their actions in this film and the appearance of shogi player Haneda Shuukichi will also be a complete enigma if you haven't read or watched Detective Conan the last few years, but for fans, The Scarlet Bullet is a pretty awesome showcase showing these fan-favorite characters interacting in ways you don't really see in the main series. It's such a shame that the actual mystery plot they are inserted into isn't anything special, because the manner in which they are featured in The Scarlet Bullet is actually done really well. I loved Shuukichi's scene in particular: he doesn't really appear very often in the comic and seldom does anything memorable there, so this was genuinely the first time I think he was really shown off as the shogi genius he's supposed to be. The film also plants a few minor seeds that tie in with the storyline of the comic, as has been the case the last few years.

By the way, the pandamic delay did lead to an interesting new project: a second film. The Scarlet Alibi is a compilation film that saw a limited release in theatres in February 2021, serving as a kind of 'refresher' regarding the story arcs of the four focus characters of The Scarlet Bullet. It uses material from the television animated series to bring the viewer up to date on the various characters and what storylines they're involved this last... decade, but interestingly, The Scarlet Alibi hadn't been originally planned for the original 2020 release of The Scarlet Bullet: they only made it because of the year delay of the main film. The Scarlet Alibi is included in the deluxe edition of the Japanese home video release of The Scarlet Bullet by the way!

Detective Conan: The Scarlet Bullet is by no means the best Conan movie of the last few years: the mystery plot is simply too light and due to its focus on a specific set of characters, it's also a bit difficult to recommend to casual fans because there are just so many character interactions going on that rely on context. Fans of these characters will have a blast though: I'm a fan of Sera myself, but she hadn't been featured in the films since Dimensional Sniper, and Shuukichi had never appeared before. I also think The Scarlet Bullet is worth a watch if you like the other panic action Detective Conan films, because this one feels very much like those older films, but with a modern feel to them. The teaser at the end of The Scarlet Bullet and a recently released Halloween-themed illustration has already shown us what the theme of next year's film will be, which probably won't surprise fans who have been keeping up with the spin-off series too, but we'll have to wait for the proper trailers to see what the next film will be about!

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵コナン 緋色の弾丸』

Monday, November 1, 2021

番外編:Death of the Living Dead

2020 saw the release of two new Japanese mysteries translated by me, being Ayukawa's story collection The Red Locked Room and Higashigawa's locked room mystery Lending the Key to the Locked Room both from Locked Room International, as well as a new release of The Decagon House Murders by Pushkin Press. Three releases is definitely not the norm for me though, so I guess most people would assume that Imamura's Death Among the Undead some months ago would be my only contribution to the world of translated Japanese mysteries this year. To be honest, I wasn't sure myself!

I have to admit that even I was caught off-guard by the official announcement that Ammo will be publishing my English translation of Masaya YAMAGUCHI's Death of the Living Dead in December 2021, with the preorders on Amazon for the e-book having started yesterday on Halloween. Originally published in 1989, Yamaguchi's original debut novel was a smash hit by being one of the earliest and definitely one of the best Japanese mystery stories that utilized a supernatural setting to present a fair play puzzle plot detective. Set in the eighties in New England, US, the story follows Grin, a rock punk who after a short period where his life had gone off rails, returns to his family home: the famous Smile Cemetery. Grin is welcomed by his grandfather Smiley Barleycorn, the person who brought the Barleycorn funeral directing family business from the UK to the States and built the empire that is the Smile Cemetery. However, Smiley doesn't have long to live anymore and his sons all have different ideas what to do with the business once Smiley is gone. Meanwhile, a strange phenomenom has been plaguing the world, as the dead have started to rise. For some reason, there have been several cases across the world where people just "wake up" from their death and are still able to act basically as if they were alive, save for the rotting of their corpses. It's amidst these circumstances that mysterious deaths occur among the Barleycorns at the Smile Cemetery, and it's up to young Grin to solve these deaths, but what's a detective going to do in a world where death isn't as decisive as it used to be?

I read the original book back in 2014, and I absolutely loved the work, as Death of the Living Dead used the supernatural setting to bring an absolutely original detective story, combined with both witty comedy as well a surprisingly deeply worked out look at the theme of death. The book has consistently ranked very high in Japanese mystery rankings and has been available in various (mostly Asian) regions already, where it apparently also garners a lot of praise, so it's widely considered to be one of the more important works of early shin honkaku mystery fiction. Yamaguchi had been trying to get the book out in English for a long time, so I was very honored when he asked me to work on the translation. This happened a few years ago by the way, but due to a revised Japanese edition releasing after I had worked on the translation, I was informed that translation advisors/editors worked on my translation afterwards to incorporate the revisions, so while the base is my work, I also have to say thanks for all the hard work to all the people who worked on my text! But that's also why I didn't have exact information on the release window, and me being surprised at the official announcement the book was coming!

It might seem very natural to draw parallels with this year's release of Death Among the Undead which I also translated, but ultimately the works are very different, with the former focusing more on the horror-side, while Death of the Living Dead focusing much more on the question of what death means for us humans, and there's a lot of discourse and discussion going on the theme of death across the centuries, and you'd be surprised how well-researched this book is on the theme of thanatology, without compromising the brilliant puzzler that is at the core of this novel. It's also quite bit longer than the other books I've translated until now, allowing it to go a bit deeper.

Anyway, I can wholeheartedly recommend this novel, not just as someone who worked on this specific release, but simply as a huge fan of Death of the Living Dead itself. It's a fantastic piece of detection that has earned a place in the history of modern Japanese mystery fiction and well worth the read. Be sure to visit the official website of Death of the Living Dead and I hope you'll enjoy the book when it's finally out!

Friday, October 29, 2021

A Study in Black

百年ぶりの世紀末 泣けといわれて僕は笑った
「胸がドキドキ」(The High-Lows)
 
It's the first end of a century after a hundred years; I was told to cry, yet I laughed 
"The Pounding In My Chest" (The High-Lows)

It's here! 

I already wrote a post to celebrate the joyous occassion, but volume 100 of Detective Conan was released last week. When the series started in 1994, nobody, not even the author himself, could've guessed it'd become the longest running single detective series that would become an even bigger multimedia franchise, but here we are now. The last few years, the serialization schedule has slowed down significantly though: where in the past Conan would be featured in almost every weekly issue of Shonen Sunday, the pacing is less consistent now (often a few weeks consecutively to serialize one single story, followed by a few issues of absence etc.), so the volumes that collect these chapters are also released much slower. What makes scheduling even more complex is that they usually try to release a new volume in April to coincide with the release of the new annual theatrical release, so they often move things back to ensure there's a new volume in April. Last year for example only one volume was released, because they pushed a volume originally planned for winter 2020 all the way to April 2021. So the last few years, all of us saw that volume 100 was coming closer, but it was also so far away because the releases became less frequent with the year. Sadly enough, there's no "special edition" release of this volume, but I am glad to say that this volume has to be one of the best volumes in terms of consistency in story quality in years, and it features one of the most memorable, and best stories in Conan history too.

Volume 100 opens with the remaining chapters of Kudou Yuusaku's Detection Show, which started in the previous volume. Shinichi's parents are back in Japan again, but as he's bored, Yuusaku, the world famous mystery novelist and amateur detective, has been helping the police solve some difficult cases again. When he's ambushed by the media on his way home from the Metropolitan Police Department, Yuusaku announces he has also solved a series of locked room murders that has occured in the city this last month. While no connection was found between the victims and where they were killed, meaning it wasn't even clear whether these murders are connected, Yuusaku quickly recognized how the locked room murders were committed based simply on the photographs. A live television show will be shot at the Kudou residence, where Yuusaku will explain how the murders are committed, but on the day of the broadcast, he's taken down by food poisoning and isn't even capable to explain to his wife Yukiko how the murders were committed. Yukiko (the world famous actress) decides she'll dress up as her husband again and have Conan do the deducing. Going over the files, Conan manages to solve most of the case too just like his father, but right before the television crew is to arrive, his mother is also taken down by food poisoning. With the live broadcast about to start and Conan knowing exactly who the murderer is, what's he going to do?

An interesting story that shows off Aoyama's story-telling qualities. For looking solely at the locked room murder trick, this story is not remarkable at all, as the trick is very simple. But it's presented in such a well-planned manner. For example, Yuusaku and Conan quickly realize the exact same trick is used in the three murders, despite the fact that at least on the surface, the three victms were killed under different circumstances and in different kind of locations. This leads to a clever, leading hint that is basically asking the reader: Can you recognize what the similarities are between the three crime scenes and figure out how it was done? Sounds like a simple idea, but this allowed Aoyama to make something bigger of what is essentially a simple trick. The hinting that ties the victims together and points towards the culprit is also very clever, making good use of the visual format in a way only Aoyama can. And on top of all this is the storyline of Conan having to figure out what to do with the television crew on their doorstep, and while this results in a very funny denouement scene where we do get the "Kudou Yuusaku Deduction Show" from the title despite the fact Yuusaku is lying sick in bed at the moment, there's actually more playing in the background that is far more serious, setting up the climatic following story.

The FBI Serial Murder Case is one of the most exciting stories to have been featured in this series and an excellent example to show how a mystery story doesn't need to be about solving a murder or anything, but that situations can be presented as a mystery to be solved too, and that with proper clewing and hinting, even an action-packed survival thriller can be a great mystery story. The last few days, unknown foreigners have been killed across town, two every day. The victims have no ID on them, and it appears they were illegals in the country. Conan happens to find the latest victim and spots members of the Black Organization at the scene. Searching the victim's body before Vodka can get to the body, Conan finds FBI identification, which makes him realize that all the foreigners killed lately must have been undercover FBI agents in Japan and that the members of the Black Organization are assasinating them. He hurries home to reach his own contacts at the FBI, but he finds all of them already hiding in the Kudou residence: they too realize that the Organization is somehow killing all of their agents. Revealing a clue he found on the victim, Conan deduces that the Black Organization has managed to decipher the code the FBI agents were using to set-up meetings, ambushing them at their meeting spots. The remaining FBI agents decide to use that knowledge to set-up a trap themselves using the code, but this plan fails horribly, as their own ambush is ambushed by the Black Organization. More casualties follow and soon after, FBI agent Camel finds himself desperately trying to shake off the pursuers of the Black Organization hot on his trail. Conan and the other FBI agents at the home base recall that Camel's path has crossed that of a few BO members in the past and it's imperative that nobody gets a good look at Camel's face, because it'll set them on a trail that might lead them back to them. All Conan and the others can do however is guide Camel on the phone while he's trying to hide from Gin and his gang of assassins, which culminates in a game of hide-and-seek and desperate survival on an island, where Gin, Vodka, Vermouth, Korn, Chianti and Kir under the command of Rum, the number 2 of the Organization, hunt for Camel.

What an amazing story! In a way, the tale's reminiscent of 2016's Detective Conan: The Darkest Nightmare, but "remade" in a way to fit the (less explosive/action-focused) atmosphere of the manga. In The Darkest Nighmare, a NOC list of undercover agents who have infiltrated the Black Organization is leaked, leading to a series of assinations, and all the related parties start to hunt for a certain key person who could turn the tide of this covert battle. The FBI Serial Murder Case follows the same idea, with the movements of undercover FBI agents being exposed to the Black Organization, them being killed and then a thrilling chase to capture and kill Camel, while Conan and the gang try to save him. While this story is one of the most suspenseful stories of this whole series however, it is also a good showcase that Detective Conan is at the core always a puzzler, and the whole story is filled with little mysteries for the reader to solve while they root for Camel to come out of this alive. For example, the first few chapters focus on Conan showing how the code the FBI agents use can be cracked, and when the FBI lays a trap for the Organization, but it explodes in their own face, we are shown exactly how the Black Organization was able to figure out a trap had been laid for them, all properly clewed and hinted at. Even when the story shifts to overdrive literally with Camel racing away in his car while being chased by the Black Organization, the story never forgets this is supposed to be a detective story. Little mistakes of Camel allow Gin to deduce where Camel is hiding, while meanwhile Camel is given instructions on what to do to survive, but usually the meaning of these instructions is only explained later, allowing the reader to deduce what Conan is trying to accomplish with the instructions he's giving Camel. The story has a brilliant climax that shows how even thrilling, suspenseful action scenes can be clewed to be presented as a proper detective story, with both parties starting to read and react to each other's actions. I honestly can't wait for this story to be animated, and I wish they'd actually give this the budget of the annual theatrical releases, because story-wise, it's honestly perhaps the story in this series that feels closest to the atmosphere of the movies, without losing the focus on the mystery plot. Oh, and at the end of the story, it's finally revealed who Rum actually is: we were told like six years ago that the number 2 of the Black Organization had infiltrated the secondary cast of the series under an assumed identity and the mystery revolving Rum's identity had been the main focus of the overarching storyline these last few years.

The Murder Case at the Match-Making Shrine is a rather tame story in comparison, being one of the usual "Which of the three" stories, but it's written competently and fairly amusing. Kazuha has invited Ran to visit the Haido Shrine to get an omamori that will help her get hooked up with her love interest. Which is of course Hattori, who's also secretly visiting the shrine at the same time, though Conan immediately recognizes him. The search for love turns into a search for a murder whenever when a man is found lying dead beneath a staircase, having been hit on the head and falling down the stairs. It turns out the victim was a police officer, specialized in finding people on the wanted lists. Ran and Kazuha had overheard him saying he had spotted three of them here, and the police indeed quickly find three wanted people on the shrine grounds, and it's suspected that one of them killed the officer when he tried to arrest them. The problem however is that the murder weapon, assumed to be a missing flag pole, can't be found and it's difficult to stick the murder to any specific person. While the story is simple, there's a nice chain of reasoning laid you where you must tackle the problem from two different angles if you want to solve this. Not a remarkable story perhaps, but it's presented in a very capable manner.

Volume 100 of Detective Conan was well worth the wait not only because of the milestone, but also because all the stories in this volume manage to reach a very consistent level of quality, with the outliers being the first story, and especially The FBI Serial Murder Case, which was one of the best Conan stories in years. It has the usual thrills of the big FBI vs Black Organization stories, but the manner in which it constantly throws new minor mysteries at you despite also being a real-time suspenseful chase story simultaneously is really good, showing that a) a puzzler doesn't need to be about the usual impossible crime to still be darn good as an intellectual challenge to the reader and that b) Conan's fictional world and stories simply have the range to pull this off in a satisfying and convincing manner, as this story is bookended by two "normal" detective stories and yet The FBI Serial Murder Case doesn't feel out of place. The FBI Serial Murder Case certainly feels like Aoyama wanted to have a big story to be featured in volume 100 and he definitely succeeded with that, and I can safely say that even after 100 volumes, I'm still eager to see what will happen next. Next volume is scheduled for a spring 2022 release, which I assume will be April 2022, but there'll be more Conan material soon as The Scarlet Bullet was finally released on home video...

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン』第100巻