Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Spirits of '76

Now it's Reyn time!
"Xenoblade Chronicles

Finished End of the Golden Witch and it appears the mystery of the Rokkenjima murders will still continue as usual in the last four episodes, so I added the ideas I got from the events/mysteries shown in that episode to the Umineko no Naku koro ni playthrough memo

Everyone who has played Xenoblade Chronicles will instantly recall exactly how the line in the opening quote is read and pronounced.

Reynold Frame and Constance Wilder make their way to the Concord, Massachusetts, a historical town not only known for the eminent literary community of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau that once resided here, but also as one of the stages in the Revolutionary War. Frame and Constance are planning to get married next week, and who better to marry them than Constance' elderly relative Dr. John Annandale: the man is over a hundred years old and as a child, he even was told the story of the 1775 Concord battle by a man who actually fought in the war, but Annandale is still quite sharp. Annandale lives with Constance's aunt Kate and uncle Bowler in Concord, which is also the house Frame and Constance were going to stay, but due to circumstances they're a room short, and Frame has to stay with Tom Satterthwaite, a man down the street who runs a sort of a B&B. Frame learns from Satterthwaite that the previous guest in his room had disappeared six weeks ago without paying his rent, but the circumstances were quite mysterious: the man had suddenly disappeared from his room, though they had heard him moving around his room upstairs earlier, and he had somehow managed to take all his luggage with him and get out of the house without even making a single noise on the staircase. Frame learns there's a ghost story attached to Satterthwaite's house, about a wounded British soldier who was being nursed in this very room during the Concorde battle, but the betty lamp put next to him somehow disappeared after his death. During his first night here however, Frame is first haunted by a betty lamp that appears and disappears, and later during his stay he even hears the ghostly noise of marching soldiers in his room. He's utterly puzzled by these ghostly apparitions, but the discomposed body he later finds in the unused well behind Satterthwaite's house is obviously not a ghost, but Frame is determined to smooth things out so he and Constance can finally get married in Herbert Brean's Hardly a Man is Now Alive (1950).

Herbert Brean is perhaps best known for Wilders Walk Away, but because I never read things in order, I haven't read that one yet: Hardly a Man is Now Alive is the third novel in the same series starring Reynold Frame. I read the Dutch translation by the way, which is titled Het lijk in de waterput, or The Body in the Well, which errr, very clearly describes one of the main events in this novel. Just an extra question: what kind of titles do people usually prefer? These very to-the-point titles like "Something Something Murder Case" or "The Mystery of Something Something" or titles that are less straight and which you usually only understand after reading the story?

So I usually don't plan out my reviews and just write them as I go, though most of the time, I do have a few points ready in my head that I want to address in the post. I have to confess that with Hardly a Man is Now Alive, I find it difficult to really focus on a few clear points to discuss in detail. This is because the novel is really dense in terms of plot: a lot of plot-related events and backstories are thrown at the reader almost from page one on, and this basically doesn't stop until you get to the climax. The result is a novel that at first glance seems very busy and chaotic, with far too many plot threads being introduced one after another that are all somewhat related to each other, but not always in a clear manner (at first sight). As I had never read a Brean before, this only worried me, because after a while, it just seemed like he was trying to pile one mystery after another without really looking back ever again, and even if he would, the resolution of each mystery would probably not be very satisfying.

Fortunately, I have to admit my expectations (fear) were wrong, and that Brean did manage to tie all the various plot threads in Hardly a Man is Now Alive together for the conclusion, making it an overall satisfying read. There's a lot going on: the 'impossible' disappearance of the previous lodger and his luggge, the sighting of a person who's confirmed dead, ghostly sounds and lamps in Frame's room, a suspicious spirit medium who insists on swapping rooms with Frame, the historical mystery of the disappearing lamp of the British soldier in 1775, an important character suddenly disappearing near the end of the novel and more. Most of these mysteries ultimately belong to one of the two major storylines of this novel, and while the connection between these two mysteries is not very strong, they each have their own points of interest to them. The clewing for both storylines is a bit similar, focusing on minor contradictions between testimonies about certain actions/persons of various witnesses, but that does help make Hardly a Man is Now Alive feel like one consistent novel.

An argument can be made that the solutions to the many minor mysteries of the novel do come across as familiar, or simple. The mystery behind the ghostly sound of marching soldiers for example is the least interesting (but doable) solution anyone could think of, as is the mystery of the actual disappearance of the lamp of the British soldier. The reason for the lamp's disappearance is much better and ties in nicely with the historical mystery found within the account of the 1775 Concord battle, which is probably the best idea in terms of mystery plot in this novel, cleverly making use of the contradictions between the stories told by the various characters. The current-day disappearance of the lodger and the truth behind the body in the well again feature tropes that you are likely to have seen before in other mystery stories, but as I said earlier, I do think that Brean does a surprisingly good job at linking everything together, even if the seperate strands do not aim for the stars.

I guess that in a way, Hardly a Man is Now Alive reminds me of the few Norman Berrow novels I've read: packed plots that are entertaining to follow because a lot happens and the authors do manage to tie the many events together at the end, even if the individual plot threads and mysteries might not be very ambitious when it comes to the solution/truth. I should probably try Wilders Walk Away too one day.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Cinderella Ballet Mystery

Never reveal the secret to a trick
Practice to perfection
Do not repeat tricks in front of the same audience
(Howard Thurston)

You know, I'm not even sure whether I have ever seen a magic show in real life myself.

After reading the phenomenal Medium last year, I knew I had to read more by Aizawa Sako, and what's a better way to start than with his debut novel? Aizawa made his debut as a professional author by winning the 19th Ayukawa Tetsuya Award with Gozen Reiji no Cendrillon ("Cendrillon at Midnight", 2009), an interconnected short story collection. It's a book that's always been lingering in my head because I really like the cover art, but I didn't even know the author of the book was named Aizawa until his name first registered with me after reading Medium. Sugawa is a very ordinary high school student, who has a very ordinary problem on his mind: he's probably in love with his classmate Torino Hatsu, but he doesn't know how to approach her. He fell in love with her when his sister brought him to a magic bar, where Hatsu happens to be working part-time. Hatsu is a wallflower in the classroom, with no real close friends and always disappearing during lunch break so she can eat all by herself, so Sugawa was absolutely stunned by her shining appearance when doing table magic for the customers at the bar and since his visit there, can't stop thinking about Hatsu. When the two come across an odd mystery at school, Sugawa notices it has parallels with the magic tricks Hatsu showed at the bar, and asks her if she can solve it, hoping they can become friends in the process. 

I  have to admit that after finishing Gozen Reiji no Cendrillon, I was a bit disappointed that this book was not an absolute masterpiece like Medium was. Of course, no author is able to create mindblowing classics one after another, so my expectations were neither realistic nor fair (especially not as this was Aizawa's debut work), but after letting some time pass before I started on this review, I found it easier to look at Gozen Reiji no Cendrillon as a work of mystery that tries to accomplish something very different, while also laying the foundation for Medium in terms of format. Like Medium, Gozen Reiji no Cendrillon is a collection of short stories, which are strongly connected to each other. Events mentioned in one story are carried over to the next, and the final of the four stories here manages to make one cohesive narrative out of the whole book by pullng various plots threads from the other three stories together to form one tapestry. The big difference however is that Gozen Reiji no Cendrillon is also written to as a YA novel. There's a lot of focus on the high school as setting, with Sugawa's attempts at wooing Hatsu, to Hatsu's attitude towards school and her classmates and we also see other characters struggle with their lives at high school. This focus on the school life of the teenage characters also form the driving force to the mystery plots of this book: most of the mysteries we see here are more-or-less everyday life mysteries, not really crimes, but less serious, but still puzzling incidents that occur at school, and often revealed to be connected with very human motives. The book is perhaps best compared to the Classic Literature Club/Hyouka series.

The opening story Karamawari Triumph ("Futile Triumph") introduces the reader to Sugawa and Hatsu, and follows Sugawa's first attempt to strike a real conversation with his silent classmate. During his hopeless attempt in the school library, the two notice that the magazines of one of the shelves of a bookcase have been put there in reverse, with the spine inwards. Only one of the magazines there is placed correctly, with the spine to the outside, but why would anyone pull such a weird prank? The odd sight reminds Sugawa of one of the card tricks Hatsu showed and he decides to involve Hatsu in the mystery and ask if she can solve it with her knowledge of magic in an attempt to become friends with her. I like how the mystery of someone could quickly turn all the magazines in the shelf around is solved: a good look at the physical state of the "crime scene" allows the attentive reader to deduce how the magic was accomplished. And like a magic trick, it's deceivingly simple, yet capable of fooling you. The road from that point to the who, and especially why has fewer clues, and I think one extra step there in the logic would've made it a much better story.

Kyouchuu Card Stab ("Card Stab in the Heart") starts with a small private table magic show by Hatsu in the music room for two classmates and a senior student. After the show in which Hatsu uses a knife, they all leave except for the senior student, who has to practice for a piano contest. On her way home, Hatsu remembers she left her knife in the music room, so she returns there together with Sugawa, only to find an empty music room, as the senior student has gone to the bathroom. But to their shock, they find that someone has used Hatsu's knife to damage a table, carving three "F"s on the table surface. Who would do this and why? This time a tale that focuses more strongly on the reasons why someone would leave such a message on the table. Ultimately, it's not really a story where the reader is expected to be able to solve it before Hatsu does, but it works perfectly fine as a school drama mystery.

In Ate ni Naranai Predictor ("Untrustworthy Predictor"), Sugawa picks up a notebook of Itakura, a classmate who is known for her fortune-telling. He notices a list of classmates in a specific order, but when the grades for their English test are announced, he realizes that the list in Itakura's notebook corresponds exactly to the people with the best grades for this test. She appears to have real fortune-telling powers and she even claims she has seen the ghost of a student who committed suicide last year. Sugawa at first doesn't believe in the ghost, until he sees a ghostly figure in a locked classroom, but when they open the door, they find it empty! Two incidents that are not directly connected save for Itakura as a lynchpin plot figure. The trick with the list of students is simple, but very magic-like and it makes good use of very natural (wrong) assumptions of people. The disappearing ghost from the classroom has a very simple explanation in terms of mechanics (how it was done), but the explanation for it is fantastic: it's very specific to the school setting and both original and convincing.

Anata no Tame no Wild Card ("Wild Card For You") is the final story and revolves around the ghost of the girl who committed suicide last year. Someone has been using her account to post on the school message board, but why? This story is more focused on fleshing out the characters, with Sugawa finally learning more about Hatsu's past from a classmate and all kinds of minor references regarding the various characters who appeared in previous stories all coming together to form one single narrative thread. As a mystery story, I didn't find it too exciting, but as the finale to a YA school drama with a mystery-theme, it's okay. 

For the readers looking for a YA school drama mystery, Gozen Reiji no Cendrillon is a safe and entertaining read: the individual stories have some interesting ideas for mystery plots, while the overall story manages to portray interesting characters with Hatsu, Sugawa and their classmates as they spend their days at school. It's written in a way I think that even those who don't like mystery novels can enjoy it as a YA novel, but like I mentioned earlier, I wouldn't have minded it if had been a bit more mystery-oriented, as sometimes the core mystery plots felt just one or two elements short of becoming far more impressive experiences. There's a second volume out, which I might try out too.

Original Japanese title(s): 相沢沙呼『午前零時のサンドリヨン』:「空回りトライアンフ」/「胸中カード・スタッブ」/「あてにならないプレディクタ」/「あなたのためのワイルド・カード」

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Golden Fantasia

On the first twilight, offer as sacrifices the six chosen by the key. 
"Umineko: When They Cry"

It was almost ten years ago that I read Nikaidou Reito's Jinroujou no Kyoufu ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle") and when I tackled that enormous story on the blog, I decided to discuss each of the four volumes seperately, even though the four pockets formed one story together, so the first three books didn't even explain the mysterious murders that occured at the titular castle. But the story was just so insanely long, I knew I was going to forget things while reading it (and other books in between), so I opted to do those 'incomplete' write-ups on each book anyway. Which is basically the same reason why I am writing this post today.

People who have played the visual novel game series Umineko no Naku Koro ni ("When the Seagulls Cry"), released in English as Umineko: When They Cry, are probably quite aware that it's insanely long. And I am also sure a lot of people who frequent this blog have already played Umineko, for I often see the name mentioned in the comments and sometimes people from Umineko fandom even link to specific book reviews on this blog because apparently those books served as inspiration for the games. Anyway, Umineko is a pretty well-known mystery multimedia franchise created by 07th Expansion (with Ryukishi07 as the main writer), as there have also been anime, manga, novel and drama CD adaptations of these games, which is probably why people often assumed I had played the games, and I had to disappoint them. Heck, I'm sure a lot of people only started to develop an interest in Japanese mystery stories because of Umineko. Hardware preferences etc. meant I only recently started on these games with the Switch version (which collects all the available material at this moment) released in January 2021. Oh, I can also reveal I have not played/seen Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, and certainly won't even think about it until I'm at least done with Umineko.

This post however is not meant to be a full review of Umineko: When They Cry as I'm literally just halfway through the main game (you may have noticed me mentioning my blind playthrough memo on the blog this last month). The main story consists of eight episodes, which were originally released between 2007-2010. The first four episodes, Legend of the Golden Witch, Turn of the Golden Witch, Banquet of the Golden Witch and Alliance of the Golden Witch are collectively known as the Question Arc, which basically pose the main mystery for the players to solve. The remaining four episodes on the other hand I believe don't spell out the solution literally, but do give you more pointers/show off a bit more of what's behind the curtain, allowing the player to solve the mystery. As of this moment, I have only finished the first four episodes, but I decided to write something down already before I move on. The series is available on a wide range of systems from PC to PS3, PSP, PS4 and Nintendo Switch and probably more and then there's all the adaptations too. I probably don't have to mention that the English version of Umineko: When They Cry Question Arc has been available on Steam and GOG for some years now, but if you hadn't played the games yet and this post managed somehow to pique your interests (Do note that the Switch version I played has different art assets and therefore looks differently). The manga has also been released officially in English I believe.

The story of Umineko is set in 1986, on the private island Rokkenjima. Rokkenjima is the property of Ushiromiya Kinzou, an man who after World War II managed to bring back fortune and fame to the fallen Ushiromiya clan. Some say Kinzou's success came from his unmatchable luck, others say it was the result of his ruthless and overwhelming aura that annihilated any enemies in his path, but there are also rumors that Kinzou, who has more than an interest in the occult, had a pact with the Golden Witch Beatrice, whom he summoned. According to the stories, she bequethed him with a mountain of golden ingots, which was what got Kinzou's rise to power starting. Whatever the cause was of Kinzou's success though, by 1986 Kinzou has grown old and health-wise, he shouldn't have much time left. In recent years, he's stayed cooped up in his study and become completely absorbed in the occult , even having a portrait of the Golden Witch Beatrice made in his house, along with an epitaph with a curious riddle which is supposed to lead to the gold treasure and revive Beatrice. Oldest son Klaus and his family still live on Rokkenjima, though they hardly see Kinzou anymore. Kinzou's other three children Eva, Rudolf and Rosa still come back once a year in the fall, together with their own families, ostensibly for a fun 'family gathering', but as all four children have always been terrorized and abused by their father, they can't wait for him to go so they can inherit his immense fortune.

On October 4, 1986, three genereations of the Ushiromiya clan gather again on Rokkenjima, just in time before a storm arrives. For the four grandchildren George, Battler, Jessica and Maria, it's a nice family meeting, but their parents however are all desperate for money, and are willing to do anything to get some money from Kinzou, who however seems to have become completely kooky by now, as he longes for a reunion with the Golden Witch Beatrice. When the storm finally reaches Rokkenjima and cuts it completely off from the outside however, the tragedy starts. On the first night, a mass murder occurs in the garden shed, and it had been signed by a creepy occult symbol. The survivors try to contact the mainland, but the radio's out and with the storm raging on, there's no way out off the island. After the first shock fades away however, the survivors start noticing little suspicious things about the murder, like the question of why the garden shed was locked, while the key to the shed was kept in the servant's room. But as the day continues, more and more people are killed and some of them even under seemingly impossible circumstances, with for example everyone having an alibi for the time of the murder. By the time it becomes clear that thesemurders happen according to the riddle on the epitaph, it's already too late: the Golden Witch Beatrice revives and nobody survives.

Despite not surviving the Rokkenjima massacre however, Battler refuses to believe in the existence of magic and Beatrice herself, so our witch decides to have a game with Battler: the events on Rokkenjima are "reset" and from a parallel dimension, Beatrice and Battler look on as the murders on Rokkenjima happen all over again, though the details of the events play out differently this time, with other kinds of impossible murders and other victims. In this game, Beatrice maintains that every impossible occurrence, including the locked or otherwise impossible murders, are made possible because she's the Golden Witch Beatrice and that she committed the murders with magic, while Battler has to prove that these murders are not the result of magic, but committed by a real-life person. As they observe each 'new' version of the Rokkenjima murders, they hold discussions on how a situation could've been created by a human, or whether magic would be the only possible explanation for events. They go through this twisted game again and again, resetting the 'board' of this insane fantasy mystery game again each time, with Battler struggling every time to come up with a comprehensive human explanation for the events. 

As I mentioned above, the so-called Question arc of Umineko: When They Cry consists of the four episodes Legend of the Golden Witch, Turn of the Golden Witch, Banquet of the Golden Witch and Alliance of the Golden Witch, which take close to ten hours each and all four episodes present a different version of the Rokkenjima murders: while the base story of the Ushiromiya clan gathering on the island is the same each time, the murders all occur very differently, and the focus in each episode lies elsewhere too, with some episodes focusing more on certain characters, or opting to show more of the family history or build-up or aftermath of the family gathering. Umineko: When They Cry is however quite different from the novel adventure games I usually discuss here: there is no interactivity whatsover in these four episodes, and you're just reading the story. You don't have to make story-changing choices, nor does the game ever test you (the player) directly by quizzing you on theories. You're just a bystander to Battler and Beatrice's back-and-forth on magical vs non-magical murders. Personally, I'm not that big a fan of novel games that don't have any interactive elements: as a person who got started on novel games with the Chunsoft games like Kamaitachi no Yoru and 428, figuring out the right route down a flowchart is my jam! 

The 'game' element of Umineko: When They Cry therefore lies outside the game: each of the episodes challenges the player to see if they will subject to the fantasy 'solution' offered by Beatrice or try to solve the mystery themselves, for at least these four first episodes don't actually explain how the murders in each seperate episode were committed or feature any game mechanics that allow the player to check whether they were right or wrong about the case. Starting from the second episode on, Battler will try to come up with theories to explain not only the impossible crimes that occur in the episode in question, but also of previous episodes, but often his theories are either shot down entirely, or have too many open questions to feel satisfying. None of the episodes have a proper denouement where it's shown that magic was never used in the Rokkenjima murders, so it's up to the player to come up with a theory that explains things. This is made harder by the fact that the Golden Witch Beatrice will often show "her interpretation" of the events, resulting in many scenes that are most definitely fantasy, with witches summoning magical beings to commit the murders, and it's up to Battler and the player to figure out how to explain the results of the same scene, without actually accepting the "explanation" that the crime was committed by a witch. The meta game-element is also seen in the concept of Red Truths introduced in the second episode: a statement made in red is true. Meaning that even if you don't believe that X was killed by a magic stake in that one scene, if it's stated in red that X was killed, you do have accept that specific fact. This is basically the function of third-persion narration in mystery fiction: a fair-play mystery novel should never blatantly lie to the reader in the third-person narration. The unreliable narrator is of course a subjective narrator and in that sense, Beatrice is most definitely an unreliable narrator, but any statements she makes in red are true regardless of her status, which brings some interesting dynamics to the deduction battles between Beatrice and Battler, as Beatrice can sometimes kill off a complete theory of Battler just by making a red statement that contradicts a fundamental premise. 

The idea of a single work of mystery that doesn't actually reveal the truth to the reader reminds me of two of Higashino Keigo's books featuring Kaga Kyouichirou: Dochiraka ga Kanojo wo Koroshita ("One of the Two Killed Her") and Watashi ga Kare wo Koroshita ("I Killed Him") both don't say who's ultimately arrested for the murders in those books, nor is a detailed explanation given to the reader as to how Kaga managed to identify the killer, so the reader has to solve the whodunnit themselves, with or without the extra help in the sealed commentary pages.

This is just an 'update' post on my progress on Umineko: When They Cry and I still have half of the story to read through, so there's little I can say about the quality of the mystery at this moment. As you may have noticed however, I've created a Umineko no Naku koro ni playthrough memo page, where I wrote down my thoughts each time I was done with an episode, dotting down what scenes I thought were suspicious, and what implications they might have. I'm probably very wrong, but if you have played the games already, it might be fun to read through them (they're ROT13 protected). One thing that's noticable about the murder situations in Umineko however is that a lot of options are left open with the impossible crimes. Some locked room murders are basically only "impossible" if you believe some characters aren't in cahoots or something like that, which is also pointed out in the episodes themselves. This is often the case to leave the possibility open that the murders could be committed by either magic or by a human hand, but it does result in murder situations where the mystery seems to lie mostly in the fact that the reader isn't given enough specific information about each murder scene. Even when Red Truths are later introduced (sometimes also concerning earlier episodes), things often feel a bit vague (perhaps on purpose) and even the "rules" of Umineko, as a game that challenges the player to solve the mystery, aren't always made clear. For example, each subsequent Umineko episode will give out background information that is probably also applicable to previous episodes, but it is never stated as such, so the game is being intentionally vague to make the reader assume something, but as none of the rules are ever told to the reader, Umineko is never really trying to be fair. A good mystery story with fantasy elements will usually set down clear limits so the reader knows whether their theories remain within bounds, but even though Umineko has the Red Truths, those colored short statements only cover the bare minimum of the events that are actually shown and don't really give the player a good idea of what should be considered part of the game and what not.

Which reminds me: Umineko: When They Cry is insanely wordy, and to be honest, I feel like the game always needs like twenty lines to convey a message that had already been conveyed after the first two lines. At times the writing simply feels too self-indulgent.

Of course, it's clear that Umineko: When They Cry takes inspiration from the famous four Japanese 'anti-mystery' novels, Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken ("The Black Death Mansion Murder Case"), Dogura Magura, Kyomu he no Kumotsu ("Offerings to Nothingness") and Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku ("Paradise Lost Inside A Box"), with its focus on occult topics, the family of four with Western names, the unreliable narrator/presentation and its open-ended approach to "truth" but that does mean that story of Umineko, at this point at least, never feels like a tightly plotted Queen-like mystery novel where the logic will pull everything straight at the end.

Anyway, this was just a quick (but too long) post to say I'm now halfway through Umineko: When They Cry. At this point I honestly can't say whether the conclusion will be rewarding enough considering the interesting set-up, but writing the entries in the Umineko no Naku koro ni playthrough memo page has been interesting enough, and it'll be fun to see I at least got on the right track regarding the various solutions to the many versions of the Rokkenjima murders. A more indepth post regarding how Umineko:When They Cry works for me as a piece of mystery fiction, will follow when I'm finally done. Considering the length of these episodes, that make take a few months again though. Depending on what happens in the coming episodes of Umineko:When They Cry, I might continue working on the playthrough memo, because I'm not sure whether it's still going to present new murders or not and if there's anything for me to update in the first place. Guess I'll find out when I go back to the game. Obviously, I'd very much appreciate those who have played the game already to not spoil or even nudge nudge wink wink hint at the events awaiting me!

Original Japanese title(s): 『うみねこのなく頃に』 「Legend of the Golden Witch」/「Turn of the Golden Witch」/「Banquet of the Golden Witch」/「Alliance of the Golden Witch」

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Angel Night

Buried and drowned in time
All that’s left are memories
Just as you remember too
We used to be angels then
"We Used To Be Angels" (Kageyama Hironobu)

Finished Alliance of the Golden Witch, so I added my thoughts on the new information/events regarding the Rokkenjima murders shown in that episode to the Umineko no Naku koro ni playthrough memo. Will probably write something up on the Question Arc soon!

A murder of crows and a parliament of rooks sound nice, but I've never been a fan of a host or pinhead of angels. A flock of angels works for this novel, though I also played with "a heaven of angels" and "a salvation of angels" in my head...

Without a warning, they appeared from heaven five years ago. Humanoid, faceless beings with wings on their backs descended from the skies in a ray of light. They flew high above the humans, until they suddenly swooped down and started grabbing certain people. The humans were burned alive and taken away into the darkness. People instinctively understood what these beings were: Angels. With time, human kind learned the one absolute rule: any human who kills more than one person, is taken away by the angels to hell. In the five years since, angels have become part of the 'normal' life of the humans. They learned that the angels usually act very smilar to birds, moving in flocks and not being human-shy at all. In fact, they even have a sweet tooth and are easily lured with sugar. Angels do not harm humans who have not violated the Rule and are very meek. Eventually, scientists even dared to kill an angel and cut it open to examine it, though they learned very few about its anatomy. All they knew for sure was that nobody was allowed to kill two humans or more any more and that hell was waiting for those who dared. This had huge effects on society: the number of serial murders obviously diminished, as people either didn't want to be taken by the angels to hell, or the few people who dared would be visited immediately by angels after their second murder, preventing further murders. Some people didn't care about hell, and decided they might as well try and kill as many as possible in one go, if angels are going to take them anyway. Whether the arrival of angels was for good or not, nobody knows.

Aogishi Kogare once ran a thriving detective agency with a talented team, but after the arrival of the angels, he became what's merely a shadow of the shining figure he once was. Gone are the days that he worked on high profile serial murder cases and he basically only takes just enough minor jobs to earn a living now. After taking care of a case involving a stalker for the wealthy Tsuneki Ougai, Aogishi is invited by this giant in the food industry to his private island Tokoyojima with the enigmatic question "Don't you want to know whether there really is a heaven?".  Tsuneki is a fanatical admirer of the angels and bought Tokoyojima because an unusual large amount of angels that tend to live around here. Other guests to Tokoyojima include Amasawa Tadashi, the leading expert on angel studies and Souba Yukisugi, a former weapon manufacturer who succesfully made transformed his business to not sell a product especially designed to kill people, as demand for weapons plummeted after the descent of the angels. Aogishi soon learns to regret his trip to the island due to Tsuneki's almost maniacal belief in the angels, but the boat to pick them up won't come until a few days. On the morning of the second day of his arrival however, it is discovered that their host Tsuneki has been stabbed to death in his private rooms last night. It seems there are too few clues to determine which of the other guests committed the murder, but the remaining people on the island feel relatively safe, because they know the murderer can not commit a second murder without being taken by the angels. But the following day, another murder occurs, and then another.... Shasendou Yuuki's Rakuen to wa Tantei no Fuzai nari ("Paradise is the Absence of Detectives", 2020) poses the question: how is a person able to commit a series of murders when even heaven won't allow that?

Sometimes you just know you want to read a book with one quick look at the premise: this is one of them. I honestly had never come across the name of the author Shasendou Yuuki before, but the moment I read about the angelic rule of no more than one murder and that the mystery revolved around a case where the culprit did manage to kill multiple people, the book jumped on top of the to-read list, because come on, it's one of the most exciting story premises I've heard about! It's hardly a secret nowadays that I love mystery stories that have a supernatural/fantasy element to them (as long as it's incorporated in a proper puzzle plot), from time travel to being able to communicate with youkai, but an universal, natural law that has people automatically taken to hell the moment they commit their second murder, is both original and audicious, and I couldn't wait to see what would be done with it.

Though, admittedly, it takes a while to get there. A fair amount of the first half of the novel is used to introduce the reader to the new, angel-filled world and also to explore protagonist Aogishi's past, whose life changed completely due to the descent of the angels. The real-time narrative about the murders on Tokoyojima is often interrupted by flashback segments. These segments are necessary because they help detail how the rule of "no more than one murder" works exactly and what humanity knows about the angels, but taken together, these introductory parts do mean it takes a while for the mystery plot to get rolling properly. The protagonist Aogishi is presented as a character with a trauma, who has become a detective who is actually very reluctant to get involved in this case, and a lot of the novel is also dedicated to portraying him as a figure in pain who doesn't quite know how to deal with the new world. Your mileage may vary on how tolerable you find the story' s focus on Aogishi's attitude of "I don't want to!" and everyone's "But you must!" response. 

The story does do a somewhat lacklustre job at 'proving' to the reader that hell exists: people just instinctively know that the angels take sinners to hell, which is why people become more reluctant in committing murders and as as the reader, you just have to accept that the idea of hell is accepted by everyone involved. But wherever they are taken, it's an undeniable fact that sinners are taken away from this world by the faceless angels. There's an atmosphere of dread throughout the novel: the angels might be taking murderers away, but are other sins "forgiven"? If there's a hell, does that means there's a heaven? And why did the angels suddenly appear five years ago, and does that mean that "a second impact" could also occur in the future, changing the rules again? This new "reality" where people face a certain uncertainty is a vital part of the novel and is integral to the mystery plot.

Once the story really gets going and we are trying to solve the mystery of a series of murders occuring in a world where it's physically impossible to commit multiple murders, we get to the good stuff. While most of the murders are committed in very ordinary manners (stabbings etc.) and they could theoretically could've been committed by most of the persons residing on the island, it's the question of how there could be more than one murder occuring here, without any of the others being taken by the angels. The main problem is that in this world, angels will appear to take you away to hell the moment you have killed your second person, but in Rakuen to wa Tantei no Fuzai nari, nobody is seen taken by the angels even after the second or third murder. Of course, the possibility is raised that perhaps that everyone on the island just decided to kill exactly one other person because in that way, nobody would be taken by an angel ('the first one is free of charge!'), but it's obviously not very likely that half of the cast just decided to kill the other half of the cast right now right then. So how was it possible for the murderer to commit more than one murder without any consequences? Due the specifics of the rule, it's likely most readers will have some idea of what's going on, but still, Rakuen to wa Tantei no Fuzai nari is very nicely plotted mystery, with genuinely clever surprises here and there that make the best of the unique world of this novel.

Whenever I read a mystery novel with a supernatural/fantasy theme, the question I always ask myself is whether the supernatural elements are really used to create a situation that couldn't occur in a "realistic" world. 'Graphical swaps' where it turns that something like "magical traces" work functionally exactly the same as fingerprints is of course not satisfying at all. Rakuen to wa Tantei no Fuzai nari is a example of where the supernatural is used well, as indeed, the whole plot of this novel only works within this unique world, where the knowledge that there are angels flying around everywhere who can come down and get you the moment when "if (kill > 1) go to hell", influences the actions of both the culprit and all the other characters in the story. You might be able to guess who the murderer is fairly early on (the motive isn't really well foreshadowed by the way), but figuring out how the whole plot was carried out is a lot trickier, and I really liked how the murderer succeeded in committing more than one murder without being carried away by the angels. I had some suspicions about how the presence of the angels could be used for these murders, but even I have to admit I hadn't expected some of the clever ways in which the existence of these celestial beings were tied to the main murder plot: this is best seen in one of the later murders, where author Shasendou suddenly uses the concept of the angels in a completely different manner than I had expected, even though it was properly hinted at.  I was completely fooled there.

Rakuen to wa Tantei no Fuzai nari is a novel with a highly original and unique premise and sticks with it until the very last page of the book. It is a mystery that truly could only have occured in a world with angels, and the way it uses one seemingly simple rule to create a captivating series of murders is absolutely great. The book can be slow at times, but it's very atmosheric, and the book does really profit from the detailed look at a world which can now actually see sinners being taken away by heavenly creatures. Another good example of why mystery novels don't need to be "realistic" to be fun, challenging and yet still fair.

Original Japanese title(s):  斜線堂有紀『楽園とは探偵の不在なり』

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Musical Clue

『うめいねこのなく頃に Banquet of the Golden Witch』 
"Come, close your eyes and try to remember."
"Umineko: When They Cry - Banquet of the Golden Witch"

I finished Banquet of the Golden Witch earlier this week, so added my new thoughts on what might be happening on Rokkenjima to the Umineko no Naku koro ni playthrough memo. I'll probably finish Alliance of the Golden Witch this month too and do a short post on the Question arc then, before I move on to the latter half of Umineko no Naku Koro ni. And speaking of mystery stories set on an island...

With the year long delay of the theatrical release Detective Conan film The Scarlet Bullet from April 2020 to next month, they also launched a brand new marketing campaign for the film late last year, with "RELOAD" as the campaign's main theme. "RELOAD" is of course a reference to The Scarlet Bullet's renewed release date, but there was another big project for 2021 that fitted perfectly with this theme. For the episode count of the animated television series was also about to hit 1000. The animated series based on Aoyama Goushou's manga featuring the shrunken detective started airing on January 8, 1996 and has since been one of the major animated television shows in Japan, basically running the whole year through (though it also slots in re-airs and occasionally skips a week). Whole generations have grown up watching this television series, and the accompanying annual theatrical films aren even now still breaking records in Japan. To commemorate the broadcast of special episode 1000, it was decided to do a complete remake ("reload") of a twenty-five year old classic and also one of the most beloved episodes of the series: Piano Sonata "Gekkou" Satsujin Jiken ("The Piano Sonata "Moonlight" Murder Case"). While in the manga, this story doesn't appear until volume 7, it was featured much earlier in continuity of the animated series. It originally aired as episode 11, the show's first one-hour special (April 8, 1996). The remake of Piano Sonata "Gekkou" Satsujin Jiken is a two-parter (episodes 1000 and 1001), which were broadcast on March 6 and 13, 2021. And I figured this was the perfect time to revisit the story myself.

After receiving a mysterious letter signed by Asou Keiji, Mouri Kogorou, Ran and Conan travel to the small island of Tsukikage, but to their surprise they learn that Asou Keiji, a well-known pianist, has been dead for twelve years, and his death was rather unusual: after a performance at the island's public hall, he had taken his wife and his daughter back home and set fire to his own house. People who tried to save them however saw that he had stabbed his family with a knife, and even as the horrible fire raged around him, they saw Asou frantically playing his beloved Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. While obviously Asou couldn't have sent the letter to Mouri, it appears someone had reason to call Mouri down to the island, and they decide to ask around about Asou. One of the people they should interview is the mayor of Tsukikage Island, whom they learn is going to attend to the funeral service in the public hall of the previous mayor, accompanied by the candidates in the upcoming mayor elections. They wait outside the public hall while the funeral service continues, but suddenly the solemn mood is interrupted by... the Moonlight Sonata! Figuring something is wrong, Conan rushes to the hall where Asou Keiji's piano is kept and finds one of the candidates murdered there! A mysterious music score is also left on the scene, which makes it seem like Asou Keiji might be the one responsible for this murder, but why?

My first remark is that as a remake, these two episodes are quite straightforward. Nothing fancy has been done with the story or the presentation, they basically simply animated the story from the manga the way they always do, with the current, regular animation techniques and storytelling, and while I haven't compared these new episodes with the old special, I wouldn't be surprised if even the storyboards are more or less the same. It's kinda funny, and even odd to see this old story animated in the current style of the animated series though, as so much has changed in these twenty-five years. There's of course the jump from traditional cel animation to digital cel animation, but Mouri Kogorou too has had a completely different voice actor for over ten years now, so it's weird to hear the current voice in this older story. Character designs nowadays are also different from the older stories, so a lot of the character archetypes are not used (often) in the animated series at this point. Also: yep, Conan knows better than to just put unknown substances in his mouth now!

But wow, I have to admit I had forgotten a lot of the details of this story! It's actually a lot simpler, and more straightforward story than I had remembered, though it's still a nice mystery story, that is perhaps a bit more focused on mood than truly mindblowing trickery, but at the same time, it's also plotted better than I had thought. As a Conan story, it's pretty unique as an early story, being set in a small village on a remote island, though subsequent anime original episodes would often visit these smaller communities (not to be confused with the islands of Kindaichi Shounen, that usually don't have whole villages and just one or two manors). But the cramped and slightly outdated island vibe, the backstory of Asou Keiji madly playing the piano in the fires that consumed him and the Moonlight Sonata being played at all the murder scenes (yes, there are multiple murders in this story) make this story a memorable one in terms of atmosphere.

For example, I had completely forgotten that all the major events basically occur within the island's public hall, making it a rather frightful place as people keep on dying in different rooms there. With most of murders are committed in a rather "open" way, meaning anyone on the island might've committed the crime, the focus lies more on the why as the crimes themselves are rather straightforward, and that is what initally disappointed me a bit, as my memories of the tale were more positive. But near the end, I did really like how the story gave a very clear-cut, and good reason for why the murderer acted the way they did, with especially the reason why the first murder was committed there and in that manner being very clever. It's a shame that one major clue seems to point too directly to the murderer then, because the other clue (probably the one most people remember) was much more subtle and surprising. The set-up for the climax is a bit silly (I mean... was everybody staring at the speakers?!!), but by the time the story is over, you'll probably know why this episode is such a long-time favorite of Conan fans. In fact, this is the one story that Conan is reminded of every few years in  the main Detective Conan continuity, even though it's not directly tied to the overall storyline. The events of this episode and the impact it ultimately left on Conan himself are quite significant, so once in a while, you'll find a reference to this case in the manga. So in that regards, it's worth a watch if you started watching Conan in the middle and don't know this story yet.

As a remake, Piano Sonata "Gekkou" Satsujin Jiken, is perhaps not surprising in any manner: it's simply the classic Conan story with a new coat of paint. But I certainly didn't mind revisiting this story again, and if you hadn't seen the original special yet (or read the corresponding manga chapters), you might as well try these two new episodes. It's one of the iconic early Conan stories and also quite enjoyable even if you haven't seen much or anything of the franchise yet. And don't forget, volume 99 of the manga is also going to be released next month (and no, I haven't forgotten about 37 year old Kindaichi either).

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵コナン』1000-1001話「ピアノソナタ『月光』殺人事件」

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Endless Search

Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place 
Where the caravan camels roam 
Where it's flat and immense 
And the heat is intense 
It's barbaric, but hey, it's home 
"Arabian Nights"

I loved Disney animated films when I was a child, but I saw most of them on tape. I think Aladdin was one of the few I actually saw in the theatre.

Welcome to the Middle-East in the twelfth century. The poet Fareed is planning to write a record on the legends about the prophets and wise men of the Islam, and he has finally managed to track someone who can tell him something about Uwaisi. Fareed visits this Ali in his tent, who starts telling him a story about a certain ascetic named Ali (who might or might not be the person telling the story). Ali's grandfather was practicing Zoroastrianism, his father a shia muslim, but Ali himself took yet another path, and turned to the Sufi school of the Islam. His mentor sent him to Mekka as a next step in his training, but on his way to Mekka, Ali is addressed by a mysterious figure, who seems very wise in the ways of the Islam. Ali is guided to the top of a mountain in the middle of a wasteland, where he is to receive spiritual training by this guru al-Qarani. Three other tents are already standing at the top: three men are already receiving guidance from al-Qarani. On the first day, Ali is visited by one of his fellow disciples, Sham'un, who explains to Ali that in general, the people here all keep to themselves and that he hasn't even ever met the two other men in person in his two years here, though both Hussein and Kashim have been here for ages, one of them even for five decades!  They all receive spiritual guidance from al-Qarani, who never shows himself, but he appears in front of the tents of each of his pupils and speaks with them from outside. Sham'un is also only seeing Ali because al-Qarani told him so, though both of them don't really know the reason. Soon after his arrival however, Ali is guided to Kashim's tent in the earliest hours of the morning. He also finds Sham'un here, and together they "knock" on the tent, but there's no answer. The tent is "locked" from the inside due to the wind screen being tied tightly from the inside to the tent opening, and the only way they can open the tent is by cutting the wind screen loose, but when they step inside, they find that Kashim's been horribly murdered: the old man has been whipped all over his body and a knife was stabbed in the man's head. But how did the murderer escape the tent, which was "locked" from the inside? And as there are awfully few people here on this mountain top in the middle of nowhere, does that mean that the murderer is one of them? Ali's quest for spiritual answers turns to into an investigation into murder in Koizumi Kajuu's 2000 novel Higa ("The Moth").

Koizumi Kajuu made his debut as a professional author with Higa, with which he won the Mephisto Prize. The Mephisto Prize is awarded to unpublished novels (and the award is publication), and if you have read a few of the prize winners, you'll know it's a pretty diverse award when it comes to plot: the winning mystery novels tend to feature very unique settings or themes, quite unlike "conventional" mystery stories. To give you an idea of how diverse the stories can be, a couple of Mephisto winners I've reviewed in the past: Mori Hiroshi (with Subete ga F ni Naru - The Perfect Insider, 1996), Inui Kurumi (1998), Takada Takafumi (with QED Hyakunin Isshu no Shu, 1998), Kuroda Kenji (2000) NiSiOiSiN (with Kubikiri Cycle, 2002), Kitayama Takekuni (with Clock Jou Satsujin Jiken, 2002), Amane Ryou (2010) and Hayasaka Yabusaka (with Marumarumarumarumarumarumarumaru Satsujin Jiken 2014). So there's science-fiction mystery (Subete ga F ni Naru), historic-literary mystery (QED Hyakunin Isshu no Shu), light novels (Kubikiri Cycle) and fantasy-like mystery (Clock Jou Satsujin Jiken), all with very original and unique background stories and settings. Koizumi Kajuu's Higa is no exception, as features one of the most original settings I've ever seen in mystery fiction.

For I for one had never before read a mystery story set in twelfth century Middle-East, with the mystic side of Islam as its theme. The theme of Ali's spiritual search is not just something that runs in the background though, and in fact, his philosophical musings are often focused more heavily on than the (impossible) murder that occurs in this story, so you wouldn't be wrong if you'd choose to describe this novel not as a mystery novel with philosophical (religious) themes, but perhaps even as a philosophical novel with a mystery theme. Either way, Ali's question-answer discussions with al-Qarani and other characters make up the bulk of this novel, though you'd be surprised how much if it does ultimately relate back to the mystery plot. The theme of the Islam is not just for show here, which makes for a very interesting novel.

The mystery part of the story has some interesting points to it, though your mileage may vary on the motive part of the crime. The "locked tent murder" is an original setting: in theory, a tent is pretty flimsy thing, but it's still "locked" because the wind screen was tied from the inside to the tent, and they had to cut the thing loose to gain entry. The who and how of this locked tent murder is ultimately fairly simple, which is partially because of the very minimalistic setting (I mean, you count the number of people there on one hand with change, and they're on a mountain top in the middle of nowhere). The question of how Ali managed to arrive at the identity of the murderer however is far more impressive: there are various minor clues found inside the tent that seperately don't seem to mean anything specific, but when taken together definitely point towards one specific type of person. The list of suspects is very, very small, so guessing who the murderer is, is incredibly easy, but the logic that actually points to this person is great, making good use of the background story and also for example incorporating details of islam rituals that have been explained in the novel. What's even better is that the logic that points to the murderer includes the reason why the tent was locked from the inside in the first place: the motive of the culprit to create this locked room tent is really unique, and probably the highlight of the novel in terms of mystery.

Higa is a very minimalistic mystery novel that has an inward focus, but it definitely does some interesting concepts by providing a locked room mystery that is deeply connected to the overall theme of the Islam. This unique theme for a mystery novel, as well as the original setting, make Higa a memorable read, even if the conclusion of the story might not be well-liked by everyone and the focus on Ali's spiritual quest might make feel things a bit dragged out. It's ultimately perhaps more focused on the philosophical side of the matter, which is something I personally have less interest in, but as an 'And now for something completely different' read once in a while, Higa is certainly nowhere near being the worst possible scenario. Worth a look if you're looking for something with an original angle.

Original Japanese title(s): 古泉迦十『火蛾』

Friday, March 5, 2021


“I admit," I said, "that a second murder in a book often cheers things up."
"The ABC Murders"

 I enjoy mystery fiction as a genre, not any particular medium, so while the focus on this blog lies mostly on books, I stilltend to discuss a lot of mystery fiction in various media, from television shows and comics to videogames and theatrical releases and whatever. When it comes to the subject of mystery videogames however, I'm probably not the only person who has noticed that a lot of the other blogs that discuss mystery fiction barely acknowledge videogames, even if they do for example talk about films or television shows. It's a shame, because each medium brings something completely different to the mystery genre and some concepts work brilliantly as a videogame, while they wouldn't work as well as for example an ordinary novel or even a show.

Of course, that's also the other way around, and there are plenty of good mystery novels that simply wouldn't translate well to the interactive medium and that's why there are in general very few straight videogame adaptations of mystery novels, and even fewer that are actually good. Agatha Christie's famous The ABC Murders (1936) is fairly unique in the sense that it has two seperate videogame adaptations: an adventure game in 2009 for the Nintendo DS, and a multi-platform point-and-click adventure release in 2016 (note that the two games aren't related save for the fact they're based on th same novel). The more recent game is titled Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders and if you are familiar with the original story, you might guess why in theory, Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders (2016, Steam, Xbox One, PS4, Switch and more) could make for an engaging videogame. Like in the original novel, the game starts with the famous French Belgian private detective Poirot and his friend Hastings receiving a letter signed ABC, which points them to things to happen in Andover soon. When Poirot is informed by Chief-Inspector Japp that a woman called Alice Ascher was killed in her shop in Andover on the announced day and that an ABC railway guide was behind at the crime scene, they realize the letter was not just a prank: a second letter announcing a death in Bexhill means both Poirot and the police have to work hard to catch the alphabet-minded murderer before they'll arrive at the Z.

There have been several videogame adaptations of the Poirot novels by Agatha Christie in the past, and many years ago, I reviewed the game based on Evil Under the Sun, but as a story, The ABC Murders is definitely one of the Poirot stories that is best suited for a videogame adaptation. The story is set across the country, with murders occuring in diverse locations and this also brings Poirot and Hastings in contact with a diverse cast of suspects, as each victim dwelled in very different social circles: the murder in Andover is set in a small tobacco shop and the people in the victim's immediate circle are all in the working class, while later in the story, Poirot and Hastings will have to visit the stately country manor of a wealthy doctor. This means that the game too presents the player with a diverse cast of suspects and locations to visit: with so many Poirot novels focusing on one or maybe two murders in a fairly confined location, The ABC Murders is quite unique for its 'scale' and that at least makes Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders a pleasant game to look at: while your mileage might vary regarding the comic book art visual style, the game certainly isn't confined to only one or two boring locations and gives you a nice variety of locations to explore, as well as the 'home base' that is Poirot's office (which seems very much inspired by the office we see in later seasons of Agatha Christie's Poirot starring David Suchet, with the Japanese prints on the wall as well as the neat, curved cabinet beneath the windows). 

The story of the game follows that of the novel fairly faithfully: there are a few changes here and there to open up the suspect pool (often cleverly done by building upon minor points mentioned in the original story). You won't be confronted with drastic changes like a whole new murderer or anything like that (the game adaptation of And Then There Were None had its own twist to the conclusion, as well as the original ending as an extra), so there are few surprises here if you already know the story, but it works as a functional adaptation of the novel, which remains a fine tale of mystery regarding a serial killer with a seemingly crazy fixation on the alphabet.

Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders is on the whole a pretty simple point-and-click adventure, where you control Poirot as you gather clues at each crime scene by exploring the location and talking with the people involved. Once you have gathered all the necessary clues at a specific location, the game will prompt you with questions that you need to answer with the clues/statements gathered earlier, to arrive at conclusions regarding the identity and modus operandi of the killer ABC. At the very end of the game, you use the conclusions you made and corrected throughout the game to figure out who the murderer is: it's not an original or surprising set-up, but it works for this story. There are some nice little ideas that make this feel like a Poirot game though. For example, each time you meet a new person, you don't start talking to them right away, but observe them for a moment, which allows you make deductions about their character and current state of mind. While it's a very simple gameplay mechanic, where you just find a few hotspots as you zoom in on a character, it's a mechanic that fits Poirot so well, as he's a detective who's always been more interested in the psychology of the crime, and of the persons involved. It's a simple gameplay element that fits wonderful with the story of The ABC Murders. A more advanced variation on this mechanic is found in 2014's Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments by the way, for those interested in seeing a different (and more engaging) take on the concept. There are also touches like being able to look in the mirror as Poirot to make sure you look tidy, or having Poirot lament the fate of his shoes and trousers each time you walk through a puddle.

As mentioned above, Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders is a pretty simple game to play, and most likely, its primary target audience doesn't consist of people who often play mystery-themed adventure games, but people who like Agatha Christie's works as books or television shows and who might try a game based on the brand name, or mystery bloggers who never discuss mystery games. The game not only always tells you how many clues you have to find at a certain location or what your next objective is, but there's also a baked-in hint system that will automatically perform the next neccessary step to advance in the game (like picking up a clue you missed). Which is of course perfectly fine as not every game needs to be a stress-fest, but it's strange that at the same time, Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders also uses frustrating adventure game conventions to stretch the experience, and the puzzles you often have to solve to advance in the game are incredibly contrived. At each new location, you gather clues not just by questioning the people related to the case, but also by searching each location, like the bedroom of the second victim. As per bad adventure gaming convention, often important objects are found not just lying on a table or in a drawer, but inside elaborate puzzle boxes that need to be opened: usually it's a box that needs to be turned around in 360 degrees, and sliding a panel at one side will open a mechanism somewhere else, which again will open another door etc. It's one of the things I really didn't like about the Sherlock Holmes games developed by Frogwares like Crimes & Punishments and The Testament of Sherlock Holmes and it certainly isn't different here. I don't know why so many detective adventure games seem to think that a detective characters needs to open puzzle boxes,, and why the people in these worlds tend to keep all their important stuff in puzzle boxes that can be opened by anyone as long as they figure out the mechanism instead of, like, keep it in a safe with a key. The most ridiculous example of this happens late in the game, when you need to open a trolley-size travel case which consists of perhaps five or six mechanisms which need to be opened in order, and when you're finally done, it turns out that perhaps 80% of that case consists just out of those puzzle mechanisms, leaving one small drawer as the actual usuable space of the travel case! It's such a 'game-like' thing to fill the narrative with these filler puzzles (and even then, it's a bad gaming convention), so while Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders feels like it's made to appeal to non-gamers with an interest in Agatha Christie's work, it's at the same time using boring adventure design conventions that are most likely to first scare off or bore non-gamers. It's just a weird dichotomy in game design. Well, at least the hint system allows you to skip these puzzles if you really don't like them.

Oh! By the way, I did like the inclusion of The Dark Shadow in the crime reconstruction scenes! The Dark Shadow is such an iconic part of Japanese visual mystery fiction, I just thought it was so funny to see that familiar face in a Poirot adaptation of all things!

Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders on the whole is a capable game adaptation of a novel that actually lends it well to a more interactive medium: the core plot translates well to the medium to show how Poirot solves the case on a mental level by allowing the player to go through each deductive step themselves. Little touches make the game feel like a Poirot game too. It's just those puzzle boxes that feel horribly out of place, and sadly enough, a lot of objects are kept for some reason in these puzzle boxes that for some reason are the newest fad in the UK, making everyone put things on boxes that can be opened by anyone with a mind for puzzles. In general though, Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders does feature a lot of design choices that make it an easy experience for non-gamers, so it's one I can recommend if you aren't into mystery games yet, but want to try one out to ease in the medium.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Strange Memories

"In summers, nights are best.
"The Pillow Book"

I always try to read at least one mystery book set in the city of Fukuoka (Hakata) every year. Last year's attempt wasn't quite what I had expected from it, but this year's entry is very, very recognizable as being set in Fukuoka.

Almost five years ago, I reviewed the short story collection Houkago Spring Train ("After-School Spring Train"), the debut work of Yoshino Izumi. The book caught my attention because it was set in the city of Fukuoka, and almost miraculously, it was set exactly in the area where I lived and studied while I was living there, making it a must-read as I try to read at least one mystery novel set in Fukuoka every year. Yoshino did not publish any more books after this debut work, so imagine my surprise when I noticed a new book by Yoshino in the fall of 2020 on the release lists, and it was a sequel to her first book too. Tenohira Astral (2020) once again focuses on the minor mysteries which puzzle the high school student Izumi, as she struggles with the problems every teenager faces. As she's in her second year in high school, it's about time to think about what she'll do after she's graduated. Many of her friends will go to college and her bestie Asana seems to have made up her mind she wants to become a teacher, like her older boyfriend Uehara, but Izumi still doesn't know what major she wants to do, and even if she really wants to go to college. It's during these busy days that she stumbles upon little mysteries of everyday life, like a classmate who for some reason is carrying the student ID of someone in the third year or a trail of blood leading out of a classroom, but no student in the class admits to having injured themselves. While insignificant problems, they do bug Izumi, but luckily Uehara's friend Tobiki, a student of Q University, seems to have an answer for everything.

Coming up with mysteries that seem mundane enough that anyone could encounter them in normal, everyday life, but yet interesting enough to actually drive a tale of fiction is quite difficult and often, such mysteries feel a bit underwhelming because the problem is just too mundane, or the solution is just not convincing enough. Tenohira Astral is a short story collection that does not really manage to avoid these familiar traps, and perhaps it's not really trying to anyway, because perhaps more than the first book, Tenohira Astral is perhaps best read as a YA novel, with a mystery plot running beneath the surface. Because the focus lies far more on the development of Izumi as a character now and about what she wants to do after high school. Each story is more about her encounters with her friends and how they talk about what they really want to do, and each mystery she encounters ultimately also ties in to her struggle about her post-school life, showing her that everyone makes their own choice.

The first story, Kanojotachi no Yukue ("The Way They Go") is perhaps the best story in the volume. Izumi picks up a student ID her classmate Yune drops, but notices it belongs to a male student in the year above them. Later that Izumi and Asana spot Yune seemingly all dressed up for a date in the city and they decide to tail her. They make sure Yune doesn't notice them in the subway, and eventually see her arriving in the city, but when Yune's boyfriend arrives, they're surprised to see it's not the person on the student ID Izumi picked up. They realize that if Yune was dating the boy from the ID, they'd leave their school together, but why was Yune carrying the ID of someone else? The answer to that question is very simple, but oh-so-real and convincing, and it works in the context of a naturalistic mystery of everyday life. It also ties up great to the overall theme of Izumi wondering about her future life.

Kanitsukai no Revenge Match ("Revenge Match of the Crab Master") on the other hand focus too much on this overall theme, and barely manages to present a mystery plot. The story has Izumi and some classmates visiting the open campus of Q University and her classmate Sudou is even competing in the robot competition on the campus, hoping to do better than his efforts last year. Tobiki also swings by, but he leaves an enigmatic message when he spots Sudou's robot crab and goes back to his work. The story revolves more around a really bad word pun than a real mystery, and it's barely better than the third story, Natsuyasumi Akemae ("Before the End of The Summer Holday"), where Izumi swings by school during the holiday but notices a classmate doing a test, even though it's long after the examination period. Izumi wonders about what exam it could be, but here the answer is too straighforward and not remotely attractive as a puzzle to the reader. It's strongly connected with the overall theme of Izumi deciding on what to do after school, but unlike the first story in the book, it's just not interesting at all as a mystery.

Tenohira Astral starts off with an interesting premise: Izumi and the other students who are on afterschool cleaning duty this week notice a trail of blood in the corridor. They follow it, but strangely enough it doesn't go the school nurse, but just the bathroom. They trace it back, but none of the students in the nearby classrooms seems to admit to having bled, though Izumi notices multiple people in her class with bandaids. Ultimately, the story is more about guessing the reason why someone would get hurt, and while it's kinda okay in the YA-context of this book, it's not really a satisfying mystery that manages to make best of the premise. 

The final story is a bit more interesting. Kiiroi Eki he ("To the Yellow Station") starts off on the Kaizuka Line. Before she gets on the train, she sees a mother talking with her young son who's about to take the train all by himself. The mother reminds her son to get off at "the yellow station" because his grandparents will be there waiting for him. The boy is probably too young to remember the station name, which is why his mother said it's the yellow station, but Izumi does wonder what the yellow station means, because the stations on the Kaizuka line don't have assigned colors and it's not like any of the stations on the line is particularly yellow in design. The boy however drifts off in the train, and when they arrive at the terminal Kaizuka, the boy realizes he's at the wrong station. Izumi wants to bring him to the stationmaster, but the boy refuses as he's a big boy and this is his first time taking the train alone. Based on the price of the ticket of the boy, Izumi deduces that "the yellow station" is one of three stations, but which of them is the yellow one? An interesting attempt is made to tie this mystery to a larger storyline developing throughout the five stories in the book, though it's hard to really call this a fair mystery. It's dependent on whether the reader is aware, or at least capable of thinking of a certain fact: if you happen to know about it, this mystery is a lot easier to solve, but the set-up to the reveal in this book itself is probably not strong enough even if it does tie to the overall storyline. It's easily the best mystery story after the opening story, but that's not saying much.

Overall, I think it's fairly clear I didn't like Tenohira Astral that much as a mystery novel on its own, though I do think it's entertaining enough as a YA-novel, especially as I absolutely love the familar setting of Fukuoka in this book: personally any book that's set between Kashiihama and Hakozaki, Fukuoka will win bonus with me. The way in which the mysteries tie to Izumi's coming-of-age story isn't always perfect, but when it does work, it's surprisingly convincing and satisfying, giving a lot of synergy to the themes. And like the first novel, the chatter between the high school girls is fun to follow. I'd describe this as 65% YA novel, 35% mystery, and personally, I'd have preferred the reverse, but I really don't mind reading these kind of books once in a while.

Original Japanese title(s): 吉野泉『手のひらアストラル』:「彼女たちの行方」/「蟹使いのリベンジマッチ」/「夏休み明け前」/「手のひらアストラル」/「黄色い駅へ」