Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Dubious Doctor

Medice, cura te ipsum

Am I the only one who has to think of Agatha Christie upon seeing the cover of today's book? I am sure I have a few Christie pockets that have the exact same cover style/concept.

After the unfortunate accident that took Dr. Gilbert Henderson's life, his business partner Alan Turner took over their doctor's practice and in the two months that have passed, thing started to settle down again. Many years ago, Henderson settled down in the town of Silbridge, not too far away from Glasgow and started his GP's office for the higher segment of the town population. After losing his first wife, with whom he had two children, Henderson re-married with the beautiful Elizabeth Fairgrieve. Alan later become Henderson's business partner, occupying the living quarters above the practice, which is connected directly to the Henderson residence next door. Alan also became good friends with the Hendersons personally. The connecting door between the two residences was always kept unlocked, more often than not, they'd all have supper together. It were also Elizabeth and Alan who first found the body of Henderson lying dead in the doctor's practice in the night: it appeared Henderson had slipped and knocked himself out as he was lighting the gas stove, and that he had suffocated. Elizabeth moved back to London after Henderson's death, changing her name back to Fairgrieve and with that things died down.

But rumors soon start to spread after Elizabeth returns to Silbridge, two months after Henderson's death. Alan had informed Elizabeth that her father was in a critical state and that he could pass away soon, but there are some in town who suspect that Alan and Elizabeth are having an affair and had even spent a night together soon before Henderson's death, and that they, being the ones who 'discovered' Henderson's body, had actually killed him. What's more, there are quite some people who are very eager to repeat these rumors, including Mayor Hackett (the uncle of Alan's fiancée Joan) and while Joan and her family are perhaps not convinced Alan's a killer, they do believe Elizabeth is bad business and want Alan to cut all ties with her as soon as possible. Which is easier said than done, because Elizabeth confides to Alan that someone has sent her note in London threatening her to return to Silbridge and soon after her arrival, she's attacked by someone. She suspect it has to with Henderson's death and implores Alan to help her, knowing that nobody else in this town is willing to believe her. Alan thus struggles with the wish to help Elizabeth, while also not wanting to alienate the others in his life in D.M. Devine's Doctors Also Die (1962).

I don't recall exactly when I first heard of Doctors Also Die, but I think I was looking for interesting whodunnits in the vein of Ellery Queen and the logic school and it was mentioned somewhere. It had been on the radar for a while, but the book wasn't in print anymore and used copies were going for quite a lot more than I was willing to pay for it, so I kinda forgot about the title until I realized there was a Japanese version in print and easily available. In general, I try to read books in the original language if I can read them that way (not that I know that many languages, but I can read four comfortably), but yeah, if the options are to read a translated version or a used copy going for ten times the price of a normal book, I'm not going to stick to the original text. I had never read anything by Devine by the way, and while the original Doctors Also Die isn't in print at this moment, some of his other books are still easily available.

Anyway, getting back to the reason why I first became interested in this book, I do have to make clear right away that this isn't really a whodunnit in the style of Queen, so no long lists of characteristics which apply to the murderer and where you gather clues like who's left and righthanded and who knew what at what time to cross off people of the suspect list. That said, Doctors Also Die is a cleverly written whodunnit, which coincidentally also reminds me of a certain Ellery Queen novel: Calamity Town, as both books feature limited casts, set in small rural towns with rumors and gossip playing a big role in the story. I did enjoy Doctors Also Die a lot more than Calamity Town though, as the mystery is plotted a bit more tightly. 

The story starts with Alan reminiscing about Henderson's death two months ago, and realizing that it's only now he himself is starting to believe that Henderson's death wasn't an accident. However, if it was murder, it seems very few people could have committed the crime: Henderson was in the doctor's office after hours, but obviously, the door was locked at that hour, so only people with the key or people inside the house could've gone in (the latter being Alan himself and Elizabeth). And Henderson hadn't even planned to stay in the practice after hours at first, so how did the murderer know where to find their victim? Alan tries to poke around in town to see what he can find, but people are very reluctant to help as everyone seems to hate Elizabeth and even after she's attacked, the local police detective Munro (a friend of Alan) seems more inclined to believe the attack on Elizabeth was fake than that there's something bigger developing. But as the story goes on, we learn that Henderson had more than a few secrets and it's certainly not only his wife who might have wanted him dead.

What Devine does really well is playing the whodunnit game to is fullest with a very limited cast. The focus of suspicion goes from one character to another, and as the story develops, it'll seem like any one of them could've had a reason or an opportunity to kill Henderson, but this is done without making it feel like the game is too open. A mystery novel where it seems anyone could've done it is not interesting, as basically all bets are off until some kind of decisive clue appears at the end of the story which points arbitrarily at one character. In Doctors Also Die, suspicion keeps shifting between characters because new information is learned that seems to cross off one character and perhaps implicate another, only for more information to pop up that changes things. It's the flow of new, relevant data, that keeps this whodunnit plot running, which makes it an entertaining read. And it's at the end where you really see how skilfull Devine's plotting was, as he uses this controlled flow of information throughout this novel to cleverly divert your suspicion away from the culprit. In hindsight, Devine' at times very brazenly offers information that allows you to guess who the killer is even in the earliest stages of the book, but he weaves such a carefully web of how the information is presented to the reader, it's easy to be fooled by him. I think an attentive reader could very well figure the thing out early on if they just happen to see the 'correct shape', but I have to admit I was fooled. Doctors Also Die may not have some brillant locked room murder or a grand deduction scene where everything comes together, but it's a good example of using the storytelling and the careful plotting of how information reaches the reader to create a capable whodunnit.

Your mileage may vary on the protagonist though. The story is also very much focused on Alan's love life as he's goes back and forth between the attractive Elizabeth and his fiancée Joan. Elizabeth has obviously been interested in Alan even before Henderson's death and it's not like Alan really rejected her. Meanwhile, Joan and her family at first appear very supportive of Alan, but as the novel goes on, we find they all can be rather ugly beneath their masks, as they reveal more and more of their abnormal, collective dislike of Elizabeth. The wavering Alan, who wants to help Elizabeth but also stay on the good side of his fiancée and the rest of town, makes for a frustrating protagonist at times, but at least this part of the story is also used to make the mystery plot more interesting, with information reaching Alan (and the reader) more difficultly because of the slowly changing town sentiment regarding himself.

Doctors Also Die was D.M. Devine's second novel, but it has certainly made me interested in the rest of his work. Doctors Also Die is a whodunnit that does a surprisingly great job at creating an amusing mystery story with a limited cast and setting thanks to a very cleverly plotted story structure, which allows Devine to keep pointing the finger of accussation at others in a natural manner and still present a conclusion that feels satisfying for indeed, all the clues had been fairly shown and you really should have seen it coming. I'm definitely going to read more of Devine in the future.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Ghost of a Chance

Affirmati non neganti incumbit probatio
The burden of proof lies upon him who asserts, not upon him who denies

While the title of today's book sounds weird without the context, it works excellent as a memorable catchphrase in this book!

Fifteen years ago, when Rize was only six or seven, her mother joined the cult Apolutrosis, a doomsday cult that combined both Christian and Shinto concepts. The two moved to the small community of the leader of Apolutrosis and his followers, a village with exactly thirty-three inhabitants located in a kind of valley, surrounded by high cliffs and only accessible through a tunnel through said cliffs. The people of the cult had mostly distanced themselves from the outside world, their livelihood dependent on the simple farm they had, the waterfall and river that crossed their village and the occasional trade with nearby villages. Life was tough of course, but not horrible, and Rize also had one friend in the village: Douni, a teenage boy, and the two were the only children in the village and dreamed of escaping together one day. One fateful day, an earthquake stopped the waterfall's run, resulting in a dried-up river. The cult leader saw this as a sign of upcoming doom, and after blowing up the tunnel (the only exit out of the village) with explosives and a long ceremony, he called his followers to the house of prayer. The followers were to close their eyes and pray, but when Rize took a peek, she witnessed a horrible sight: the leader was chopping everybody's head off with an axe! Rize, who had injured her leg during the earthquake, was quickly carried away by Douni, who locked the house of prayer from the outside. Rize passed out during the escape, but when she came by, she was confronted with something even more horrifying: the chopped-of head of Douni, lying next to his body! Rize was lying in the shrine in a cave near the waterfall, but she has no idea what had happened to her and Douni after she fainted. It took more than a week after the horrible mass suicide for help from outside to arrive, but when the authorities investigated the case, they realized this was no ordinary case.

For inside the house of prayer, which was locked from the outside by Douni during their escape, they came across 31 dead bodies. Adding Douni and Rize means all the villagers were accounted for, but if the leader killed thirty people inside the house and then himself, who was the person who murdered Douni? As Rize was the only living person outside the locked house of prayer, but inside the village, it appears she must've been the murderer, but that scenario too is impossible: Douni was decapitated with the guillotine blade they used on their stock, but not only did she not have any reason to kill her only friend, the young Rize could not possibly have used that to kill Douni: either she'd have needed to carry the blade to the murder scene to cut Douni's head off on the spot, or she would have needed to carry Douni's decapitated head and body to the cave after cutting it off, but considering her age and build, it would've been physically impossible for her to do either of those things, and that's not even considering her injured leg at the time. Any of the adults could've killed Douni, but there were all locked inside the house, and no outsider could've come inside the village unseen due to the security measures set around the cliffs. 15 years later, Rize still doesn't know why and how Douni was murdered after their escape. She decides to visit the private detective Ueoro Jou and his "business partner" Fulin, an underworld money shark who still has to collect a lot from Ueoro. She wants Ueoro to find out what happened, but also confides in them that she vaguely remembers she was carrying a head while they escaped from the house of worship, and the only explanation she can think off is that Douni must've already been decapitated when they were escaping from the house of worship, and that he only died after making locking the rest up in the house and making sure Rize was safe. This sound quite unbelievable of course, because that would be nothing less than a miracle, and yet that's exactly what Ueoro Jou hopes the answer will be: for he actually believes in miracles. But the only way to prove that an incident is a miracle, is by proving that all possible logical theories can't provide a satisfying explanation to all events: the impossible can only be proven by the denial of all thinkable possibilities. In Inoue Magi's Sono Kanousei wa Sude ni Kangaeta ("That Possibility Has Already Been Considered" 2015), the detective's quest is not find the truth, but to prove that some things on this world can only be explained as a miracle!

A book with an amazing premise: Ueoro desperately wants to find a genuine miracle, an event that can not be explained according to human knowledge and his method thus involves considering each possible solution and prove that they are wrong. Interestingly, this happens very quickly and off-screen: the next time we see Ueoro after he is hired by Rize, he has already compiled a bookwork that explains how every possible explanation can be ruled out, and that therefore her experience is a true miracle. It's at this point that Ueoro and Fulin are visited by some familiar faces from their pasts, who seem intent on showing that Ueoro is in fact wrong, and that there are still possibilities left unexplored by Ueoro. Each of these visitors come up with outrageous theories that make the events in the village seemingly and theoretically possible and it's up to Ueoro (and occasionally Fulin) to prove that even those possibilities are actually impossible.

The result is a story that is truly unlike any other mystery novel, because the goal of this book is not to arrive at the single truth at the end of the book, but deny all possible solutions. This results in a very different approach to the detective story. The various solutions proposed by the visitors for example are never meant to be theories that actually explain what happened in the village, and everyone is aware of that. Some of them paint Rize as the murderer of course, even though the proposers themselves don't actually believe she did it. But as long as the possibility that the theory can be correct exists, Ueoro has to find a way to refute them. While the theories proposed have to be based on the known facts, that still allows a lot of room for theories that might sound a bit far-fetched, but which are undeniably possible. The theories are very entertaining, each focusing on a different aspect of the mystery (for example: a brilliant idea to show how the blade could have been moved) and they very cleverly use everything presented in the introduction to weave a completely plausible possibility of how everyone besides Rize ended up dead. Each of these solutions would've worked perfectly as a memorable solution on their own (the first one is amazing) and it's absolutely baffling how author Inoue managed to come up with three radically different, and surprising solutions based on the same basic setting. Equally impressive is the fact that Ueoro uses the same facts to not just prove that these theories are not what happened, he proves that they're simply impossible, denying the possibility of them entirely. Little facts here and there are put together that make it clear that the premise of each of those theories doesn't work, but it's always only after Ueoro points those facts out that you realize those theories wouldn't have worked in the first place and that the evidence had been staring at you all the time.

Your mileage may vary on the characters that appear though. It has a bit of a hardboiled action film vibe, with Fulin as some kind of expert on Chinese torture methods, and people from the underworld popping up here and there to challenge Ueoro and Fulin in deduction battles and what not. The book plays this pretty seriously, which in turn made it for me very hard to take it seriously, because it was just so weird and I never did really get attached to the characters, but perhaps another reader might like them better.

The last third of the novel starts off with a surprising and very memorable point made about Ueoro's methods which seem to nullify everything he has done until that point, but afterwards the discussion becomes more a meta-discussion and the focus shifts away from the actual mystery of the village, so it depends on the reader whether you'll like this part. If you like discussions on the Proof of the Devil like in Umineko no Naku Koro ni, you might like this last part of the book better than I did, because it's a bit like the discussions in those games in spirit, but like the book itself later points out, ultimately it's not that big of a deal. The ending of the book was also a bit disappointing: considering the set-up of the book, it was quite likely this would be the way the story would eventually wrap up, but it does make a lot of the story feel rather futile, despite the earlier battles of the wits being quite amusing.

Because of its unique angle, Sono Kanousei wa Sude ni Kangaeta might not be the kind of detective story that'll appeal to everyone: the plot will meander a lot, and because the goal of the story is to not arrive at the solution, a lot of what happens will just seem useless in hindsight. If you like Ellery Queen-style mysteries and the long chains of deductions that occur there though, this is a great book! It has battles of the wits, impressively built lines of reasoning built on brilliant interpretations of the known facts and evidence and likewise memorable and meticulously built-up rebukes of those theories. The book might get a bit philosophical near the end, but still, a fantastic read for those who're into this stuff.

Original Japanese title(s): 井上真偽『その可能性はすでに考えた』

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

A Figure in Hiding

"It's alive, it's moving, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, IT'S ALIVE!"

I have seen a real Japanese karakuri puppet/automaton up close once at an exhibition here. They look really cool, especially as the mechanisms are mostly hidden from sight. It was pretty funny to see the automaton placed next to a Pepper too.

Tokyo Ad Planning Service (TAPS) is in charge of the marketing campaign of an upcoming exhibition on Japanese automata (karakuri puppets), which is why Sawako of TAPS finds herself working with Yamato Haruka, a famous British-Japanese visual designer whose real name is actually Yamato Harker. Yamato gladly takes the job to design some posters for the exhibition, but as he knows very little about Japanese automata, Sawako arranges for them to meet with Professor Kagura, an expert on Japanese automata. Yuria, the professor's assistant and adopted daughter, decides to bring Sawako and Yamato to a temple in Shinjuku with an automatic fountain designed by Benkichi, the famous nineteenth century inventor and karakuri puppet creator. Yuria's brother Romao plays in the rock band Android and also happens to be holding a concert at the temple that evening. Yamata and Sawako are also invited to the afterparty of the concert, where they meet Romao, his girlfriend Kiriko, her wealthy father Kashima Daiji and Daiji's mistress Ukita Mihiro, a well-known actress. Being an automaton collector himself, Daiji invites Sawako and Yamato to his home to view some pieces, but when they try out the automaton that can write on a piece of paper, they find that the paper says "Benkichi Won't Allow That". The bad prank seems to have some effect on Daiji, even though the other people present can't imagine what the message could ever mean. When however Kiriko later dies in a traffic accident which apparently wasn't just an accident and another threatening surfaces which mentions a Automaton House, Yamato decides to put on his amateur-detective cap on and investigate the case thoroughly in Takahashi Katsuhiko's Karakurikan no Satsujin ("The Automaton House Murders, 1990).

While his The Case of the Sharaku Murders is available in English, I do believe this is the very first time I picked up a book by Takahashi Katsuhiko. The title however did already give me an idea of what I could expect from this book: ever since The Decagon House Murders, there've been countless of mystery novels that follow the exact same[something]-kan no satsujin title pattern and all similarly feature stories set in unique buildings as the backdrop for the murder mystery plot. Some play the trope very straight, like Atsukawa Tatsumi's Gurenkan no Satsujin, others are a bit more tongue-in-cheek, like the novels in Aosaki Yuugo's Urazome Tenma series, which are not set in curiously designed manors or country houses, but public buildings like a library and a gymnasium. Still, the books that follow this title pattern usually do have a lot in common, being that the stories are often closed circle murder mysteries, set in the cramped space of one confined location that has a very specific theme (often reflected in the architecture/layout/interior), with the backstory or architecture of the specific location often playing a significant role in the actual mystery plot. Given that Karakurikan no Satsujin was named after the famous Japanese automata, I was looking forward to a plot that'd make use of these primitive robots.

And I was let down hard. Because very few of the things you'd expect based on the title alone come true in this novel. To give the most obvious example: while the titular Automaton House is mentioned briefly in the prologue, the main narrative doesn't arrive at the actual location until three-quarters into the book.  So no closed circle murder mystery plot here, no creepy scenes of a house filled with automata that might've committed the murders, none of that. Instead, the novel takes a long time to set-up the late visit to the Automaton House, with an investigation that isn't that interesting to be honest. For while the death of Kiriko occurs relatively soon in the novel, as do the threatening notes signed by Benkichi, the plot seems mostly concerned with speculation that is ultimetely based on very little hard information, so the first three-quarters of the plot just feel too vague. Kiriko's death isn't even a clear murder, but perhaps just an unlucky accident, and while Yamato and Sawako (and the motley crew made up by Yamato's local friends) do speculate a lot about her death and the tie it has to the threatening letters to her father, there's just too little to really keep the reader engaged with the plot at this point: there might be a murder, but there might also not be, and while the hypotheses Yamato and Sawako have regarding Daiji and why's afraid of the name Benkichi are interesting, these discussions are based on so little it's basically pure imagination, which tends to be bad plot fuel in a detective plot.

By the time we do get to the Automaton House (which is named so because of its exterior appearance), there's just so little time left we barely get to see it, and it never really manages to make an impression. Even a late murder does little to really get the plot going, and by the time you're done with the book, it just feels too little happened that allowed the detectives to really do anything of significance. A lot of what they end up doing is based on nearly baseless speculation and when the dust has settled and everything is explained, it still feels like a) the presence of the detectives amounted to nothing and b) ultimately, the plot feels slightly arbitrary, because the solution revolves mainly about the motive of the murderer, but that's only mentioned in the very end, so it kinda feels like anyone could've been the murderer if the author had made up a motive for them. There's no real moment during the last act where it all clicks in hindsight, which is usually what makes a mystery novel work.

There's a lot of historical context mentioned in this novel regarding Benkichi and his business partner Zeniya Gohei, which is certainly interesting. As a mystery novel with a historical subplot, Karakurikan no Satsujin touches upon a theme that's pretty interesting for Japanese readers, as the idea of automatoa and primitive robots has a lot in common with concepts of trick art, secret hallways and doors like you see in a lot of other mystery fiction that follow the aforementioned title pattern and it's quite fun to learn more about the history of automata in Japan. The story does focus more on Benkichi and Zeniya as actual historical persons and their personal lifes, rather than their creations: sadly enough this book isn't about some killer automaton created centuries ago or something like that. Personally, I would have preferred to have seen the Japanese automata themselves featured more prominently in the plot, not the historical context surrounding them, but for those with an interest in history, this book definitely has something to offer. If you're familiar with the (fictional) historical person Kichiemon from Detective Conan, you probably have an idea of what kind of person Benkichi was and what he worked on.

Karakurikan no Satsujin wasn't quite my cup-of-tea-made-by-an-automaton: while the historical context of automata and Benkichi is interesting, the core murder plot itself feels a bit empty, and while a lot of the historical exposition is captivating, you sometimes just wonder why it's mentioned at that moment because now the characters aren't even theorizing or making hypotheses, they're purely imagining things, which makes this mini-lectures feel rather forced at times. Holding my expectations based solely on the title against this book isn't fair either of course, but even setting those thoughts aside, I think Karakurikan no Satsujin's plot doesn't quite match the potential of the automaton theme.

Original Japanese title(s): 高橋克彦『偶人館の殺人』

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Dungeons & Detectives

"I'm Dungeon Master, your guide in the realm of Dungeons and Dragons."

"Dungeons and Dragons"

I do like playing JRPGs, but they tend to take so long I usually only end up playing one or two of them a year....

Several years ago, the existence of ESP was proven beyond any doubt. However, the research field of ESP is still very young, partially because few people actually possess the innate skill to harness these special powers, which can manifest in various forms, ranging from psychokinesis and levitation to healing powers, foresight and more. What is apparent however is that younger people are more likely to show signs of being an esper, which is why the government-backed ESP Laboratory, headed by the very young, but undeniable top-class esper Tokino Imawa, does school tours to educate teenagers about ESP and to see if they can find new espers among these children. Imawa and her entourage visit the high school of Kenzaki, once a gifted practioner of kendo, but who gave up the sword after failing to save a friend. After the initial speech to all the students in the gymnasium, Imawa and her party are supposed to do smaller class demonstrations, but Imawa excuses herself for a moment. The next time people see her however, she's dead: her body's found lying on the school's baseball field, but strangely enough there are no foot tracks left on the wet field. They have no time to consider this strange murder scene however, for suddenly the whole school is completely enveloped by black walls, seperating it from the rest of the world and horrible monsters appear in and outside the school

One monster instantly kills one of the people who discovered Imawa's body and the rest barely make it back inside the school. Classes have barricaded themselves inside their classrooms when a voice suddenly resonates throughout the school. The voice identifies himself as the Demon King and says that the school is now under his control, placed it its own pocket dimension where nobody from outside can reach it. The monsters are of course his doing and he challenges the students at the school, saying that the only way to escape from the school is defeat him. However, in order to find his hiding place inside the school, the students have to gather map pieces, which lie scattered across the school or held by the roaming monsters. But the students aren't helpless: during this challenge, the powers of every person in the school is heightened and everyone can use their own field of expertise or hobby in highly-powered offensive and defensive manners to defeat the monsters. Kenzaki for example can pick up any stick-like object which changes it into an actual sword, making him a master swordsman, a classmate who pitches for the baseball team can throw energy baseballs at the monsters, while others with some ESP affinity can now use their powers in more concrete manners. Like a Japanese RPG, students can level up and become stronger by defeating the monsters and learn new skills. Thus the students are forced to explore the school and fight the monsters, but Kenzaki teams up with Mira, one of the espers in Imawa's party, to investigate Imawa's death and find it out what that has to do with the current situation in Hayasaka Yabusaka's 2015 novel RPG School.

I've been quite open about my love for mystery fiction with supernatural settings, and RPG School is just a splendid example of how both silly and utterly exciting these books can be! Last year, I reviewed the Nintendo DS game Sigma Harmonics, a Japanese RPG which told a murder mystery story. RPG School is the opposite basically, being a murder mystery novel (with a YA theme) which takes on the form and structure of  classic Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. It doesn't take long for the story to introduce the RPG plot, which turns a normal high school into a giant quest map for the students, with very high leveled monsters roaming outside, while 'beginner level' monsters are making the corridors and classrooms unsafe. There are also little neat moments like all smartphones having been modified to act as a Pokédex/Monster Encylopedia, which allows the user to read up on the power levels and skills of any enemy they defeated (it only registers the name if you encounter an enemy, but not defeat it). Students also become stronger with every monster they defeat, allowing them to learn new skills to combat the foes. Any gamer will soon recognize the tropes and it's pretty funny to see a familiar setting like a school turned into the world of an RPG.

Last year, I happened to review Kadono Kouhei's Satsuryuu Jiken - A Case of Dragonslayer, which I described as "a fantasy novel, where the heroes happen to be dealing with a seemingly impossible murder case, rather than mystery story that happens to involve fantasy elements." I would say however that RPG School manages to stay more firmly within the realms of the mystery genre and despite the fantasy game-like background of the story, it's ultimately a cleverly-plotted tale of mystery, even if about three-quarters of the book initially only seems to be about the students exploring the school, fighting monsters and trying to locate the Demon King. The quest for the map pieces seems to take center position at first, with scenes detailing how Kenzaki, Mira and their allies fight the monsters, but there are also 'typical' sidequests and other intriques that spice up the narrative with some mysterious flavor, like an unknown masked figure popping up now and then who seems to have a completely other agenda than just finding map pieces or Kenzaki having to backtrack through the school to find certain witnesses while he's investigating Imawa's murder. This investigation is made difficult by the fact that Imawa's body lies outside on the baseball field of course, with high-level monsters wandering around who can't be defeated just yet by Kenzaki and Mira at first (so they have to level up first), so the reader might find this a weird detective novel to read, as a lot of what's normal in a mystery story can't be done here due to fantasy monsters roaming around.

Nonetheless, RPG School makes sure you remember that you're reading a detective novel at all times and that it's actually about an impossible crime, of some sorts. For while Imawa's body was found on a wet field without any footsteps around (the no-footsteps-in-the-snow pattern), the fact that there are espers around the school who can use psychokinesis to move objects and also a genuine Demon King and fantastical monsters in the school changes the kind of deductions you usually make in such detective stories. For why would you move Imawa's body there, leaving no footprints on the field? Who could give Imawa a lethal blow in the first place, as she's the most powerful esper in the country? While offensive ESP like combustion and psychokinesis do exist in this world, they have fairly well defined limits and it's unlikely anyone could've used that to attack Imawa, so while at first sight, you'd think that the existence of ESP and monsters would simplify the problem, it actually adds another dimension to a very familiar trope of the genre, making RPG School a fun read. 

It's during the endgame that you really realize that this story did really tell a proper puzzle plot mystery through the form of a JRPG, and that you were not just reading a fantasy adventure story, which also happened to include a murder investigation subplot. In the finale, it's shown that a lot of the adventures Kenzaki and Mira experienced in the school, also act as viable clues to figure out who the murderer of Imawa is and how the crime was committed. The RPG-touches like battles with monsters, Pokédex entries and the exploration of the school all turn out to be very important information in order to logically solve the murder, and it's a great feat of Hayasaka. Sigma Harmonics had some nice ideas to link up the murder mystery plot to the mechanics of the RPG: RPG School does a great job at using RPG tropes and mechanics to present a puzzle plot murder mystery.

If there's one 'gripe' I have with the book is that ultimately, the reason for why the school suddenly turned into an RPG is a bit handwavey. It's just an excuse to actually introduce the RPG element into the story, and while it does work well with the underlying YA theme of this novel, you really shouldn't consider the 'why are they now suddenly in an RPG setting?" as part of the main mystery to be solved. 

But overall, I enjoyed RPG School greatly, as a mystery story that cleverly utilizes the JRPG game genre to tell a very unique, but also satisfying impossible crime detective story. I'd love to see an anime series based on this though! It has the isekai-themery going on of course, and some other themes would've worked better if the story had more time to provide depth (it's a fairly short novel) to the characters and the RPG-structure of the tale of course lends it well for a series that slowly works towards a big confrontation with the Demon King. Anyway, definitely worth a read if you're into detective stories and RPGs, or just into original mystery stories.

Original Japanese title(s): 早坂吝『RPGスクール』

Saturday, July 3, 2021

The Good Old Days

 Please Set Disk Card 
(Famicom Disk System boot-up screen)

Remasters, reboots and remakes are quite common now in visual media, ranging from every other movie released nowadays being a reboot or remake and videogames often getting a 'remastered' rerelease just a few years after the original release, and reboots/remakes aren't anything near rare either when it comes to that interactive medium. I don't think it's common in literature though, at least, I honestly can't really think of any good examples right now. It's not like we get a reboot or remake of an existing, well-known series of mystery novels every few years... 

If you have been following this blog since about earlier this year, you might have noticed me mentioning how much I was looking forward to the Nintendo Switch remakes of the first two Famicom Detective Club videogames. The original Famicom Detective Club was released in 1988 on the Famicom (The Japanese version of the NES), the sequel a year later and it was one of the earliest console mystery adventure games. While some might not immediately associate Nintendo with murder mystery, these two games brought classical murder mystery plots, where you played a teenage detective-in-training solving bloody murders in a remote village with a creepy legend about people rising from their graves (Part I) or investigating a murder on a schoolgirl and the victim's connection to the school's urban legend (Part II). The second game, Famicom Detective Club Part II The Girl Who Stands Behind, was remade as an (excellent!!) Super Famicom (SNES) game in 1998 and that was actually one of the first Japanese adventure games I ever played, so I have always had a soft spot for the series. That is also why I wrote a short article on the whole series ten years ago and more recently, I also discussed the two (fun!) choose-your-own-adventure books based on the first and second game in the series. 

When it was announced in 2019 that Nintendo would be making remakes of the first two games, I was absolutely thrilled, because the series had been dormant since 1998 and to be honest, I hadn't really expected them revisit the series again even though for the last ten years, each time Nintendo had one of their Nintendo Direct announcements, I was hoping for something, anything. Naturally, I was a bit disappointed when the games didn't make their original 2020 release, but I was there to pick the Collector's Edition of the two games when they were finally released in May 2021. Interestingly, this was also the very first time these games were made available outside of Japan, introducing a whole new audience to the (nameless) protagonist, fellow assistant Ayumi and the Utsugi Detective Agency. 

So I got the games in May, completed them pretty much right away... and then kept postponing writing a review about them. Given that I had been talking about looking forward to the remakes all this time, so readers of the blog may have been surprised I didn't write about them. Was it because the remakes were bad? No, that wasn't it. The reason was something very simple: I didn't know what to write about. Like mentioned before, I had already written about these games once ten years ago, and it was just a few years ago I read and reviewed the choose-your-own-adventure books, and they too followed the same plots. What could I write about the new releases of Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir and Famicom Detective Club: The Girl Who Stands Behind what I hadn't mentioned before? That's one problem with remakes, if you have already discussed the original and there's a fairly faithful remake, there's not really much you can talk about besides making direct comparisons, but that's only interesting for the few people who are interested in both the original and the remake. So for a while, I was considering skipping the review completely.

As you can guess by now, the Switch remakes of Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir and Famicom Detective Club: The Girl Who Stands Behind are, all in all, quite faithful to the original games. Yes, the graphics are completely new, fantastic newly arranged soundtrack based on the original and every single line is voiced, even the monologues (Minaguchi Yuuko returns as Ayumi!). So in terms of visuals and audio, the remakes look and sound like modern games, but the plots of the two games, and even most of the game design is still the same as the late eighties originals. Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir starts with the protagonist waking up at a beach with amnesia, only to slowly piece together he's the assistant of the private detective Utsugi and that he had been investigating the death of Ayashiro Kiku, the matriarch of the Ayashiro Clan living in the small village of Myoujin. Her butler isn't quite sure whether her death was natural, and as there's much ado about her will, which has provisions for her three nephews/niece, but mostly benefits her missing daughter who ran away many years ago, the protagonist was asked to look into Kiku's death. During the investigation, we learn of a local legend that says the Ayashiros are cursed and there are even villagers who claim to have seen Kiku rise from her grave. When one of Kiku's nephews is killed however, it's clear something foul is at play. Famicom Detective Club: The Girl Who Stands Behind is set a few years before the first game, and has the protagonist investigating the murder on a female high school student, whose body had been dumped in the river. The protagonist is sent to her Ushimitsu High School to investigate her final movements, which puts him on the trail of a ghost story: the victim Shinobu and her friend Ayumi formed a detective club, where they investigated all kinds of stories. In the days before her murder, Shinobu had been investigating the school's ghost story about a bloody female student suddenly appearing behind people, and it's believed this is somehow connected to Shinobu's murder.

The remakes of these two games are on the whole very faithful remakes of the originals, with most of the dialogue lines completely the same as the original (the remake of Famicom Detective Club: The Girl Who Stands Behind is based on the 1998 Super Famicom remake by the way, which added some extra features: these are also intact in the Switch remake). There are a few minor scenes changed a bit, but you can basically use a walkthrough for the original Famicom versions and still navigate your way through the remake without any real problems. The gameplay is also rather familar and traditional: you use commands to guide your character to for example talk with someone about certain topics, or to show them evidence you have obtained, and by for example talking about topic X to witness Y, you're able to move to location A to talk with Z about topic X, which leads to another story development, etc. Famicom Detective Club was one of the earliest games to use this format for adventure games and it's been a staple since, so no surprises here. In the original games, finding the right commands to proceed in the story could be a bit frustrating because sometimes you have to ask a person the same question multiple times or sometimes a story flag is activated by finishing an action that seems completely unrelated, but fortunately, the QOL change from the Super Famicom remake of Part II can be found in both Switch remakes, which highlight some commands if something significant has changed. So while the stories are still the same as the originals, these remakes are definitely easier/less frustrating to play (this holds especially for Part I). The games aren't long though, each game probably won't take even ten hours.

As specifically mystery games though, these games are more about atmosphere than really making the player solve a mystery themselves. You're just brought from one story development to another and the best the games do to "challenge" your mental skills is basically just to ask you a question once in a while to check whether you have been paying attention. So don't expect to be actually solving the case yourself by going over the evidence, you're just there to enjoy the ride. Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir is interestingly strongly and obviously influenced by Yokomizo Seishi's work: the story set in a remote village, about a missing heir, convoluted wills, a cursed clan and a legend of corpses rising from their graves doesn't even try to hide its inspiration. So if you like the Kindaichi stories, this might be a fun game to try out as there are few videogames available in English that go for the same vibe (Higurashi: When They Cry I guess...). Famicom Detective Club: The Girl Who Stands Behind is interesting now I think about it as it's a murder mystery set at a high school, but the original game was released long before Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo and Detective Conan made the setting popular. So as a school mystery, it predates the big titles with 3, 4 years. But if you like those titles, you'll be right at home with Famicom Detective Club: The Girl Who Stands Behind. I'd say The Girl Who Stands Behind is by far the best game of the two, with a story that is also presented with more confidence than the first one, but The Missing Heir definitely has its charms too due to the unique setting and a better set-up to the final confrontation with the murderer.

Just speaking of these games as remakes, I have to say I like the effort poured into them to preserve the original spirit. The V-tuber-esque characters can look a bit weird, especially when compared to the phenomonal sprite artwork in the Super Famicom version of Famicom Detective Club: The Girl Who Stands Behind, but the overall design is good. The original games were set in the period of release (the late eighties). This is of course reflected in the story, where nobody has a mobile and you have A LOT of scenes where people use the phones of whomever they are visiting or that people have to tell others where they can be reached. But the artwork of the backgrounds also do a fantastic job at invoking this eighties vibe (the shopping streets especially!) and I'm glad these games still like games from the eighties, even though they are made thirty years later. The remakes also have a very welcome option to use the old soundtracks (so Famicom music for The Missing Heir, and both Famicom and Super Famicom soundtracks for The Girl Who Stands Behind). If they had also included the actual original games too in these remakes, it would have been perfect, but that's perhaps too much to ask.

So as a fan of the original games, I did enjoy the Switch remakes of Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir and Famicom Detective Club: The Girl Who Stands Behind, but I can't really call them surprising. They are really just 'what if we gave the original games a new coat of paint' remakes, and in terms of story and gameplay are almost identical to the originals down to the scene and line. For a lot of people this will be the first time they get to play these games though, and they might be a bit disappointed in learning how eighties they really are, and I do think it's best to be aware that as remakes, it's mostly the visuals and audio that changed and that the core is still an old-fashioned, eighties adventure game. I for one hope that these remakes pave the way for more Famicom Detective Club, be it a remake of BS Detective Club or a brand-new sequel, but regardless of what may or may not follow, I had fun with these two games.