Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Sunken Moment

「君という光」(Garnet Crow)
I like looking at the jellyfish floating in the sea
"The Light That Is You" (Garnet Crow)

Don't you just hate it when they suddenly switch cover styles for a series you've been following for years and the new covers are better than the old ones? It's not like I'm going to buy the re-releases of the older books for their covers, but it still bugs me a bit.

It's been almost ten years since I first read Kishi Yuusuke's The Glass Hammer, which introduced me to the attorney Aoto Junko, who has become well-known as the person you want to retain if you're confronted with a locked room murder. In truth, it's not Junko who solves these cases, but the security consultant Enomoto Kei, whom Junko sees as an neccessary evil and she's often reluctant to call in his services. For while Enomoto's expertise on all things security are undeniably first-rate, she has the very very very strong suspicion that Enomoto is actually a burglar himself and that his talent to break down locked room mysteries is also used to actually break into other people's houses. I've enjoyed the other books in the series a lot, as well as the (excellent!) live-action drama Kagi no Kakatta Heya ("The Locked Room"), which was titled after the third book in the series. In 2017, the fourth book titled Mystery Clock in the series was published, collecting four stories. I usually buy the pocket re-releases which commonly follow a few years after the initial release, so I didn't pick the book up back in 2017. The pocket release finally came late 2020, but in a form I had not expected. Usually when a book is re-released in the bunko pocket form in Japan, it's the 'extended' version despite the smaller format. Besides text revisions, pockets often feature a commentary essay by a mystery writer/critic on the book, and some pocket releases even feature bonus stories not included in the original release. Interestingly, they decided to split up 2017's Mystery Clock into two seperate volumes for the 2020 pocket release. This is a practice that often happens with novels that are too long  (part 1, part 2, etc), but I had never seen this done to a short story/novelette collection, and in this case, the two volumes aren't even called part 1 and 2, but each feature their own distinct title, making them complete seperate releases. Which is why I will also discuss them as seperate books in seperate posts now, even though they originally formed one single book.

Colossus no Kagizume also has the English title The Colossus' Claws and features two novelettes, one of which I already knew quite well. Kagami no Kuni no Satsujin ("The Mirror Land Murder") was part of the source material used for the 2014 television special of the Kagi no Kakatta Heya drama series, and that story definitely left an impression on me back then. The story starts with a visit by Inspector Kouno to Junko, who confides in her that Enomoto will probably soon become a suspect in a murder case. A gallery director was murdered in his office and it just so happens that a burglar who seems very similar to Enomoto was caught on a hidden security camera as he made his way inside the building. While there were a few other people inside the gallery working on an Through the Looking Glass, And What Alice Found on the Other Side-inspired trick art exposition too that night, security footage show none of them approached the director's office. Enomoto contacts Junko, 'assuring' her that he was hired by the director to test the gallery's security measures, and swears he didn't kill the director. Which in turn means that one of the three people working on the trick art exposition has to be the murderer.

The problem however is that in order to reach the crime scene, a person has to go through the whole Through the Looking Glass, And What Alice Found on the Other Side exposition and take the stairs at the end of the hall. The exposition is actually an elaborate mirror maze that makes use of trick art (optical illusions) with an Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass theme and while there are multiple routes through the maze, there are two points one has to pass, and there are security cameras here: the entrance is a big 3D sculpture of Humpty Dumpty which has to be moved to gain access to the maze, while there's also a security camera aimed at the see-through corridor at the end of the maze. Nobody is seen on the security footage of these cameras around the time of the murder, but if Enomoto is truly innocent, this means someone managed to go through the maze completely unseen. But how?

Looking back at my review of the drama adaptation, I think I have little much to add to that, because it was a fairly faithful adaptation and I still feel largely the same about the main ideas. The first part of the solution, in regards to how someone could've possibly gone through the Humpty Dumpty-blocked entrance even though the sculpture is never seen moving on camera nor anything else out of the ordinary, is really clever, but it works soooooo much better in a visual format. While you understand the explanation as you read it as prose, being actually shown what was done is not only more impressive, but also more convincing. Also, it's neigh impossible to think of this solution based on just the text, while in the visual format, the problem feels fairer. It's a trick you really have to visually see and I have to admit I was glad I had seen the drama version first. The second half of the explanation of how someone made it out of the maze unseen is clever in the sense that you can actually imagine it being done, but it does rely on the knowledge of the existence of something specific, and if you don't know about it, you're definitely not going to figure out for yourself how someone could've passed through a see-through corridor unseen. Ultimately, Kagami no Kuni no Satsujin has a few very clever tricks that allowed an invisible murderer to pass through the maze, but these ideas also undeniably more about the surprise of learning about some specific concept or piece of technology, and then seeing it applied to a mystery story. If you don't know about them, it's unlikely you'll ever solve the murder yourself.

The same basically holds for Colossus no Kagizume ("The Colossus' Claws"), which is about a mysterious death occuring in the ocean. The Neo Seatopia Project is headed by both the government and Ooyashima Maritime Development to develop new solutions for seabed mining. It operates from an experiments ship in the ocean, with divers doing experiments on the oceanbed. Hotei is the fiancé of Yuri (daughter of the CEO of Ooyashima Maritime Development) and made head of the operation, even though he's not really suited for the job and therefore not liked at all by his former colleagues. One night, Hotei went out for some night fishing, when suddenly his boat was flipped over amidst rising sea foam and when his body was finally found, there were odd scratches across his body. While there were plenty of people on the New Seatopia ship who didn't like Hotei, none of them could've actually reached his boat unseen: some people physically saw how Hotei's boat was suddenly swallowed by the foams with nothing in the vicinity, the sonar system of the experiment ship caught no other boats nearby and the only people "near" Hotei's boat were diving deep below, and because of the medical sensors on these divers as well as the dangers of decompression sickness, none of these divers could've physically gone up to the surface to attack Hotei and dive back again. The only explanation is that a Collosal Squid might've decided to attack Hotei, but fiancee Yuri isn't convinced of that and wants Junko to find out whether Hotei could've been killed by a human.

This is a weird story to rate. It basically falls in the same trap as the previous story, in the sense that it makes clever use of some kind of technology/specific piece of knowledge to make the impossible possible, in this case, allowing someone to approach the victim undetected in the ocean, but the story's hardly going to feel very satisfying if you didn't know about it before (and few people are likely to). It's almost like suddenly being told that flying pigs do exist, and that that allowed the murder to commit the crime. It's a shame, because like the story also points out, this particular trick does result in a very unique moment where it's shown that the person who was most unlikely to could've committed the murder, is shown to be the only person who could've committed the murder as the introduction of that specific piece of knowledge turns everything around.

On one hand, I do think the two stories in Colossus no Kagizume are interesting in the way they use new, modern technology to create solutions to locked room murder mysteries we hadn't seen before, but it feels like it's just too early for them: while the application is clever, as a reader, you feel slightly cheated because the stories keep bringing up concepts that aren't quite common knowledge yet. Kagami no Kuni no Satsujin is the better one of the two, but I'd recommend the drama adaptation over the original story because the trick simply works better in a visual format. The review on the accompanying book to this volume will follow soon.

Original Japanese title(s): 貴志祐介『コロッサスの鉤爪』:「鏡の国の殺人」/「コロッサスの鉤爪」

Sunday, June 27, 2021


Been a while since I wrote an editorial...

Last year, I wrote a post on a few original episodes of the animated series of Detective Conan, so episodes that are not based on the comic, but written especially for the anime. One episode I shortly talked about was episode 961 Glamping Kaijiken ("The Curious Glamping Incident"), which I wanted to discuss not because it was such a good mystery, but because it was absolutely insane. The story was written by Yamatoya Akatsuki, best known for his work for Gintama and this episode of Conan definitely was more focused on crazy comedy, with loads of story elements that didn't make any sense at all in the context, and just there to confuse/amuse the viewer. The animated series has been running almost non-stop since 1996, with over 1000 episodes now and while most of the episodes are in fact based on the manga, about a third of the episodes each year are anime original episodes, written by a variety of scenario writers. And these scenario writers usually have their own angles/gimmicks they like, like there was an early scenario writer who often wrote plots revolving around animals. So the anime original episodes often do feel very different from each other because of the different writers (even if they use the same basic setting/characters), so once in a while, you get an episode like episode 961 Glamping Kaijiken because they decided to go with a writer who aims to just write something completely silly.

Yesterday, on June 26th 2021, the newest episode of Detective Conan became trending on Japanese social media, because they had another of those batshit insane episodes. Episode 1010 Egao wo Keshita Idol ("The Idol Who Erased Her Smile") was written by Urasawa Yoshio, best known as chief writer for chaotic comedy series like Ranma 1/2 and Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo and renowned for his surreal, wacky stories. In fact, Urasawa was the mentor of Glamping Kaijiken's writer Yamatoya Akatsuki and the last few years, Urasawa has written a few Conan episodes and each time, they were considered "masterpieces" in the series because they were just so silly, making no sense at all and just being unlike a normal Conan episode in every way. I couldn't contain my curiosity, so I decided to watch all of the episodes of Urasawa just to see how insane they could be.

In terms of hilarious surprises, they certainly didn't disappoint. By the end of episode 1010 Egao wo Keshita Idol ("The Idol Who Erased Her Smile"), you'll realize it's the most unnecessary story ever, but the way the story is brought and the countless of little jokes (the Akira bike!) sprinkled throughout the visuals just make it a weirdly captivating story, that manages to hold your attention better than an "average, nondescript Conan story" would. Explaining the story would be a fruitless action, because the story is honestly very, very forgettable and yet I kept watching the episode because I never knew what kind of silly joke it would throw at me next. The same holds for other episodes written by Urasawa. Episode 997 Smile no Sato no Inbou ("The Smile Village Conspiracy", original broadcast on February 13, 2021) has cartoon stock villains and a granny who flies away in a jetpack and a old lady with a veeeeeery creepy collection and it's just a parade of surreal gags and almost Monty Python-esque comedy. Episode 976 Tsuiseki! Tantei Taxi ("The Chase! The Detective Cab", July 18, 2020) comes closest to having an actual detective plot, but also features so many story elemenets that are never explained (like two brothers who sing all their lines for no reason at all!) and like most of Urasawa's episodes, it almost feels like they were originally written for another series, but reworked for Conan. There are more by Uraswa, but each one of them is nuts.

But that got me thinking. While these comedy episodes of Conan are very unlike the normal stories in Detective Conan, especially the ones based on the stories of the manga, they still work because the anime series has always had a variety of scenario writers who provide different kind of stories, even though they all still use the same basic characters. So while these episodes won't serve as a good introduction to Conan for newcomers, they can be quite fun for veteran viewers exactly because they are so different from the norm, providing a different angle to what's supposed to be a familiar setting and cast. So I was wondering, were there other examples I could think of with different authors working on a series/established cast created by someone else, and where these other writers managed to add something substantial not present in the work of the original writer (and of course something I liked)?

My first thought went out to the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney videogame series, which was originally created and written by Takumi Shuu, but later Yamazaki Takeshi was made director and writer of a spin-off series and eventually took over the main series (being head writer of Ace Attorney 5 and 6). Personally, I think Yamazaki and his team of writers managed to come up with much more solid mystery plots than Takumi, with plots written closer in the tradition of Queen with theories being built on the currently available evidence etc and turnabouts in theories based on new evidence introduced throughout a story. Yamazaki and his team brought the series much closer to puzzle plot mysteries of modern Japanese detective fiction, and I honestly feel they managed to bring a lot to the series that the original writer hadn't done.

I guess that the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney videogame series with varying teams working various entries, and Detective Conan as an ongoing animated series that has a history of featuring both stories based on the comic by Aoyama Goushou, and other scenario writers are a bit of an exception though. I guess when people think of "persons other than the original author tackling a mystery series" they are likely to think of either adaptations of pastiches. Which isn't exactly what I was thinking of at first, but for example, I remember I really liked how BBC's Sherlock 'translated' a lot of Sherlock Holmes staples into a modern day variant, or for example how the Ellery in the Ellery Queen television show was nothing like the Ellery from the novels but still presented an Ellery I could see working in the original novels. 

Anyway, what are some of the examples you can think of where other people get to work on an existing mystery franchise/established world/cast created by someone else, and they managed to add something or tackle the series from a completely different angle in a way that worked surprisingly well? Perhaps a different writer managed to write more interesting mystery plots with a certain premise of another author, or perhaps an adaptation that seems to surpass the original work? Or perhaps like the Conan episodes mentioned above, where someone manages to pull off something you had never expected of the franchise (positive or negative)?

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Beyond the Law

"Star of the Underworld! Guardian of Time and Space protected by Pluto! Sailor Pluto!"
"Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon"

Anyone here who watched the Jikou Keisatsu drama series? They were among the first Japanese mystery dramas I ever watched, so I've always had a weak spot for them and was really surprised when it returned in 2019 for a new series.

The short story collection Daisan no Jikou ("The Third Deadline" 2003) is probably one of Yokoyama Hideo's best known works, perhaps partially because it also had no less than two seperate television drama adaptations. The six stories collected in this volume were originally published between 2001-2002 and are about the exploits of the feared and famed Homicide and Violent Crimes Division of F Prefecture Police Department. This division is famed throughout the country because of its very high rate of succesful arrests, but within the division, there's fierce rivalry between the three seperate sections that exist within. Section 1 is led by "the blue oni" Kuchiki, a veteran senior detective who carefully chases after his prey and step-by-step blocks off the escape routes of his target. Section 2 is led by the coldblooded and misogynistic Kusumi, a former Public Security police officer who specializes in setting up traps for his targets and catching them by surprise. Section 3's Murase is the inspired type, who instinctively senses what he should do in an investigation and almost miraculously manages to lead his team to a solved case. These three lead detectives are the brains who make the Homicide and Violent Crimes Division so effective, but the internal rivalry between these three, and the members of their teams aren't always what's best for the investigation and in the six stories in Daisan no Jikou, we follow a narrative that involves not only criminal investigation, but also internal politics.

Chinmoku no Alibi ("An Alibi of Silence") follows Kuchiki and his team, who after a long, long time finally managed to send their suspect off to the courtroom. Yumoto is suspected to be the accomplice in an armed robbery on a bank truck with deadly results: Ookuma, the brains of the operation, is still on the run, but they managed to capture Yumoto after tracking his purchase of some things they used in the robbery. At first Yumoto refused to say anything about the crime and he held out for a long time, but in the end he surrended and admitted that he and Ookuma hadn't planned to murder the driver and that they had agreed to lie low until the thing had blown over. With the confession in their pocket, the police send Yumoto off to the Prosecutor's Office for a trial. Kuchiki attends the trial of Yumoto, but to his great shock Yumoto suddenly pleads to the judge, saying he was forced by the police to confess to the crime and that he has a proper alibi for the robbery! It's difficult to explain how this story then changes into a mystery story without revealing too much about what will follow, but Kuchiki is quite convinced Yumoto is the accomplice in the robbery, so part of the mystery lies in the question of what good it will do Yumoto to go back on his words now. The stoy's an interesting crime thriller that plays with the well-known importance placed upon confessions in criminal cases in Japanese court and quite enjoyable, but it's not an orthodox puzzler.

The title of the book's err... title story Daisan no Jikou ("The Third Deadline") refers to the statute of limitations. Fifteen years have passed since Yukie had been assaulted and raped at home by her childhood friend Takeuchi. Her husband arrived home immediately after the horrific crime, and in the ensuing fight Takeuchi killed Yukie's husband, and he has been on the run since. The crime will expire soon, but the police still have one chance to catch him. Or perhaps two. While the deadline for the statute of limitations is fifteen years, this clock is 'paused' whenever the suspect leaves the country: the police have records to show Takeuchi had fled one week abroad soon after the crime, which means that the deadline is not on the day of the murder, but one week later. The men of Section 2 hope that Takeuchi will make contact with Yukie immediately after the deadline expires, as he had tried to contact her once before, as he suspects that Yukie's fourteen year old daughter Arisa is in fact his, and not her husband's. Two weeks before the first deadline, Section 2's men and women are on the look-out for Takeuchi: they have rented the apartment next door and can get inside Yukie's place through the balcony, the phone's tapped, a plainclothes always accompanies Arisa to and from school. When the first deadline expires on midnight, the team is disappointed Takeuchi doesn't call right away, but they hope he'll still call within the week. But as the second deadline approaches, the lead detective Kusumi seems to be pondering about the possibility of a third deadline, but what could that possibly be and will that allow them to catch Takeuchi? Great story, though again not a really a fair puzzler where you can solve all of the mystery without specific knowledge of something. But once more, this is a great thriller where the focus lies not solely on the trap for Takeuchi, but also the internal political struggles within the team and the effect it has on the investigation. Kusumi is not trusted by anyone because he didn't work his way from the regular police force, but was brought over from Public Security, which is a lot more 'devious' in its way of working, and it shows in how he handles this case. 

Shuujin no Dilemma ("Prisoner's Dilemma") is an interesting story because this time we don't follow any of the section leaders, but Tabata, head of Homicide and Violent Crimes. He's blessed, and cursed with his three talented subordinates and in this story, all three section leaders are busy with their own murder case, and Tabata has to juggle between keeping an eye on the three investigations, and keeping the press out of it. The story show how the three section leaders each approach their case in different ways, while Tabata has his own 'adventure' when he's approached by some members of the press who seem to know more than they should about the ongoing investigations, and he has to figure out how to keep a lid on things until the respective cases are resolved. Obviously, the titular prisoner's dilemma also plays a role in this story that is a neat showcase of the various characters in this world and the workings of the police force, not just at the crime scene investigation level, but also at the level above, with Tabata trying to manage three very different detectives. As a pure mystery story, it's a bit lacking, but it's a good procedural.

Misshitsu no Nukeana ("An Escape Exit From The Locked Room") is set inside an interrogation room in the police department with a deadly atmosphere. Last night, Section 3 (without the help of leader Murase, who had health problems) held a stake-out on a suspected murderer, who also has ties to the organized crime. The plan was to keep an eye on him once he got home and arrest him in the morning. Because of ties with a larger gang, Section 3 was also obliged to have a few detectives from the Organized Crime Division on site too, because if they had acted without saying anything, they'd have a big row later with their colleagues of Organized Crime. The detectives saw how the suspect drove home to the apartment complex, parked his car in the underground parking lot and later saw how the lights in his apartment high up in the building switched on. Outside, four teams held an eye on all possible exits from the complex. However, the following morning, when they went to arrest them, he was not in his room anymore and later the police even receive information that in the early hours of the day, he tried to secure a car by threatening a prostitute he knew. While the force is out on the look for him, a 'blaming' game is held, as how did the suspect manage to escape the apartment complex while every exit was supposedly watched? This is the best puzzle plot of the whole volume, dealing with the impossible disappearance of the suspect: all the exits out of the building were watched, he has no known allies in the same apartment building and most of all: how could he have known that he was going to be arrested in the morning: if he knew, he wouldn't have gone home in the first place, and if he didn't know, why did he disappear during the night? This leads to a fantastic, tense scene where the various teams involved in the stake-out where they all try to come up with a possible explanation for how the suspect manage to escape which will also to shift the blame to another team, though it's Murase's right hand who led the operation whose head is most likely to drop. Ultimately, they know that unlike their suspect, none of them will be able to leave this interrogation room until a guilty party is involved. The build-up to the final solution that explains how and why their suspect escaped is good and satisfying, and I definitely liked this story best of the whole volume.

Persona no Bishou ("A Persona's Smile") centers around the poisoning of a homeless man in Shizuoka Prefecture, which seems to have ties with an arsenic poisoning case that occured 13 years ago in F Prefecture. Two F detectives are sent to Shizuoka to learn more about the recent murder and they learn that a person similar to the facial composite drawing made 13 years ago was also seen just days before the homeless person's death. The story this time seems to have a much more personal note, as the main character is a rookie detective who had been used in a crime as a child too, and he sees some similarities between the old arsenic case and his own experience. I think this is the story I liked least of the whole collection, as it lacks the tense atmosphere the other stories have, and the core mystery too is also too much tied into past events, which makes it easier to guess how every thing is connected.

The final story, Monochrome no Hanten ("Monochrome Inversed") deals with the murder on the father, mother and young child of the Yumioka family. They were found dead in their home a day after they were killed, and the boy living next door remembers having seen a white car parked right next to his room around the time of the murder. Due to a scheduling mix-up, two teams have gone off to investigate the crime and both Section 1's Kuchiki nor Section 3's Murase have any intention of leaving the good stuff to their rival. The two teams both work to secure different places related to the crime, like the actual house or interviews with the neighbors, keeping the other team out. Because of this, both Kuchiki and Murase's team have to work using different leads, but will it lead to the same murderer? The idea of this story is good, having a more direct confrontation between the sections and it's interesting to see how they work off very different leads, but let's be honest: Kuchiki's lead is far more clever and interesting to follow, while Murase's lead is ultimately something the murderer could've avoided so easily and it kinda falls flat because the idea is definitely clever, but the murderer had to be so in a panic to actually do this, that it makes it appear as if it was only a matter of time the police would catch them, because if they'd do that, they were bound to be making more unnecessary mistakes.

Daisan no Jikou isn't precisely the type of mystery stories I usually read, with these stories being closer to police procedurals and there's also an emphasis on the internal politics of the organization, but I did enjoy the stories like a kind of palate cleanser. As a thrilling and gritty police procedural with tense, twisty plots and sometimes genuinely clever plot twists, Daisan no Jikou is great, and definitely worth a read.

Original Japanese title(s): 横山秀夫『第三の時効』:「沈黙のアリバイ」/「第三の時効」/「囚人のジレンマ」/「密室の抜け穴」/「ペルソナの微笑」/「モノクロームの反転」

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The Secret of the Forgotten City

 朝になれば City Light
「City Hunter ~愛よ消えないで」(小比類巻かほる)
Whenever it becomes morning
The city lights always disappear
"City Hunter ~ Oh Love, Don't Disappear" (Kohiruimaki Koharu)

The longer a book stays in the backlog list, the greater the chance I will simply never get started on it.

As they say, some books you don't really want to read, you just want to have read them. And that was basically how I felt as I was reading Mato ("The Demon Capital"), a novel by Hisao Juuran originally serialized between 1937-1938. Hisao was a prolific author of popular fiction and wrote in a wide variety of genres, from mystery to historical drama and comedy. Mato is seen as one of the major, modernist Japanese crime novels from the 30s, which also earned it spot 69 on the 2013 Tozai Mystery Best 100 ranking. But I honestly had trouble getting into the story from page one, and as far as I know, over these last years, I think I have read the first chapter like 5 times, each time losing interest at that point and then moving on to another book. Anyway, the book starts on New Year's Eve of 1934, when the third-rate reporter Furuichi Kajuu is thrown out of the Newsreporter Club's end-of-year party for once again overestimating his position in the media hierarchy. He ends up in a bar, where a curious customer asks him about the recent rumors of the fountain in Hibiya Park singing like a bird. Furuichi hits it off with the man, who invites him to the home of his mistress to celebrate the new year. The man turns out to be the emperor of Annam (Vietnam), who likes Japan a lot and often spends time here incognito. In the early hours of the first day of the year, Furuichi leaves the apartment building as they agree to meet up later again, but when the reporter makes it down to the hill, he finds the body of the emperor's mistress lying on the ground. Curiously, Furuichi himself is detained, as police seems to be thinking he's the emperor. Meanwhile, Superintendent Manako Akira is put on the case, but as he digs into the circumstances of the death, he uncovers there's a bigger plot going on that involves Annam politics.

What follows is a thriller that is perhaps best read from a historical point of view, because as a mystery story, it's less memorable. Starting on New Year's Eve, the story follows mainly Furuichi and Manako's seperate investigations into the death of the mistress. In terms of concept, the book reminded of a series like 24, because while the book is fairly long, the events described take place in a span of about two days. Little happens in each individual chapter therefore, as the story basically tries to present a thrilling, real-time adventure unfolding. Probably pretty cool in the 30s, but it's a slow read nonetheless, and due to the serialized nature of the novel, you often have the feeling the book is repeating itself as it goes over details again and again mentioned in earlier installments.

But the story Mato eventually tells is also less about the logical solving of a murder mystery and more about the setting of the modern capital Tokyo in the 1930s. The term Mato, or Demon Capital, originally refers to the Shanghai after the First Opium War, with the International Settlement, the French Concession and basically an international metropolis that was rapidly changing and modernizing. In Mato, Hisao presents Tokyo as the new demon capital, the largest metropolis of Japan that was rapidly modernizing and changing and nationalistic sentiments gaining power. The Tokyo of the 1930s was nothing like it was two or three decades before, with an underground dungeon being made (subways), people from all over the world going in and out and the local people too only focused on themselves and just any interesting news to distract them from real-life problems. In Mato, Hisao tells an adventure that is set in this modern new Japan, utilizing the new Tokyo to its fullest as the story moves from one point to another and immediately to the next and in that regard, Mato is certainly interesting as modern fiction about Tokyo.

If you focus only on the mystery part of Mato though, you'll get a story where, you do get answers to questions like who killed the mistress, where the real emperor of Annam went to and what's behind the murder, but the plot is mostly a rather straighforward thriller and there are few moments that truly feel clever or surprising. Heck, after a while the story just seems to go on and on without really reflecting on the plot anymore, and I'm pretty sure that that one major murder near the end of the story isn't even explained anymore, because by that time, Mato isn't really a detective story anymore, it's just an adventureous tale set in a transforming Tokyo.

I wasn't really the audience for this book, but I guess that if you're into looking into modernist depictions of 20s-30s Tokyo, Mato is an interesting read. If you for example like the depictions of the city and a changing world and culture as seen in a lot of Edogawa Rampo's work, or for example the stories in (insert disclosure warning) Oosaka Keikichi's The Ginza Ghost, you'll probably be able to find something you like along with a thriller that's clearly written as a grand, spectacle work of entertainment. It's the reason why I ultimately decided to write this review anyway instead of just skipping it, because I think there are probably also readers here who will fight the cultural aspects of this crime novel interesting.

But yeah, coming back to what I wrote earlier, Mato was not a book I particularly enjoyed reading, but I'm glad I now know what it's about. Looking at it as a pure mystery novel, it's not really memorable, but unlike contemporaries like Dogura Magura and Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken, I don't think it's genuinely meant to be an anti-mystery. Mato is more rewarding simply read as a thriller or modernist work of entertainment that depicts a transforming Tokyo.

Original Japanese title(s): 久生十蘭『魔都』

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Hear No Evil

All the world's a stage
"As You Like It"

More fictional detectives should use a tablet...

As the third son born in a family with a lineage of famous kabuki theater actors, Katagiri Daisaburou too was expected to become one of the best in the art, but early in his career, he decided to switch to acting in films, a choice which would change the course of history. He starred in many of the formative films of the 50s that would define Japanese cinema, and when television set started to appear in everyone's homes, he didn't underestimate the new medium and started taking roles in television dramas too. Many decades later, and there's nobody who does not know the face of Katagiri Daisaburou as he's been a household name in media since forever, and even to this day, he's often seen in commercials and other big events as one of the biggest stars of Japanese media. Only a few years ago however, Katagiri had to retire as an actor, not because of his age, but because he developed a sudden deafness, making it impossible for him to properly act anymore. He decided to quit the Thespian art, instead focusing on his own entertainment agency, which manages many of today's film stars. Nonoko was hired one year ago as Katagiri's new assistant and his 'pair of ears,' which in practice means she has to accompany Katagiri everywhere and type out in real time everything says to Katagiri on her laptop, allowing him to read the 'subtitles' from his tablet. Unfortunately for her, Katagiri does not only work at the office and she's often dragged along whenever Katagiri decides to spend some time on his hobby: assisting the police in murder investigations. In the past, the great actor has solved many crimes for the police and now he has the time, he's even more eager to stick his nose in whatever seems interesting. Kurachi Jun's Katagiri Daisaburou to XYZ no Higeki ("Katagiri Daiburou and the Tragedy of XYZ" 2015) presents the reader with four puzzling stories about the exploits of the deaf former actor Katagiri.

Even if you're not familiar with the original stories, the title The Tragedy of XYZ should ring bells and if you have read Ellery Queen (Barnaby Ross)'s Drury Lane novels, you're bound to recognize a lot in the summary above: a famous actor turned deaf who's an amateur sleuth? Kurachi's book is obviously inspired by the four Drury Lane novels and it's a joy to read if you like those books, but fortunately, this book is perfectly readable without any prior knowledge. Katagiri Daisaburou to XYZ no Higeki is not a parody of any kind and there aren't even really direct references made to the Drury Lane novels, but there's a kinds of little elements that you might recognize as being inspired by those novels, without this ever becoming too reliant on that knowledge. It's a very cleverly written book in that regards, for it's simultaneously a book for fans of the four Drury Lane novels due to the clever, but subdued references, but also for people who don't know anything about those books and they'll honestly not miss anything of importance, as all the stories can stand alone perfectly.

Take the first story for example, Fuyu no Shou: Gyuugyuuzume no Satsui ("Winter: Fully-Stuffed Malice"). Nonoko is asked to pick up a certain delicatesse for her boss on her way to work one morning, which means she has to take the dreaded Yamanote-line during the morning rush. As expected, it's like sardines in a can inside the train, with everyone pushed right into each other. Nonoko and many others get of the train at the major hub Shinjuku Station,  but she stumbles across a man who had been pushed outside the train when everyone got out. The man seems unwell, but when another person checks, it turns out the man is dead! Inspector Kawaharasaki later visits Katagiri and Nonoko with more details: the man had been poisoned with an injection of nicotine. The hypodermic needle had been found trampled inside the train, and traces in his clothes show the needle had been jammed through his coat and clothes into the body. Based on the time it takes for nicotine to start working, it appears the man had been stabbed during his morning commute and that by the time his train arrived at Shinjuku Station, he was already in critical state, not even able to stand: it was just so incredibly packed inside the train that he was forcefully kept on his feet as everyone was pushing into each other. The problem the police faces however is when and how this man was given the injection: the man lives only a minute away from his station, and after that he had only been moving between stations inside trains during the morning rush. But how does someone stab a hypodermic needle unseen, into someone else inside a train packed so insanely full there's no space for anyone to move?

If you're familiar with The Tragedy of X, you might recognize the basic premise of a man being poisoned by nicotine inside a tram. But that's basically all this story takes from The Tragedy of X, and the rest is a completely original take, focusing more on the 'impossibility' by setting this murder inside the absolutely nightmare that is the morning Tokyo rush. I've only experienced it myself for three months during a study course in Tokyo many years ago, but the Yamanote-line in the morning is nuts, as in I-can't-move-I-have-an-elbow-in-my-back-and-my-nose-is-almost-in-this-other-person's-hair packed, so I was pretty easily convinced of the impossibility of this murder scenario! The story does develop in a way you'd expect from a Queenian story, with Katagiri focusing on the logical implications and contradictions arising from the physical evidence found, and then building a chain of reasoning that ultimately explains how the murder was committed. The whodunnit aspect of the story is a bit weak, but the build-up to the explanation of how the man was injected with nicotine is great, with clever deductions being built upon the physical evidence and spatial movements of the victim to show what was possible and what not, and several characters like Nonoko proposing possible solutions, these being logically discarded, but still forming a basis for the final explanation by Katagiri.

In Haru no Shou: Kiwamete Youki de Nonki na Kyouki ("Spring: A Cheerful and Nonchalant Murder Weapon"), Katagiri is asked to assist in a murder case. An elderly, famous artist was killed with a blow on his head with an ukelele inside his home, but the police has trouble pinning the crime on any specific person. The victim was found in his wheelchair inside the storage room,  which had probably not been opened in many years. The man had been struck by the instrument, but the police can't figure out why that weapon was chosen, as there were a lot more objects inside the storage that would've been more suited as a murder weapon, like the contents of a toolkit and a baseball bat. Four generations lived together inside the house, but while the his great-grandson did see the victim enter the storage room in his wheelchair, nobody else admits to having known that the victim had been in the storage. But even so, why kill the man there, with an ukelele?!

This second story is of course inspired by The Tragedy of Y, where the victim was bashed on the head with a mandolin, but this time the question focuses solely on the matter of why the ukelele was chosen over objects that would've been much better suited as a killing weapon. The jumps in the reasoning this time are sometimes a bit too far, making some of Katagiri's deduction seem more like fantasy than based on actual fact, but overall an interesting variation on the basic idea of The Tragedy of Y, landing in a completely different region.

A spy app Katagiri had installed on Inspector Kawaharasaki's smartphone allows him to always track the police's movements, but this time, Katagiri finds himself in an unexpected situation. In Natsu no Shou: Togiretogire no Yuukai ("Summer: Half-Connected Kidnapping"), his idea was to have his 'ears' Nonoko use the app so they could just 'run into Kawaharasaki by concidence' and ask if there was any case going on he could help with, but it turns out the police are having their hands full with an ongoing kidnapping case: the babysitter was bludgeoned to death last night and the child gone. The kidnapper has already gotten into contact with the poor parents, and after sending them a morning letter announcing when they'd call, the kidnappers are now asking for a hefty money sum in exchange for the child. When the money's prepared, the kidnapper asks for the mom to follow instructions, sending her to several places where he can get a good look at her and the money and then sending her to the next place, but for some reason, the phone calls always seem to disconnect halfway through a sentence, only to call back right away and go on like nothing happened. The inspiration for this case is of course the abduction that occurs in The Tragedy of Z, but that's basically the only common point. The way in which Katagiri manages to resolve the kidnapping is rather forceful and not really convincing and there's also a part in the story that is both brilliant and undeveloped: Katagiri manages to build a very convincing line of reasoning based on a physical object that tells them the true intentions of the kidnapper, but it doesn't really manage to sound convincing because not everybody would be able to use that specific physical object, which is an essential condition for Katagiri's deduction. However, the underlying truth behind the kidnapping is absolutely fantastic, and features a horribly original reveal at the end of the story, which is likely to stick with the reader for a long time.

The final story Aki no Shou: Katagiri Daisaburou Saigo no Kisetsu ("Fall: Katagiri Daisaburou's Final Season") has Katagiri invited to a local community center to do a lecture on a deceased film director with whom Katagiri made several cinema classics. Inspector Kawaharasaki, who's not only a professional contact of Katagiri, but also a film buff who loves Katagiri's work, is of course also there. The community center is also where Katagiri will meet an old acquaintance, who's a fan and scholar of said director.  Together with the director's son, he has recently discovered what appears to be the final screenplay written by the director before his death, but he wants a second opinion by Katagiri to see if it's the real deal because he had worked so much with the director. They meet before the lecture and a quick look seems to convince Katagiri that it's indeed an unfilmed scenario, but as it's almost time for the lecture to start, they have to prepare and then move to the auditorium. It's decided to keep the screenplay inside an old safe (so old it even has a small 'airvent' because of fear children would lock themselves inside) in the office of the community center during the lecture. But both Katagiri's 'pair of ears' and Inspector Kawaharasaki can't help worry about the screenplay and return to the office. They peek through the airvent... only to find the safe's empty! But who could've stolen the screenplay from the safe?

With Katagiri in the auditorium doing his lecture, it's time for his capable assistant (and the inspector) to try to solve the mystery, and it's a fun one this time! Like Drury Lane's Last Case, this story revolves around an unpublished story by a famous artist, though this time it's presented as an impossible theft. During their discussion of the case, they actually arrive fairly soon at the only method possible to get the screenplay out of the locked safe, but what follows is what you'd really expect from a Queen-inspired story, as then the deduction shift focus to the question of which suspects would've actually have taken those specific actions, and what suspects can be discarded as it wouldn't make any sense for those specific person to take those specific actions. The logical reasoning here is great, and convincing (more than the actual theft from the safe actually). While one twist I certainly I had seen coming early on, the last one was certainly unexpected and a brilliant surprise: the book expertly built towards this 'series' finale throughout the four stories, but you won't know what's happening until it hits you. 

This is, on the whole, a pretty funny book too by the way! Katagiri Daisaburou is portrayed as a larger-than-life figure, who has ruled Japanese popular culture for decades and knows it. The way everyone has to adjust to his whims is entertaining to see, as are Nonoko's attempts to function as his 'ears' and attend to his whims, while also fully realizing that her boss isn't quite normal. The stories do always feature some segments that go deeper into the career of Katagiri as an actor, with a lot of details on what roles he did and how he grew out to be the household name, but because usually only a small part of that backstory i actually relevant to the mystery at hand, you might find these parts a bit superfluous.

The four stories in Katagiri Daisaburou to XYZ no Higeki might take their inspiration from the four Drury Lane novels, but even without any knowledge of the Lane stories, this short story collection provides very engaging mystery plots, that as you might expect from a Queen-inspired book, focuses a lot on chains of reasoning and back-and-forth discussions about possible solutions. It's the kind of mystery I personally I like best and the grander-than-life character of Katagiri and the idea of having a deaf detective with an assistant typing out 'subtitles' in real-time are also fun, resulting in a book that's definitely found a place in the list of my favorite reads for this year.

Original Japanese title(s): 倉知淳『片桐大三郎とXYZの悲劇』:「冬の章 ぎゅうぎゅう詰めの殺意」/「春の章 極めて陽気で呑気な凶器」/「夏の章 途切れ途切れの誘拐」/「秋の章 片桐大三郎最後の季節」

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The Crisscross Crime

誰も奪えない 心の翼だから 
Pegasus Fantasy Yes, dreams are the wings of the heart
Nobody can steal from you
"Pegasus Fantasy" (Make-Up)

Read the works of a certain author long enough, and you're bound to recognize themes or topics the author likes. Perhaps the author likes to make references to classical literature for example, or they like to address topics like racism or heritage. Some might have a nationalistic tone in their writings, others might just enjoy writing very detailed about the workings of machinery, but whatever it is, the attentive reader will surely, with time, recognize certain topics as being 'typical of that one author'.

Because of this, you sometimes just know that a certain work wasn't just written for the general public to read, but that it was written mostly for the author themselves as the main target. Some books just delve so deeply into certain topics and themes that it seems unlikely that the author was trying to reach a wide audience, but instead that they mostly wrote the book to satisfy themselves. And mind you, that's not a bad thing on its own. Plenty of readers stick with a writer exactly because these people write about themes the reader's also interested in, so novels that are in a way self-indulgent can still appeal to a lot of readers.

Shimada Souji's Alcatraz Gensou ("Alcatraz Fantasy" 2012) is a mystery-themed novel that is an extreme example of the above, and personally, I didn't like the novel at all, though I can imagine that some hardcore Shimada fans who love his oeuvre will see this as one of this greatest works, especially because he tries to involve a lot of the themes he likes to address in his books in one single story now. Depending on who you ask, some might describe Alcatraz Gensou as an ambitious work that tries to reconcile decades of different themes found in Shimada's work, but you'll probably find even more people who will find this a chaotic, forced patchwork of ideas that all go nowhere. Alcatraz Gensou is a book that I find extremely difficult to recommend to people, unless they are already familar with grander themes Shimada likes to talk about in the many mystery novels he has published and even then it's a work that chooses its readers.

Even a coherent summary of the story is hard enough to write because the book feels like it's a few seperate ideas forcefully put together like a Monster of Frankenstein. The book follows a four-chapter structure and it's the first chapter that still makes Alcatraz Gensou like a normal mystery novel, as the reader is brought to Washington D.C. in 1939, where the murdered body of a prostitute is found in a park. The poor victim was hung from a tree, and her nether region was cut open: the horrible murder soon reminded people of Jack the Ripper. A second victim soon follows, and the police is desperate to find the murderer. But the the second chapter suddenly shifts to a scientific paper on gravity and the impossibility of dinosaurs that's basically the same length of the whole first chapter. By the third chapter, we're following an inmate of Alcatraz and the planning of a prison escape, while the final chapter is a fantasy novel where the protagonist ends up in Pumpkinland, an underground kingdom of pygmies where he meets the love of his life

You're probably thinking "Huh?" now. I know I was. Especially if you're only familiar with Shimada through his work available in English, Alcatraz Gensou might sound like nothing at all like you'd expect from him. Of course, Shimada did move away from more conventional mystery fiction pretty soon in his career and even though I have only read a small selection of his rather long bibliography list, I could certainly recognize the various themes he also often uses in his other books in this story. The gorey, visceral account of the murders on the prostitutes, and the historical setting with a war background? Yep, that's something I've seen in Shimada's work. The pedantic 'scientific paper' where he digs deeper and deeper in a topic and ends up with a very, very long treatise on something, even though ultimately only 10% is actually directly relevant to the main plot? Yep, seen that in a lot of his longer works. And the fantasy-world setting that has is obviously connected to themes of psychology and suppressed dreams? Shimada has written several mystery novels with that theme.

What Shimada set out to do with Alcatraz Gensou was to incorporate all these themes he had used in previous works in one single work, but the result is a novel that's at the same time too eclectic and too focused: Alcatraz Gensou is about various themes Shimada likes writing about, but also only about that. The tonal shift between the chapters is enormous, so we're talking not about a Monster of Frankenstein made with all human parts, but like a torso of a human, the legs of a horse and tentacles for arms. It's in the epilogue that Shimada sews these radically different parts together with an 'explanation' as to how the four narratives are precisely connected, but it's mostly for show: the connecting tissue is fittingly enough also a theme Shimada likes to write about in his works, but this epilogue is mostly connected to the latter two chapters, so the first two chapters feel very detached and unneccesary for the 'overarching plot' as proposed in the epilogue. Alcatraz Gensou is a mystery novel in a broad sense of the term, but don't start with the book expecting anything conventional or even anything similar to what's available now in English by Shimada, because it's simply not what most people would expect from a detective novel.

By the way, the title Alcatraz Gensou has to be a reference to Pegasus Gensou (Fantasy), the legendary opening song to Saint Seiya, right? 

Alcatraz Gensou is a work only Shimada could've written, but I think it's really aimed at a very, very specific target audience, and I certainly am not part of that. As a mystery novel, it's just too chaotic and vague and exactly because this book uses a lot of the themes Shimada used in previous books, there's actually surprisingly little that actually... surprises. It's a book that allowed Shimada to revisit themes he likes, but you'll have to ask yourself whether you like Shimada's underlying themes enough and whether you'll settle for something that is less of a coherent mystery story, and more like a smörgåsbord of ideas.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司『アルカトラズ幻想』