Saturday, January 30, 2021

Crime in the Cards

"You don't have to know anything about mahjong to draw mahjong manga!" 
"Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga"

It's actually crazy how I managed to watch a whole series of Akagi without actually understanding mahjong...

After solving a crime that happened at her school, Kamino Suzuko is offered a special summer part-time job as a temporary police detective, giving her the authority to mingle with police investigations. The crimes she gets involved with however all happen to have one common theme: mahjong. For some resaon, she always finds herself at crime scenes that are connected to the famous board game, be it a mysterious poisoning in a mahjong parlor, a tragic death that occurs during a long evening of mahjong or even at the headquarters of one of the biggest mahjong clubs in the country. Suzuko, who's become more and more interested in the game after her first case, uses her knowledge of mahjong to solve each case in the four stories collected in Aoyama Hiromi's manga Chuuren Poutou Satsujin Jiken ("The Nine Lanterns Murder Case", 1997).

2018's Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar is still a treasure cove for me, as the extensive write-up on the history of mystery manga made me aware of a lot of mystery series I had never heard of. Anyone who decides to read mystery manga will definitely stumble upon Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, Detective Conan and Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou, but most mystery manga won't even run for a tenth of the length of these series, so it can be difficult to track interesting titles without help. I for one have greatly enjoyed going after comics mentioned in Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar, and last year for example, I reviewed KYŌ, Puzzle Game ☆ High School and the Father Sakura series.

Chuuren Poutou Satsujin Jiken is definitely a title I would never have picked up if not for the mention in Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar, as it's quite a unique title. Most manga I discuss here were originally serialized in major comic magazines like Shounen Sunday (Conan), which feature a wide variety of comics aimed a certain demographics. Aoyama Hiromi is an artist however who mainly draws gambling manga and the four stories starring Kamino Suzuko too were serialized in Kindai Mahjong Original: a magazine which obviously is about the gambling game of mahjong. Mahjong is very popular in Japan, both as an analog game as well as an online game, so yep, you can actually publish a magazine that's solely about the game and keep it running for decades. Besides text articles, Kindai Mahjong also features a lot of comics about mahjong, though they often involve other genres too: the Kamino Suzuko series is simply a mystery-themed mahjong series and author Aoyama even admits he had at best read ten mystery novels in his whole life when he started on the series, figuring the mahjong part would cover his weaknesses.

Oh, and as a little note, mahjong is also popular among members of the Kyoto University Mystery Club. Most nights, you'll find people in the club room spending all night playing the game and someone like Ayatsuji Yukito is actually quite accomplished as a mahjong player.

But I should probably mention first that I know extremely little of mahjong. While I have seen the whole live-action drama series of Akagi, I still don't know any of the playable hands in mahjong, and while I recognize Ron and Tsumo as play terms, I don't know when you're able to use them. The four Kamino Suzuko stories however were obviously written for people who do know mahjong well, as it ran in a magazine that was only about the game. So the biggest worry I had going in was that these comics would be incomprehensible to me. But I have to say, while I wouldn't call these comics must-read classics of the genre, they were fairly enjoyable even without a basic knowledge of the rules of mahjong. Each of the four stories is named after a hand in mahjong by the way.

Chuuren Poutou Satsujin Jiken ("The Nine Lanterns Murder Case") introduces the reader to Kamino Suzuko, who is brought in to assist with a poisoning case that occured in a mahjong parlor, during a game of four members of the Mystery Club of M University. The poison is found on the tile the victim picked up, but how could any of the other three students at the table manipulate the game in such a way to have the victim pick up that tile? While the story might be hard to solve on your own if you don't really know mahjong, the plotting is strong enough to keep you entertained: each possibility is slowly elimanted one by one, until it almost becomes an impossible poisoning and whenever the conditions of the game become relevant for the mystery solving, it's explained in a way that someone who hasn't once played the game will understand it. 

Taasuushi Satsujin Jiken ("The Four Great Blessings Murder Case") is just borderline related to mahjong: Suzuko has joined the Mystery Club and is invited by fellow member Tamae to her uncle's place, who runs a pension in a ski resort. Her aunt, a famous illustrator, is there to welcome the group, but after dinner she needs to leave for a meeting on an upcoming release. During the night, the four students and Tamae's uncle enjoy a feverish night of mahjong, but the following morning, they find Tamae's aunt lying frozen to death on the doorsteps. At first sight, it appears she returned to the pension late in the night, slipped on the steps and eventually froze to death without anyone inside noticing the tragedy, but Suzuko suspects something is going, even if the most likely suspect, her husband, had been playing mahjong with the gang all night. This time, the mystery is just barely related to the actual playing of mahjong, so it's fairly doable without any knowledge of the game. While some parts of the mystery seems a bit forced (wait, that was the only way to do that action?), the core plot of how the aunt was killed after everyone saw her off together is certainly not bad and there are even some really clever moments.

Daisangen Satsujin Jiken ("The Three Great Dragons Murder Case") is set in Suzuko's past, showing how she solved her first murder case at her missionary school. A nun discovers Suzuko's friend Mizuho lying beneath the clock tower, apparently having fallen from above. The head nurse soon wants to wrap things up as an accident, but Suzuko thinks there's more to this case: some say Mizuho wanted to commit suicide because she was being bullied by her room mates, but Suzuko also heard Mizuho mutter "Oh, Maria..." as she looked up at the Maria statue in the clock tower while lying heavily wounded on the ground. Suzuko starts an investigation into the bullies of Mizuho, but they are being attacked one by one by a mysterious figure, who leaves mahjong tiles near their victims. One minor clue actually makes very clever use of mahjong, and I wonder if people who know the game would've been more prone to fall for that trap, but overall, this story was the least interesting in the volume, with a murderer with a rather hard-to-swallow plan and a more suspenseful story that however misses the finesse of the earlier stories.

Kokushi Musou Satsujin Jiken ("The Peerless Patriots Murder Case") have Suzuko and a friend visit a reception to celebrate the finishing of the headquarters of the mahjong club El Dorado. They accidentally find themselves in the private quarters of the director of the club, who's having an argument with a prominent member of the club about the future of the club. The two are eventually shoed away, but that same night, after the reception, the father of the club's director is found murdered in the office Suzuko and her friend also visited earlier that evening. While the director himself has a perfect alibi for the time of the murder as he was at the reception, the other man has vanished, and he's the main suspect, but Suzuko suspects there's more to it as an attempt on her life is made. The solution has basically nothing to do with mahjong, but is a clever and also fairly believable trick used by he murderer to make the impossible possible. I think that people used to reading mystery fiction are more likely to think of this trick, but the whole thing is worked out in a competent enough manner.

For a collection of stories by someone who was actually writing a mahjong manga, Chuuren Poutou Satsujin Jiken is a surprisingly competent mystery manga, even if it's never groundbreaking. If I'd actually known mahjong, I might've enjoyed the stories even better, but even without the necessary knowledge, the stories in this volume are plotted well enough to allow the reader to appreciate the mystery writing. I wouldn't say this series is anywhere near an absolute must-read, but keep the title in the back of your head and try it out sometime if you happen to want to read a slightly unique mystery manga.

 Original Japanese title(s):青山広美 『九蓮宝燈殺人事件』

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

A Treacherous Tide


Like a sail waiting for summer
I'm always, always
always thinking of you
"Like a Sail Waiting For Summer" (Zard)

Think I've been on a sailing boat only once in my life.

Disclosure: I translated Osaka Keikichi's The Ginza Ghost.

Oosaka Keikichi was a talented master of the short puzzle mystery story, active in the thirties and forties of the previous century, but the second World War stopped his career abruptly: first state censorship didn't allow him to write the kind of detective stories he did earlier, and eventually, the poor man died on the battlefield. He became a forgotten author after the war, but was eventually rediscovered. In the past, publisher Tokyo Sogensha released two volumes that focused on Oosaka's output as a puzzle plot mystery writer: most of the stories in Locked Room International's English-language release The Ginza Ghost can also be found in these volumes. But in August 2020, this same publisher released a third collection of Oosaka's stories, but with a completely different angle. Shi no Kaisousen ("The Yacht of Death" 2020) collects more than a dozen stories originally published between 1934-1942, as well as some short essays/articles by Oosaka. The stories in this volume show a completely different side to Oosaka, focusing on his comedic (mostly non-imposssible) mystery stories, as well as stories with a stronger thriller or horror atmosphere.

I won't be discussing all the stories here as there are simply too many and some of them are really, really short stories. Nor will I be doing the (similarly short) essays/articles, though I have to say it's interesting to see the questionnaires included: these are the answers Oosaka gave to questionnaires in the magazines he was published in, answering questions like what books got him interested in writing and things like that. I'll just be picking out a few of the key stories in this volume. Also note that this volume includes the illustrations that accompanied this stories when they were first published in magazines: I like these typical magazine style sketches!

Shi no Kaisousen ("The Yacht of Death") is the tale most similar to the stories available in English and even includes a familiar face in Azumaya Saburou, maritime researcher and amateur sleuth. The narrator is a doctor who has been called to the manor of Captain Fukaya, a retired captain who built a house with the appearance of a ship on a cliff overlooking a bay. He lived in the house with his wife and his servants, but earlier this morning, the poor man died. He had the habit of going out sailing in the bay with his yacht, but this morning, the ship was found drifting with the captain's body floating in the water, tied to the yacht with a rope. Azumaya, who accompanied his friend to the house, soon finds signs that point to foul play and soon starts his investigation into finding out who killed the captain. This story feels similar to The Monster in the Lighthouse (incl. in The Ginza Ghost), not only because it features Azumaya, but also due to the seaside setting and Azumaya's focus on physical clues and a lot of measuring. Don't expect to be able to solve this one yourself, but for those who like those early Sherlock Holmes stories where you see Holmes come up with fancy deduction chains based on physical clues and measuring things, this is definitely a story in the same spirit. There are other Oosaka Keikichi short story collections from other publishers that have also used Shi no Kaisousen as the title story by the way,  so it's a really popular story.

It's important to note that as you read this book, you can really sense how the environment in Japan was changing as the war approached. It was a time in which it was made difficult for authors to write mystery stories about murder: with nationalistic sentiments growing in the build-up to the war, it was not deemed right to write stories about Japanese persons killing each other. Hyouga Baasan ("The Glacier Granny") isn't really a mystery story, but closer to a tale of the bizarre, about an elderly woman living near a glacier in Alaska. There's a distinct anti-American tone to the story and even ends with praise that Japan is going to invade the Aleutian Islands soon to save Alaska from the Americans. Suizokukan Ihen ("The Incident at the Aquarium") is a crime story with ero-guro-nonsense features, but stands especially out because there are quite a few sentences that have been censored, so those (segments of) sentences are just blanked out. There have been no uncensored versions of these stories, so they remained censored even in modern publications.

The bulk of the volume is made up with short, humorous mystery stories, similar to The Hungry Letter-Box (incl. in The Ginza Ghost). I personally loved The Hungry Letter-Box, and there are a few here that offer a similar fun read. Kyuukon Koukoku ("Matrimonial Advertisement") is about the middle-aged Ishimaki Kintarou, owner of an eraser company, had never much interest in marriage when he was young, but now regrets that. Noticing that nowadays, many people also use the newspaper to look for a marriage partner, he decides to answer an advertisement which catches his attention due to the style in which it was written. He receives an answer, and invitation to visit the woman, a certain Mizuta Shizuko who teaches at a girls academy. When he arrives there though, the woman says she never placed such an advertisement in the newspaper. The explanation to this has its roots in a certain very well-known short mystery story, but it's adapted well to a non-criminal setting. I had already read Kousui Shinshi ("The Perfume Gentleman") in the past and this story was interestingly written for a girls magazine. The heroine of the story is the teenage girl Kurumi, who is going to visit her aunt and cousin Nobuko by train, as Nobuko will be marrying and leaving her home. In the train, Kurumi finds herself seated with a rather suspicious man who is probably hiding something, but what can Kurumi do about it? Very short, but cute piece for the younger readers.

Hitogui Furo ("The Man-Eating Bath") is very similar to The Hungry Letter-Box, featuring a barber in love who happens to encounter an odd happening. Our hapless hero Kin can only think of the daughter of the local public bathhouse, but something odd has happened there: one day, when the bath was about to close, they found an unclaimed set of clothes in the women's dressing rooms. Some guests say they remember they saw a woman they never saw before in this public bathhouse, to whom those clothes probably belong, but where did that woman go, as she couldn't have gone far without any clothes on! Given that every other guest obviously did get out properly dressed, people start to fear the woman had been eaten by the bath itself, but Kin can't quite believe it, especially as it would endanger the livelihood of the woman he loves. Not a difficult story, but funny enough to read. Kuuchuu no Sanposha ("Stroller in the Sky") is very different in tone and features the detective Yokokawa Teisuke, who is described as a nationalistic anti-espionage detective. Yes, it has to be mentioned he is nationalistic. When an ad balloon to promote government bonds is untied from the rooftop of a department store once again by a prankster, making it drift all across the city, most people didn't think too much of it, but for some reason, Yokokawa becomes very interested in the incident, but why would this attract the detective's attention? I love it when Oosaka uses these signs of modernity in his stories (ad balloons hanging from the department store) and the ad balloon makes for a nice focal point for this story that is clearly set in a nationalistic spy/anti-foreign environment.

San no Ji Ryokoukai ("The "3" Travel Organization") is one of the best stories in this volume and is about a Red Cap porter at Tokyo Station who notices how every day, a different woman gets out of the third compartment of the train which arrives at three, and that these women are always awaited by the same man who carries their suitcase, which has a special "3" sticker on them. He strikes up a conversation with the man, who explains that he's acting as a hired help for the "3" Travel Organization, a special group which finances trips to Tokyo for single women from more rural places. The porter and the man only have short time to chat each day and it's only little by little that the porter learns the truth behind this odd group and the fixation on the number "3". The truth behind this grou that is revealed in the end is really clever, and there's some good misdirection going here. Shoufuda Soudou ("Price Tag Commotion") is set at the furniture department of a department store, which has been the victim of a bad prank for some time now: someone has been switching price tags of some very expensive pieces of furniture with a much cheaper one, and several times now, saleslady #304 and her manager had to apologize deeply to a customer as they had to explain that the prize tag of the closet they wanted to buy was actually wrong and that it was least double the price. But why would someone do this? The solution is one you may recognize from a different famous Japanese short mystery story, but this story can definitely stand on its own, with a very original take on the basic concept and a comedic tone that really manages to draw you in.

As a collection, Shi no Kaisousen is not one I would recommend as an entry point to Oosaka's writings: it's especially compiled to show a contrast with earlier collections. The title story is the only one that fits the model of the pure puzzle plot stories that are usually mentioned as Oosaka's masterpieces. The other stories offer far lighter material, though there are still a few in this volume that are genuinely worth a read as comedic mystery stories with a puzzle plot core. The volume also offers variety by also including thriller stories and a period piece and is an interesting read in a larger context because you can definitely feel the influence of building nationalistic sentiments as the war approaches, but this volume is best read after experiencing Oosaka's more focused detective stories.

Original Japanese title(s): 大阪圭吉『死の快走船』:「死の快走船」/ なこうど名探偵」 /「塑像」/「人喰い風呂」/「水族館異変」/「求婚広告」/「三の字旅行会」/「愛情盗難」/「正札騒動」/「告知板の女」/「香水紳士」/「空中の散歩者」/「氷河婆さん」/「夏芝居四谷怪談」/「ちくてん奇談」

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Two-Sided Affair

Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
"The Detective Story Decalogue"

Like last week's regular review, this novel too is set around New Year. Weird coincidence that I happened to read these two novels one after another, and if I hadn't bumped up another review to be my first of the year, these two reviews would have been posted in the first week of the new year.

The last time I bothered to check, Nishimura Kyoutarou had over 600 novels on his resume. Most of them are of course about train-related mysteries featuring Inspector Totsugawa: there's a reason why people in Japan instantly associate the train mystery and elaborate alibi tricks using ingenious use of railway schedules with Nishimura (see for example this Sandwichman sketch, where Nishimura's name is used as a punchline for a gag about railway schedules). But as you can guess, churning out three, four novels a month will have effect on the quality of the mystery plots, and the couple of Nishimura novels I read once he started to be this extremely prolific were not particularly enjoyable or inspiring. I did have fun with several of his earlier novels though, including the weird crossover series with Ellery Queen, Hercule Poirot, Akechi Kogorou and Inspector Maigret, and once in a while, I enjoy exploring his earlier output.

Koroshi no Soukyokusen ("Hyperbola of Murder", 1971) is one of Nishimura's earlier novels and widely considered to be one of his best works, and it isn't even about Inspector Totsugawa or railway schedules! In fact, it's a very diferent type of story than we are used to with Nishimura, as it's a closed circle murder mystery that is written as a full-blown homage to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. Though with a very interesting twist. For once you open the novel, you'll find a short preface by the author, where he tells you outright that the main trick of this novel revolves around twins! Figuring that Knox and S.S. Van Dine had certain strong opinions about the use of twins in mystery fiction, Nishimura simply decided to make it clear right away that Koroshi no Soukyokusen will make use of twins as a plot device, as you can hardly complain that the reader has not "been duly prepared for them" with such a warning! And indeed, the story starts off right away showing how a pair of twin brothers have been committing a series of curious robberies on small supermarkets and other stores in Tokyo at the end of the year.  Each of these stores was robbed by a man with a pistol, but for some reason, the robber did not wear a mask. Eventually, the police manages to find this man, and twice even! For apparently, the robber has a twin brother, but both of them deny having committed the robberies despite not being able to present any alibi, and with no other evidence but the visual identification by the victims, the police can't do anything: they know the brothers must be in cahoots, but as the robberies were ultimately only committed by one person, they can't arrest both brothers, as one of them is not guilty of any crime in the practical sense. The police also has trouble locating where the stolen money has gone too.

At the same time, the reader is introduced to Kyouko, a typist who works in Tokyo, but is now spending New Year at a small hotel in the Miyagi Prefecture. She and her fiancé are among the lucky six inhabitants of Tokyo who have been offered a ski holiday completely free of charge at the Snow-View Hotel as a form of promotion: the owner, who runs the whole hotel by himself, hopes these guests will help promote the hotel to friends and acquaintances in Tokyo after their stay. Among the other guests are a student of criminology, a taxi driver and a girl working in a not-so-legal massage parlor. The Snow-View Hotel is located deep in the snowy mountains and at this time of the year basically only accessible by snowcat or skis. It doesn't take long for one of the guests to be find hanging from the ceiling in his locked room though, accompanied by a card with a strange circle mark and the message "Thus The First Step Of My Revenge Is Completed." Coincidentally, they realize that one of the bowling pins in the entertainment room has been removed too. They try to phone for help, but the phone line has been cut and even the snowcat has been disabled, meaning they are all trapped in the hotel for now. More murders soon follow, and the remaining guests sart to suspect each other. Eventually, the survivors manage to call once for help, but by the time the police arrives at the hotel, it's already too late: they find seven bodies in and around the hotel. At first, the police suspects one of the victims here must have killed the others and then themselves, but then the police receive an anonymous letter connecting these murders with the robberies committed by the twins, but what could that connection be?

Well, you certainly can't accuse Nishimura of not being ambitious here. First you have the daring declaration of the usage of twins at the very start of the novel, and then we are introduced to a dual narrative structure, with the second storyline obviously being inspired by And Then There Were None. In fact, even the characters locked up in the hotel themselves realize their situation is very much like And Then There Were None (including the bowling pins that disappear each time someone is killed), though unlike And Then There Were None, the characters here don't really know why they are being killed: they have not been accused of crimes like And Then There Were None, and none of them know each other. They have nothing in common, so why were they chosen to be killed? Don't try too much thinking about this yourself though: there might be a minor clue pointing at what connects these people, but the exact reason for why these people are killed is not something you can properly deduce based on what is shown in the story, and you just have to wait for the reveal. It's kinda farfetched though, to see the killer go this far because of that reason. I've seen the same idea used in other mystery stories too, but I find this particular iteration the least convincing.  

Anyway, perhaps the most interesting part of this novel is how it's a homage to And Then There Were None, using a dual narrative structure. I won't be the only one to be reminded of works like The Decagon House Murders (disclosure: I translated the English version) or The Jellyfish Never Freezes, which tackle the same story format. The dual story structure is a bit crude here though compared to these examples. In both The Decagon House Murders and The Jellyfish Never Freezes, the connection to the two narratives is very clear to the reader: in the former, we follow a series of murders on an island, while we also follow an investigation into the background of those murders on the mainland, while in the latter, we see the murders occur in real time, but also follow a narrative that is set a few days after the murders. In Koroshi no Soukyokusen, this connection is not clear at all until the very end. Each chapter, you have a section about the robberies committed by the twins and a section set at the Snow-View Hotel, but you never understand why you are reading about these completely different storylines. It results in a disjointed reading experience, as the story keeps jumping between these completely different events. Obviously, the connection between them is explained in the conclusion, and there is both an in-universe and a more meta-explanation to it, but both reasons feel a bit weak: the in-universe reason is incredibly convoluted, with far too many steps to get the intended results. The meta-reason is... your mileage may vary. I understand why, but it doesn't really work very well, even I find it interesting Nishimura declared outright he'd be using twins for this novel.

The robber-twins narrative is entertaining though, focusing on the police inspectors who know the twins are working together to ensure the actual robber of the two isn't caught, but they can't figure out where the loot went or how to pin the evidence on the actual robber. Meanwhile, the Snow-View Hotel narrative is definitely a straight-up homage to And Then There Were None. And as you can guess: the mystery for the reader at the end revolves around how the killer managed to kill seven people in a hotel surrounded by snow, and escape without the police finding any trace of them. I personally find these And Then There Were None homages the most fun when they have a solution to how it was all done that can be explained simply with one sentence, that makes you think "Aha, so that what it was!' the moment you hear it. That's definitely the case here, but while I think the basic idea is okay, it's just never going to work in a practical sense. I am the last person to be looking for realism in my mystery fiction, but the culprit's scheme here depends a lot on factors they can not exactly control, and 9 out 10 times, this would've blown in their face immediately, and there's no retries here. In a story with a smaller scale, this idea might've worked better, but even when I figured out what happened, I still couldn't believe it any culprit would go through all this trouble only to have the most crucial part of the scheme depend on pure luck, and the odds here weren't even in their favor from the start: they'd be betting on things happening in a manner that usually wouldn't occur like that and it would be difficult to influence the events in a way to become more favorable. I think the seasoned genre reader won't have too much identifying who the culprit is and how it was done,

Koroshi no Soukyokusen is definitely one of the best-plotted Nishimura Kyoutarou novels I've read, and as an And Then There Were None homage, it's quite entertaining, but some parts of the plot do feel weak/not very convincing. It has interesting ideas like the twins declaration and the core And Then There Were None variation that make it stand out, but perhaps the plot is telegraphed a bit too obviously, especially near the end when the story moves into the final act. But still an amusing read if you want read a Nishimura Kyoutarou novel that is not like the Stereotypical Nishimira Kyoutarou Novel.

Original Japanese title(s): 西村京太郎『殺しの双曲線』

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Trouble Times Two

Something old, something new

When it comes to mystery fiction, I usually try to avoid reading stories with similar settings/themes in succession, mostly because I'm afraid I'll get burned out on a theme. I decided to discuss the two games of today in one post not only because I played them one after another, but also because they are very alike, both being a retro art style, and both being sequels that ultimately aren't that different from the first games.

Two years ago, I reviewed Ise-Shima Mystery Annai: Itsuwari no Kuroshinju ("The Ise-Shima Mystery Guide: The False Black Pearl"), a mystery adventure released on the Switch, but made to play and look like one of those old 80s Famicom (NES) adventure games. The game was especially inspired by Okhotsk ni Kiyu, an adventure game developed by Horii Yuuji (creator of the cultural phenomenon Dragon Quest) and even had the same character designer in Arai Kiyokazu.  Ise-Shima Mystery Annai: Itsuwari no Kuroshinju never tried to be more than a mystery story that emulated Famicom detective games, also replicating the minor annoyances from games from that period, but all in all, I did enjoy the game as a blast to the past, so I was quite excited when the sequel was announced.

Akita-Oga Mystery Annai: Kogoeru Ginreika ("The Akita-Oga Mystery Guide: The Frozen Loosestrife") was released in the last week of 2020 on Switch (and now on Steam) and presents a new adventure starring the player (an unnamed police detective) and his young subordinate Ken. The story follows the now familiar pattern: the prologue has the two police detectives hunting the boss of a gang of conmen, but when they capture him, they learn that the Tokyo branch of the gang is controlled by a gang in the Akita prefecture, so the player and Ken travel to Akita to roll up the rest of the gang, but while some veteran police detectives are glad to see the Tokyo detectives, some other local detectives don't seem impressed by the city boys and vow to solve the cases themselves. But as the investigation moves on, they realize the gang is desperate to shake off the police and trying to cut off loose ends quickly, as each time the police find their targets murdered in a horrible manner: frozen alive to death. Can the player catch the murderer before more victims fall?

Having already written a full post on the predecessor Ise-Shima Mystery Annai: Itsuwari no Kuroshinju, I have to admit that I don't have that much to add to that, because Akita-Oga Mystery Annai: Kogoeru Ginreika is in essence very similar to the first game. Once again the game is not about having the player figure things out for themselves, but more about presenting the player a dramatic mystery story set around Akita. The focus is on checking out all the mysterious events and suspicious characters dangling in front of you and and being surprised by the sudden story developments. You'll visit a lot of real-life locations in Akita during your adventure (recreated in some nice 8-bit art) and the story is actually quite lengthy: I think it's at least double the length of the first game, and overall, the story does a great job at recreating the atmosphere of a stereotypical two-hour suspense drama show with a lots of twist and turns, which is exactly what it tries to be. If you liked the first game, or games like Famicom Detective Club (1988-1989) and Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (1985), Akita-Oga Mystery Annai: Kogoeru Ginreika is right up your alley. The music is still great (also listen to the deliciously late 80s pop theme song!!), though I have to say I still don't like the faux 3D maze segments these games always have.

Is it all good? Well, no. Akita-Oga Mystery Annai: Kogoeru Ginreika takes on the form of a Famicom game and that means not much text fits in each individual text box. But it seems the developers forgot that those older games also usually had shorter dialogues, so conversations in Akita-Oga Mystery Annai: Kogoeru Ginreika just go on and on because the writing style doesn't fit the limited text box space. What's even worse when the game forces you through these long conversations that aren't funny: there's a running gag that Ken likes the local food and every other location he tries some local dish and offers his thoughts on it before he remembers he's working: you can't skip these boring sections that's basically the same joke over and over again. Each "day" in the game also ends in a restaurant where they go over the leads they found: for some reason you always have to order food and try out everything (and read their comments) and it becomes really annoying after the second time. I believe Akita-Oga Mystery Annai: Kogoeru Ginreika was developed with some help from crowdfunding and it appears some of the backers were rewarded with appearances in this game: sadly enough these backers were incorporated in the most horrible manner, in segments that feel out of place and feel absolutely unneccessary. For example, early in the game, you have to call a person, but the game forces you to call the wrong number four or five times, and each time you get another small conversation with the person you accidentally called. These conversations were apparantly "rewards" for backers, who were allowed to write in a little bit, but for the player, this section is just a complete waste of time, as you have to go through all those conversations. There's another similar section in the second half of the game, where you're just repeating the same time-consuming action over and over again to force you to talk with all kinds of characters (= backers), even though it should've been over in one go!

Oh, what was interesting was that I played this game immediately after Root Film, and look who has a cameo in this game: Magari (and Yagumo too)! I didn't know about this, so I was very pleasantly surprised to see a very recent mystery adventure featured in a retro-style adventure. Overall though, I think Akita-Oga Mystery Annai: Kogoeru Ginreika was a solid sequel that does a great job at being a charming take on 1980s Famicom adventure games, but that could've been trimmed a bit for a more streamlined experience.

Last year, I also discussed MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files "Executioner's Wedge"  a very short, but entertaining iOS/Android mystery game with a great retro visual style which reminded a bit of GameBoy graphics and also featured great moody music. I was surprised to learn that a sequel had been released in the last days of 2020, titled MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files 2 "Bogeyman's Woods" because it had only been a few months since the first game was released, but you don't hear me complaining! Whereas the first game was set in the city, MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files 2 "Bogeyman's Woods" brings us to a small village in O Prefecture, a setting that is clearly meant to invoke the works of Yokomizo Seishi. The discovery of the dead body of Sendou Tsugihiko in the forest would always have been news, as the influential Sendou clan has always ruled the village and now the family head Tsugihiko had died in a mysterious manner, just like his older brother many years ago. Tsugihiko had fallen, or been pushed from the hanging bridge above, but what makes his death even more musterious is the fact that someone had put the mask and straw raincape of the deity O-Kakushi on Tsugihiko's body after his fall. O-Kakushi is believed to have spirited people away in the forest in the past, resulting in their death. The mask and straw raincape are used in a village ceremony to appease O-Kakushi, and are usually kept locked in the Sendou storehouse. Has the ceremony of the villagers failed and is Tsugihiko's death the work of O-Kakushi?

While the second MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files is very much a Kindaichi Kousuke-inspired mystery set in a small rural village and with family intrigues at the heart of the case, making it feel quite different from the first game, the sequel does play more-or-less the same as the first one, so I refer to that review for more details. Once again, you'll be going around the locations in search for clues and questioning people, and while the game still uses the cumbersome mechanic of having to "set" a testimony or piece of evidence before you start a conversation with a witness to hear if they have anything to say about that, the game at least improves on the first game by just showing with a marker whether a person will have anything important to say or not. It's more streamlined that the first game, but it's still odd you have to "set" your discussion topic first, then start a conversation, then finally ask them about the topic and then repeat the whole process again for another discussion topic. Why can't I just ask about all the relevant topics in one turn instead of having to start a new conversation each and every time for each seperate topic?

The story itself is entertaining enough: it'll only take you an hour or so to go through the whole game, so don't expect some kind of mystery classic that you'll remember your whole life, but MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files 2 "Bogeyman's Woods" has a lot of character and atmosphere, and there are definitely worse ways to spend an hour. And it's free too, and like the previous game, you'll ony see ads if you mess up in the sections where they question you on the clues, so if you're good, you'll never see any ads in the game!

Anyway, Akita-Oga Mystery Annai: Kogoeru Ginreika and MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files 2 "Bogeyman's Woods" were both entertaining, retro-style murder mystery adventure sequels which perhaps did very little to improve on their predecessors, but if you liked the first games in both series, you're likely to enjoy these sequels too. And wow, I have posted more reviews on mystery games than on novels here in 2021!  Let's cherish this moment!

Original Japanese title(s): 『秋田・男鹿ミステリー案内 凍える銀鈴花』,『和階堂真の事件簿2 – 隠し神の森』

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Mystery Solvers Club State Finals


"No no, if you're a professional reader of mysteries like me, you'll just know who the murderer is, even before the crime has been committed."
"A--A professional reader of mysteries! A--amazing! I'm ashamed to admit that this is the first time in my whole life I've met a person who dares to call themselves a professional reader of mysteries!"
"Mystery Arena

I always write my reviews months in advance and just schedule them one after another once a week, and initially, this review was supposed to be the first post of 2021, and interestingly enough, it also happened that this book was set on New Year's Eve, so it was perfect as the first post of January. But then I decided to put Kotou no Raihousha in the fast-track. So it's a bit 'dated' now. Gorgeous cover today by the way, inspired by the Tower of Babel!

While they all went their own ways after graduating college, the former members of the inter-college mystery club still meet once a year at Mariko's splendid country house on a peninsula. Mariko usually spends most of the year at her parents' second home and each year, the former mystery club members all get to spend one or two nights here together. This year is no different, though the weather is far from usual. While most of the group managed to make it safely in the house before the heavy rain started, the sudden storm certainly didn't make it easy for the late arrivals and Marumo, the last one to arrive, even had to bring the news that the bridge that connects the peninsula to the mainland was damaged by the river and that they're all stuck here on this side until the storm is over and the bridge is repaired. Meanwhile, one of them decides to see their host Mariko, who hasn't come down yet even though all the guests arrived, but when the door to the bedroom is opened, they discover that Mariko is lying dead on the floor with a dagger in her back. But who could've gone to Mariko's bedroom without being seen by the people in the lounge in front of the spiral staircase?

And another light goes on! The host of the popular end-of-year television program "Mystery Arena" makes his way to the contestant who pushed the buzzer. Does the contestant already know who the murderer is? The tenth iteration of Mystery Arena follows the same formula that has made it a household name and the program that people watch with the family on New Year's Eve. The contestants in the studio are presented with a written mystery story and the challenge is to guess who the murderer is, and why, to win a fortune! While participants in the studio and the viewers at home can read the story at their own pace, there's also a 'pacemaker' who reads the story out loud and the story isn't revealed at once to all, but given out in parts, all to ensure that everyone, even slower readers, has a fair chance at winning the money. The first one to guess correctly, goes home with all the prize money, so it's important to hit the buzzer the moment you think your theories are correct, but participants also have to be careful: you only get one single chance to make your accusations and you can't change them afterwards. Fukami Reiichirou's Mystery Arena (2015) is a game of wits and audacity: do you stake it all on an early answer, hoping that the parts revealed later on won't contradict your theory, or do you bide your time?

You know, I honestly had forgotten that the premise of this book was about a detective competition! I'm sure I at least glanced through the summary before I bought the book, but by the time I started on it, all memories of the story had been erased. So I first started reading, with the first few chapters being rather familiar with a group of former Mystery Club members gathering in a closed circle situation... when suddenly this narrative is interrupted by the television program Mystery Arena. Which is of course based on Kouhaku Uta Gassen, the extremely popular New Year's Eve program that is a national institution in Japan, with two teams of music artists competiting as the clock approaches midnight. It was a pleasant surprise though, because I have a weakness for this kind of mystery format, with people reading/watching a mystery story in realtime and trying to be the first to guess who did it. It's kinda similar to how the whodunnit sessions of the Kyoto University Mystery Club are done, where everyone is handed the first part of a story, and you are challenged to guess whodunnit before the end of the session. It's not really a competition there, and after a while some of the members usually start exchanging theories with each other, but the real-time element is similar to Mystery Arena. I have also reviewed a few episodes of Nazotoki Live, a live mystery show which is perhaps a bit more similar to Mystery Arena, where studio guests and viewers at home are shown a mystery drama, which is occassionally interrupted by studio segments where the studio guests can gather their thoughts, voice some of their theories and are given hints by the 'butler' of the show. The big difference here is that in Mystery Arena, participants are reading a written story, but like in Nazotoki Live, the show is often interrupted by 'checkpoints', periods in which participants are allowed to try and guess who the murderer is.

In my review of the videogame AI: The Somnium Files, I wrote that I thought information management is an important aspect of a good mystery story, something I also touched upon in my article on the Challenge to the Reader. It's important to know what information (clues) is available at any time to the characters in the story, but also to the reader, because that dictates what kind of theories they can make. Anyone can guess, but you need information (clues, hints) to actually make a logical case, so it's imperative that a story has a good grasp on what information has been revealed to the reader (or the characters) at any stage of the tale. Mystery Arena is an excellent showcase for what I mean. The novel alternates between the fictional story about the murder(s) with the Mystery Club members and segments set in the live studio of the television show, but every time we switch back to the show, we see another contestant trying to become the first to arrive at the correct answer. The show works with checkpoints to make sure nobody can read to the end in one go and a contestant only has one opportunity to give an answer, so that means that a contestant's answer has to be based on the information presented in the chapters they have read, and they never know what's coming next. So the risk lies in whether to wait (and risk someone else giving the same answer you had in mind, only earlier), or to answer as soon as possible, which is dangerous because you don't know what information will come in the following chapters and perhaps something that disproves your theory will come.

But that doesn't stop the contestants here, and what you get is a festival of logical reasoning! Each time a chapter ends, we have another contestant who is absolutely sure they've got the right answer and are satisfied they don't have to read the rest of the story anymore. These theories/solutions are quite varied, with everyone pointing the finger at another suspect, with different underlying theories and evidence. The beautiful thing about Mystery Arena is that these solutions all do make perfect sense at that point in the story. Based on the cumulative information known to the reader, each of these solutions do not only work logically, they are also quite original and shocking, perfect as a true solution of any mystery story. This is even true for the solution of the first contestant, who had a theory ready even before the first murder occured in the story! Yet the theory is based on all kinds of hints you find in the text and it genuinely sounds convincing... until the next chapter, when you are given more information, and you start to alter theories to incorporate the new facts. Sometimes previous theories are outright contradicted by the new information found in the following chapters, sometimes the option is still left open, while also opening up new options, so as you continue in this novel, you really see how a solution in a mystery novel is dependent on the information known at what time. Some readers might find Mystery Arena to be a tiresome read, but I had a lot of fun with the book and you get over ten different solutions, which all make sense at the time they are presented. And it's funny to see how sometimes a brilliant theory points at a character as the killer, only to see that character killed the next chapter.

While mystery novels revolving around multiple solutions aren't rare, Mystery Arena definitely manages to set itself apart from the works of for example Anthony Berkeley and Christianna Brand, who also often used the plot device of multiple solutions. The most important difference is that the participants in Mystery Arena are naturally aware they are reading a fictional mystery story, which changes how to view the murder mystery. Many of the solutions focus on some kind of narrative trickery aimed at the reader, from an early theory revolving around an unreliable narrator to other well-known variants of tricks meant to deceive the reader, but which are all well supported by the evidence found in the story (until they are contradicted again in subsequent chapters). In a 'normal' story with multiple solutions, you aren't likely to have characters who will propose a 'unreliable narrator' theory because that's usually not viable in terms of narration: in Mystery Arena, the characters can actually talk in-depth about it from the point of view of a mystery fan. In a way, Mystery Arena feels like an unedited Let's Play of a mystery story by various 'players,' where you get to see the live theories/reactions of each and every contestant in 'real time.' And it's interesting to see how contestants who waited will sometimes incorparate elements from previous theories into their answers, while going a completely a different general direction.

I do have to say the ending is less impressive than the overall concept. With so many false, yet interesting and properly clewed solutions, it's of course neigh impossible to arrive at one single final solution that will satisfy everyone, but this is definitely an example of the journey over the destination. There's also a secundary plotline that is not set in the fictional story, but inside the studio, but that's less of a mystery plotline than just a set-up for the conclusion.

Despite an ending that lacked spirit though, I find Mystery Arena to be a very entertaining work, a great example of how the addition of one single piece of information can change the whole board, resulting in a complete different solution to the game. The various solutions presented in Mystery Arena may be familiar, but are really well set-up within the story-within-the-story narrative and would've worked as genuine solutions in actual mystery stories, but they really shine as parts in an eloborate experiment in deduction, that make you realize how important the fun in deducing and logical reasoning is in mystery fiction.

Original Japanese title(s): 深水黎一郎『ミステリー・アリーナ』

Friday, January 8, 2021

Lights, Camera...

Memories brought back by hidden records. A Mystery & Suspense story set in Shimane prefecture.
"Root Film"

First game review of the year! I played this one near the end of last year, and it was perhaps the mystery game I played last year that I enjoyed best overall in 2020, but it'll have to wait until December to appear on The List.

After winning an award at the Asia Movie Competition, people in the industry started looking at Yagumo "Max" Rintarou as a rising star in the field of visual media. That's why his small film company (comprised of himself, his assistant/editor Magari and camera operator Kanade) is hired by Shimane TV for a special project: a mystery television drama set in the prefecture of Shimane. Three directors are asked to each film their own feature-length drama, and the idea is to have these three works compete with each other. Yagumo is the youngest of the three directors, but as this is his first big project, he's eager to make a success of the show. Apparently, a detective drama set in Shimane had already been in production ten years ago, but due to unknown reasons the project was put on indefinite hold and there are even some rumors that the whole thing is cursed, making some people nervous about the new project. Yagumo becomes very interested in the project that was cancelled ten years ago and the footage they had already finished by the time filming was stopped, but is also busy with coming up with ideas for his own mystery drama: while he will be working with a scenario writer, he needs to come up with a basic plot himself, so he, his team and the upcoming actress Hitoha who will be starring in Yagumo's film travel to the famous spots in Shimane to scout locations and gain inspiration of the story. But while they're scouting locations across Shimane, the team always seems to get involved with murder mysteries themselves in the 2020 video game Root Film (Switch/PS4).

Four years ago, I reviewed the game √Letter (Root Letter), the first game in the Kadokawa Game Mystery series. The concept behind this new game series was originally that it would highlight the Shimane Prefecture as a touristic spot by showing off real-life locations and culture, and the series would also feature a so-called star system, where characters are treated like "actors" in live-action productions: in √Letter for example, the pivotal character Fumino Aya was "played" by the fictional actress AYA, and the idea was that AYA would also be cast in different roles in subsequent Kadokawa Game Mystery titles. √Letter ultimately ended up as a work that disappointed me as a game, even if there were touching parts to be found there. The game also dropped dramatically in price very quickly after release, even though I bought it on release at full price, so when Root Film was announced as the second game in the Kadokawa Game Mystery series, you can understand I was a bit hesitant. Even when more details of the game were revealed slowly, like that the game would be a 'normal' murder mystery adventure game this time, and that the new director/writer was Kouno Hifumi (best known as the creator of the Clock Tower horror games, but also of the Mikagura Shoujo Tantei Dan mystery series), I still decided to not get this game at release and wait for some kind of discount. So I finally got to play it six months late and... I have to admit, I really wouldn't have minded it if I had bought this game at full price on release, because I thoroughly enjoyed it as a mystery adventure. 

Interestingly, they seemed to have abandoned the idea of using a star system with "actors" for this series, so ultimately, Root Film has next to nothing to do with √Letter save for the setting of the Shimane Prefecture and one re-used BGM track. Heck, this game even abandons the idea of having different story routes with different endings, (which is part of the reason why these games have "Root" (Route) in the title), instead opting for a linear experience. But that did allow Kouno to come up with a completely unrelated mystery plot and brand-new characters, and it's exactly those elements that make Root Film a much better experience than √Letter.

Looking at the game at a mechanical level, there's nothing that stands out in Root Film: you move from one location to another (often real locations in various popular tourist destinations in Shimane), talk with characters, a murder occurs, you go here and there to gain information and clues, and at the end of each episode, there's a confrontation with the culprit, where you show the evidence you gathered. Each episode is fairly linear, and collecting relevant information to solve the mystery is extremely easy: the game will literally pause and highlight the sentence in question and gives you a prompt to memorize it. You can't choose to not memorize the information and the prompt appears automatically, so basically, the game is just making sure you read this sentence, and during the final confrontation, you'll be asked to use these pieces of information in your back-and-forth with the culprit while you solve the mystery. During the confrontations, the game also makes a pre-selection of the available pieces of information, meaning you only have to pick out the right answer from at most four different options.

But despite the rather predictable and simple gameplay, I really enjoyed the mysteries presented in Root Film. While it's true that most of the time, the player will probably be able to make a fairly accurate guess as to the identity of the murderer in each episode and how it was done, the mysteries presented to the player in each episode are surprisingly well plotted, with perhaps not utterly baffling, but still clever tricks. What's even better that these stories make very good use of the major themes of this game: film and the Shimane Prefecture. Some of the episodes for example do a great job at incorporating local Shimane culture or unique geography in the murder plots (mythology, customs etc.), resulting in stories that could only have occured here, while all of them make use of the idea that Yagumo and his team are out filming and scouting locations, with for example clues hidden in the footage they film themselves. 

I also liked that the game also managed to fool me a few times with the tricks: usually, the clewing would be a bit crude, so you'd have an idea of how for example a locked room murder was committed, but the exact details would be a bit vague. But then the actual trick is revealed in the climax, and almost always it turns out the trick was far better thought out than I had expected and that this would've been even better if just the clewing in the preceding chapters had also been a bit clearer. I was genuinely pleasantly surprised with the mysteries presented in Root Film, which range from a ghost appearing suddenly on screen in an old film, to a locked room murder in an old Japanese manor, a case of spontanenous combustion inside a temple and a murder in a creepy old mansion, and none of the times, the solutions disappointed me. The connecting storyline about the project that was stopped ten years ago is perhaps more focused on the suspense angle, but on the whole, I'd say Root Film as a package offers an amusing mystery game. 

The journey of Root Film itself is not only enjoyable because of the capable plots, but also because these plots are presented in an entertaining way thanks to the characters: the banter between Yagumo, gyaru assistant Magari, the surprisingly eccentric actrice Hitoha and other recurring characters is funny, reminding of a lot of Japanese mystery dramas (there's also a lot of call-backs to familiar tropes from Japanese mystery dramas/films). The chatter of the team in Root Film make the story much more engaging to follow, as the different characters also allows the story to develop in various ways, compared to the very, very monotoneous √Letter. A few episodes in this game focus not on Yagumo and his team, but the young actress RIHO and her manager who also happen to be roaming Shimane for in preparation for the film project, and they too get involved in all kinds of murders. It's also interesting how the type of mysteries seen here are a bit different from the ones seen in the Yakumo chapters, and that really helps give Root Film some variety.

Root Film has in the end very little to do with the previous title, but that allowed it to be it's own game, and the result is absolutely positive: Root Film is admittedly a fairly short and straightforward mystery adventure game, but it still manages to be a very pleasant game with interesting mystery plots set firmly around the themes of 'film' and 'Shimane'. I was entertained from start to finish and as a a whole, I found Root Film to be far, far more enjoyable than I had initially expected based on the previous game. Looking forward to a third game if this is the trend!

Original Japanese title(s): 『Root Film ルートフィルム』

Saturday, January 2, 2021

What You Don't Know Can Kill You

"So there's this genre they call the Special Setting Mysteries..."
"You have these supernatural phenomena that only exist within the specific worlds of those stories, and they always come with special rules governing them. And those special rules become the basis for solving the mystery." 
"Visitors on the Remote Island"

My first post of 2020 was on Houjou Kie's Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei ("The Hourglass of the Time-Space Traveller", 2019), a book I absolutely loved. So I figure, why not start 2021 with a review of her second novel?

Kakuriyo Island is a small, remote tropical island that was once the home of about a dozen people, but it has been uninhabitated since 1974. Kakuriyo Island technically consists of two islands, which are commonly referred to as Kakuriyo Island collectively: people lived on the main Kakuriyo Island, which is connected to the tidal island locals called the Divine Land: whenever lightning would strike the Divine Land several times, the local, esotoric religious ceremony called the Lightning Festival would be held at the Divine Land, headed by the members of the Mikumi clan, the main family of the island. In 1974, however, the whole island community was slaughtered in what was later called the Incident of the Beast of Kakuriyo Island. When the police arrived on the island, they found a nightmarish scene: all twelve villagers on the island had been killed by a stab through the heart, save for island head Mikumo Eiko, whose body was floating in the sea. There had been one outsider on the island at the time, a professor Sasakura who had been examining the local flora and fauna, who was also found dead, but his body had been cruelly eaten skin and all by something. Because there are rumors of a hidden gold treasure on the island, it was first assumed that Sasakura might've gone crazy while looking for the treasure and that he got fatally injured himself too while killing everyone, but it wouldn't explain why the meat of his corpse had been devoured skin and all. It was first assumed the dogs must've done it, but the police never really found an answer that explained why the whole island was massacred or how the murderer managed to stab every victim right through the heart. Nobody has lived on Kakuriyo Island since, and to visit the island, one must now ask for permission from the local authorities.

45 years have passed when a small television crew arrives at Kakuriyo Island in 2019 to film J Television's special program World's Mysteries Detective Club. The host of the program will be the singer-songwriter Mikumo Echika, who also happens to be the last living heir of Kakuriyo's Mikumo clan: her father had not been living on the island when the tragedy occured and he never returned to his ancestral home during his lifetime. For Echika, this is the first time she'll see her family home, which of course is expected to be great screen material. The show will look into the tragedy that occured in 1974, but Professor Motegi, expert on tropical fauna, is also part of the team, as he hopes to discover a new species on Kakuriyo Island and so the coming days, two teams will be going around the island, one to film World's Mysteries Detective Club and one following Motegi's quest for scientific discoveries. The nine-man team quickly sets up camp and HQ inside the community centre (the only building on the island that's still intact) and the two teams each go off exploring the island. Assistant-director Ryuuzen Yuuki is assigned to Echika's team, but none of the others know that he's actually planning to murder some of the people present. His targets took someone dear to him, so Yuuki vowed to take revenge on them and everything has been prepared to execute justice during their stay on the island. Which is why he's rather annoyed when he finds one of his intended targets murdered, stabbed right through the chest. It doesn't appear any of the crew members could've commited this murder however and eventually, it leads them to the horrifying conclusion that there's something not from this world roaming this island that's trying to kill them. While the hypothesis sounds absolutely ridiculous at first, it's soon proved to be completely correct and they realize that it's this Outsider that was behind the 1974 tragedy where everybody got killed. The remaining people now have to figure out how to survive against an enemy of which they know nearly nothing and who might be much closer than they suspect in Houjou Kie's 2020 novel Kotou no Raihousha ("Visitors on the Remote Island").

People who have read Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei will recognize the family name Ryuuzen and thus realize the two books are connected, even if the (supernatural) themes are very different. Kotou no Raihousha introduces the series title The Ryuuzen Clan series for these books, and I certainly hope we'll see more entries in this series!

Like I mentioned earlier, Houjou's debut novel Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei was one of my favorite reads of last year: it had basically everything from closed circle situations, impossible murders, disappearances from locked houses, alibi tricks, a family curse, overly complicated family feuds and a creepy country house in the middle of nowhere to a Challenge to the Reader and on top of that there was also the science fiction element of time travel which was incorporated very well with the mystery plot. The story was a very fair, and very traditional detective story despite the time travel aspect, and one of the things that stuck with me the most was how densely clewed the novel was, and despite the enormous scale of the book, it felt genuinely like Houjou wanted you to make it to the finish line yourself. It shouldn't be a surprise therefore that I was really looking forward to Kotou no Raihousha the moment it was announced.

In a way, Kotou no Raihousha is quite like its predecessor, but at the same time very different. Once again, we have a story that seemingly follows a familiar mystery trope (murders on an isolated island), but with a supernatural theme. But whereas Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei starts out with introducing the element of time travel to the reader and also shows off what the governing rules of time travel are, Kotou no Raihousha turns this idea completely around: the characters in this novel are suddenly confronted with a being of which they know nearly nothing, only that it's unlike anything that we know from Earth. The mystery this time therefore focuses on figuring out what the characteristics and abilities are of this unknown Outsider, based on the actions it takes or doesn't (can't) take. In a way, this is similar to reading a 'normal' detective story and reading a passage that serves as a clue to tell you the murderer was left-handed or that they have an injury on their right leg, but in Kotou no Raihousha, the conclusions you have to make about the murderer are not 'normal' as its abilities and capabilities are unlike any living creature on Earth, but at the same time, they are defined in enough of a limited manner to make them not overpowered. Kotou no Raihousha is therefore a lot harder than the first novel, because this time, it's the reader's (and Yuuki's) task to identify the supernatural rules that govern this novel, while in Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei, the supernatural element focused more on application (as the rules were told to you).

It's what makes this a hard novel to explain in more detail, because the bulk of the novel revolves exactly around the manner in which the characters slowly, but surely create a bullet list of what the Outsider exactly can and can't do, and telling you more about some of the later situations in the novel might spoil too much already, as the story is definitely about slowly revealing what the creature is and how it commits the murders. There's an interesting locked room mystery situation at the end of the novel for example, with a man staying in a room in the community centre while keeping an eye on the rest of the building through cameras and there's even a dog standing guard in the hallway leading to his room, but still the man is murdered despite all of these security measures . Houjou makes clever use of the capabilities of the creature to create this locked room mystery and it's deviously keenly plotted as this scene also connects in a surprising way to other story developments, but so much of how the mystery works and why it's such a baffling problem hinges on discoveries made throughout the novel about the creature, so it's really difficult to explain what makes it so well planned. Whereas Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei starts off with "Hey, this is about time travel" (even in its title!), Kotou no Raihousha's mystery revolves around figuring out what the supernatural element is for yourself and it really shouldn't be spoiled here.

Like the first novel, Kotou no Raihousha is a very puzzle-focused mystery novel. Everything that occurs, will in a way connect to the mystery, either serving as a hint to the Outsider's characteristics or the murders the Outsider commits, and some might even feel it's too contrived, but this is definitely the kind of detective story I like: every event has a well-considered function as a puzzle piece and while sometimes it might feel a bit artificial, at least Houjou is playing the game fair and square. This novel has a Challenge to the Reader too and I think it's a lot more challenging than the one in the first novel, but you never feel cheated or that some elements were truly far too hard to figure out yourself.

I like how Kotou no Raihousha is a bit more... active and tense than the first novel. With a closed circle situation on an island with an unknown predator, there's a more tangible feeling of dread and terror and it's also funny how Yuuki is driven into a role of detective: he's still planning to get his revenge on the remaining targets while they're on the island, so he only wants to figure out what the Outsider is and how to defend against it so he can kill his intended targets himself, instead of having another of them taken from him by the Outsider. Following a would-be murderer playing detective so he can murder people himself is an interesting angle and creates a few intriguing scenes where Yuuki wants to create situations where only he'd get a chance to safely commit a murder on his target, but not the creature.

Before I started with Kotou no Raihousha, I honestly hadn't expected that writing this review would be so difficult. The book's a keenly plotted puzzle mystery that makes great use of a very unique supernatural premise to present a detective story you're unlikely to have seen before, but as the plot also revolves around having the readers and the characters themselves figure out what the mystery exactly is in the first place and then seeing it applied to the situations you see in the book, it's neigh impossible to really point out the more impressive moments without spoiling much of the fun. If you like Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei or puzzle plot mysteries with a supernatural premise in general, Kotou no Raihousha is a no-brainer and should appear on your to-read lists. The book's definitely a lot trickier if you're not familiar with supernatural fair-play mysteries as it demands more of its readers than these type of mysteries usually do, though Houjou still shows she's good at plotting whodunnit-style stories and it should still be an enjoyable read. I for one can't wait for the third book, whenever that may come. This is the first post of the year, but I'm sure this will end up on my favorite reads of the year list!

Original Japanese title(s): 方丈貴恵『孤島の来訪者』