Saturday, August 28, 2021

The Unnatural

「冷たい影」(Garnet Crow)
From the chilly skies, comes falling light snow that melts away
You see how everything is being swallowed by Mother Earth?
"A Cold Shadow" (Garnet Crow)

Has it been three years already? One of my favorite mystery reads of 2018 was the Sharaku Homura manga series by manga artist Nemoto Shou: originally this impossible crime-focused puzzle mystery manga had been self-published under the doujin circle name Sapporo no Rokujou Hitoma at comic conventions and other events, meaning the comics had only been available to a limited audience. In 2018 however publisher Bungeishunju (Bunshun) made the series available as e-books through all the major e-book storefronts in Japan. At the time, they published three volumes, each bundling 4, 5 issues and I devoured all three of them (reviews of the first, second and third volume here). The adventures of the clever girl detective Sharaku Homura and her assistant Yamazaki "Karate Kid" Yousuke were absolutely brilliant, combining Scooby Doo/Edogawa Rampo-esque set-ups with villains dressing up in creepy/silly costumes to scare their victims, with cleverly written and illustrated impossible crime situations. From locked rooms to impossible disappearances, the series had everything and what was surprising was both how clever the set-ups were, but also the focus on the visual aspect. Panels would hide clues in subtle ways, and you wouldn't notice until you get to the end and you see all the page references that point you back to the exact corresponding page/panel where you'll see the necessary clues had indeed been there all along for you to see.

Nemoto Shou has kept working on new issues all this time, with a new release every six months or so, so when I was notified that the fourth volume had released last week (late August), I was both surprised, and not really surprised. I knew that there'd be enough material for a fourth volume, but I hadn't expected the release to be dropped so suddenly. It was a welcome surprise of course. Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura 4 - Hagoromo no Kijo ("Sharaku Homura: Detective of the Uncanny - The Ogress With the Robe of Feathers" 2021) collects the next five issues of the comic, but readers who have been around on this blog for the last few years, will probably recognize the subtitle of this volume. For while this fourth volume was released last week, I have already reviewed three of the five issues collected in this book in the last three years. Which perhaps tells you how much I enjoy reading this series, as I honestly couldn't wait for the collected volume and wanted to read the individual issues as soon as possible each time they were released. Anyway, I already wrote extensively on the title story Hagoromo no Kijo ("The Ogress With the Robe of Feathers") in the past, and it is still one of the most memorable "no footprints in the snow" impossible crime story I have read in recent years and is definitely the must-read highlight of the volume, so it's no wonder it has been made the title story of the volume. For details, I recommend you read the review of the issue, but it's a very densily plotted mystery story with a great fleshed out backstory, false solutions and a truly original explanation for the impossible crime that appears to have been committed by a floating ghost. Two years have passed since I first read it, but it is still a brilliant impossible crime story that fans of that particular sub-genre should read.

I'll also be leaving the links to Kourei Yashiki ("The House of Necromancy") and Youtou Shikabanemaru ("The Demon Sword Shikabanemaru") here, so I won't discuss these stories in detail here anymore. These two stories don't involve murder, but other types of impossible situations (a jewel disappearing during a seance even though everyone had been tied to their chairs, and a sword that starts bleeding suddenly) and I liked the first one especially.

So for this post, I'll only be looking at the two issues included in volume 4 I hadn't read yet. Spriggan is the weird one of the collection. After purchasing a haunted jewel, the jeweler Uehara Yuuji is, well, being haunted. The jewel used to be part of a collection of a jewel collector who, in an attempt to protect his jewels from a robber, swallowed them, but was then murdered and cut open by the robber to get the jewels out of his corpse. Afterward the murderous thief was caught, the jewels were sold off by the victim's family to various parties, but every new owner has since been haunted by the ghost of the murdered collector who wants his jewels back. Since his purchase of one of these jewels, Uehara has been hearing voices around his house too, but his employees think it's just a prank of someone who must've heard about his latest purchase. Still, Uehara hasn't had any sleep since, so he decides to stay in a hotel for a while. Staying in a room on the third floor, he decides to take a nap, when suddenly he's awakened by an alarm clock he didn't set, followed by a ghostly figure opening his room door, stealing the jewel and knocking Uehara out. Uehara asks Homura to help him figure out how the ghost managed to get inside his hotel room: his room was on the third floor, with no other buildings in the neighborhood, the hotel doors lock automatically and the keycard to his room had been lying on his desk all the time and the code is changed every time a new guest arrives, meaning old keycards used by previous guests won't work on this door. The story is rather short, so Homura pretty much figures the whole thing out once she had a look at the room, though I have to say I didn't like the solution that much. The main clue hinting at how the ghost managed to open the door is slightly lacking, meaning it's difficult to come up with how the whole thing was pulled off exactly if you do recognize the significance of the main visual clue. The manner in which the impossible crime is 'dressed' and presented to Uehara/the reader is rather clever though, adding an extra layer of mistifying mystery even though at the core the problem is fairly simple. The way the title Spriggan connects to the actual contents of the story is absolutely weird though.

Kageboushi ("The Shadow Man") tells about a series of mysterious nightly abductions of people living in Block 1 of Nanjou-ku, Shimoyama City by a mysterious Shadow Man. Homura is one of the victims who is taken away during her sleep, only to wake up in a creepy forest with the mysterious Shadow Man. After some banter the Shadow Man decides to hang her down an old well, where Homura faints, but when she wakes up, she's back in her room again. It turns out more people in the neighborhood have had similar experiences during their sleep, but nobody knows why the Shadow Man is doing this. There doesn't seem to be any link between the victims besides their address, as there are male and female victims, of various ages and of various professions. The mystery first focuses on the missing link angle, which ultimately leads to the question of who and why. The matter of the missing link is so simple in its concept that I completely missed it. It's actually cleverly hidden because if you don't realize a certain fact first, you won't see the missing link at all because it doesn't seem likely. Not a very complex mystery, but it's worked out very competently, and the story even has an extra surprise by adding a Challenge to the Reader after the main mystery is solved, asking you to solve a riddle that had been hidden beneath the main story. This one is probably easier to solve than the main mystery, but still entertaining. No impossibilities this time though.

On the whole though, Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura 4 - Hagoromo no Kijo is a pretty solid volume. Of the five issues collected in this volume, I think the three issues I had reviewed already were stronger on the whole than the two issues I hadn't read yet, but overall the quality of this mystery manga is still very high, and the title story alone makes this volume worth the read. It's a phenomenal mystery story, and the other stories included also show off quite well how fantastic the visual medium of a comic works with the mystery genre. As these are self-published comics, assuming Nemoto won't stray too much from his release schedule, I guess we can expect a new volume in about three years.... but I'll likely keep my eyes wide to see if I can read the individual issues earlier than that, because the Sharaku Homura series has yet to disappoint so I'd rather read new issues sooner than later!

 Original Japanese title(s): 根本尚『怪奇探偵・写楽炎 4 羽衣の鬼女』

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Murder is no Fairy Tale

"Boys, be ambitious!"
William S. Clark

I love the unique cover art style for these books!

One of my favorite reads last year was Aoyagi Aito's Mukashi Mukashi Aru Tokoro ni, Shitai ga Arimashita ("Once Upon A Time, There Was A Body", 2019), a wonderful short story collection where Aoyagi used famous Japanese fairy tales to tell fantastic tales of mystery. While each of these stories would start in the exact same manner as they have been told for generations, Aoyagi would always add a deadly twist to the tale, transforming the fairy tale into something that was familiar, while also subverting expectations at the same time. What was equally interesting was that Aoyagi embraced the magical fairy tale worlds of each individual tale: mystical crane birds, talking fish and magical tools were all used to bring very unique, but also fair murder mystery stories which made full use of the supernatural imagery from the original stories. To my surprise, the sequel to this book was released very soon after I posted my review of Mukashi Mukashi Aru Tokoro ni, Shitai ga Arimashita and I didn't notice it until a few months later! As you may tell from the title Akazukin, Tabi no Tochu Shitai to Deau ("And On Her Way, Little Red Riding Hood Met A Corpse" 2020), this new short story collection presents four fabulous mystery stories based on European fairy tales. Unlike the previous volume however, this book also features an overarching storyline: the titular Little Red Riding Hood is travelling across the world with her basket with food and wine, but on her way, she keeps getting involved with murder cases. Because Little Red Riding Hood is in a hurry, she always finds herself forced to solve the crimes herself so she can continue her journey.

In the opening story Glass no Kutsu no Kyouhansha ("Accomplices of the Glass Slipper"), Little Red Riding Hood meets Cinderella at the river as she's washing clothes, lamenting that her stepmother and stepsisters are going to the ball of the prince, while she has to stay at home. A witch passing by decides to help the two girls out and uses her magic to give Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella wonderful dresses and a pumpkin carriage. On their way to the castle in the pumpkin carriage however, the two run over a man. In a panic, they decide to bury the body besides the road and continue their way to the ball, where Cinderella manages to impress the prince. But then a report comes that a body has been found in the forest and then Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella recall they never cleaned their carriage...

A hilarious opening story, which starts out as an inverted mystery story because it's Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella who run over the man in the carriage and try to keep their murder a secret at the ball. This part serves as an interesting introduction to the 'magical' aspects of this series, as we are clearly shown what the limits are of the magic used, and how it can be used to erase the evidence of their crime in rather simple manners. As the story progresses however, we learn the forest where they ran over the man holds more secrets and that's where this story really starts to shine: many minor events and remarks made over the course of the story suddenly form one connected line together, revealing a plot that had gone unseen until the last quarter of this story. This secondary plotline is also firmly built upon the various familiar elements from the Cinderella folk tale. It's a well-plotted intrige hiding beneath the more hilarious inverted mystery story, where Little Red Riding Hood shows you that she really isn't the young girl who got fooled by a wolf in disguise once.

In the opening scene of Amai Misshitsu no Houkai ("The Fall of the House of Sweets"), Hansel and Gretel manage to shove the evil witch into the oven in the candy house... and then the two children plot to kill their stepmother, who had been the one who had convinced their father to leave them in the forest. They manage to lure their stepmother to the gingerbread house by lying about money being hidden here and pull a cabinet down on her, crushing her beneath it. The two children return home to their woodcutter father who is delighted to see his children back safely. Little Red Riding Hood, who is travelling through these woods, is invited to stay for the night. But as the woodcutter's wife is gone now, they go looking for her, and eventually, with the guidance of the Guardian of the Wood, they find the gingerbread house, the witch in the oven and the wife beneath the cabinet. Because the gingerbread house was completely locked from the inside, it is suspected that the wife and the witch must have struggled and that eventually, the wife was crushed by the cabinet toppling over her. Little Red Riding Hood soon notices that Hansel and Gretel seem to know more about this house than they should, but how could they have killed their stepmother even though the house was locked from the inside? Again a kind of inverted story, though we don't actually see how Hansel and Gretel manage to lock the candy-house from the inside. The story is focused a lot on explaining on the 'mechanics' of the gingerbread house and the magic the witch used to create it, and at first it does seem impossible that Hansel and Gretel could've locked the delicious crime scene, even if it's made out of magic: the limits of the candy magic used are clearly defined. The solution is perhaps not as surprising as you'd expect it to be, but fair, it certainly is, and the locked room mystery here is certainly unique, as how often are you going to read a mystery about a gingerbread house!?

Nemureru Mori no Himitsutachi ("Secrets of the Sleeping Forest") is a rather unique story as it doesn't seem to have one clear defined mystery at first. Little Red Riding Hood's journey brings her to a land where a beautiful princess has been sleeping for four decades in an abandoned castle due to a curse of a witch who hadn't been invited to the ceremony to celebrate her birth. The royal family is no more, but in their place the Prime Minister is ruling the city-state until princess Aurora awakens again. Little Red Riding Hood happens to help out the Prime Minister who got stuck in the woods in his wheelchair and she is invited to spend the night at the Prime Minister's residence, where she is told the tragic story of the princess. The following morning, the Prime Minister's loyal servant Troy hears his son Melai is being accused of a murder which occured last night, but Melai denies the crime, saying he had been helping with extinguishing a big fire in an atelier in town last night. Meanwhile, a party is sent to the castle to do the monthly check-up on the princess, but they find her gone from her tower room! How are all these events connected? Well, in a convoluted way! This is an entertaining mystery story where you have a lot of threads that don't seem connected at all, but which ultimately are all brought together to form one cohesive storyline, but don't expect to solve this yourself, as while it all makes sense with the power of hindsight, it's pretty farfetched. It's amusing though, with a few semi-impossible elements to the story and there's a bigger secret behind all these chaotic events that make this story feel quite grand. The link with the Sleeping Beauty is at times a bit weak, as a lot of the story takes place in town, revolving around people who don't actually appear in the Sleeping Beauty tale, but at the same time, there are moments where it does make very good use of the unique magical elements of the fairy tale to create the complex plot of this story.

In the final story Shoujo yo, Yabou no Match wo Tomose ("Girls, Light the Match of Ambition!"), Little Red Riding Hood finally arrives at her destination, a harbor town which also houses the headquarters of the famous Little Match Girl's matches factory. However, Little Red Riding Hood's enemies know she's coming, and manage to capture and imprison her. Meanwhile, we also learn the story of the Little Match Girl who managed to climb her way up to the position of the director of one of the best-known match factories, but how are the tales of these two girls connected? The core mystery of this tale is quite different from previous ones, being closer to the strategic thrillers like Death Note or Spiral, as Little Red Riding Hood faces the problem of how she's going to escape her prison, and town, without giving up on the goal of her journey. There's an impossible angle to this mystery, as at one point Little Red Riding Hood does manage to escape her prison without the reader knowing how, but while this mystery is presented in a fair manner, it's still kind hard to solve this yourself. It would probably work better in a visual format. The highlight of this story is definitely the storyline of the Little Match Girl and her link to Little Red Riding Hood, which isn't really a mystery story on its own, but it makes for a great finale of a fun book.

Akazukin, Tabi no Tochu Shitai to Deau is in a way very similar to the previous volume, but also quite different. While the stories collected here are still wonderful retellings of familiar fairy tales to add a murderous twist while at the same time making fantastic use of the magical elements of those stories, this volume adds an extra dimension by having an overarching storyline with Little Red Riding Hood's journey. The stories are also more varied in terms of style: Mukashi Mukashi Aru Tokoro ni, Shitai ga Arimashita was definitely more focused on impossible crimes, but here we have inverted stories, mysteries where you don't even immediately see what's the matter and even a 'logic game'-esque story where Little Red Riding Hood has to outwit her foe and manage to escape her prison and still be able to accomplish her goals in town. In terms of plot quality, I think the previous volume is more consistent, but I still enjoyed this volume a lot, perhaps because it is definitely intended to be a bit different from the previous volume despite using the same core format. I for one can't wait for a third volume. I wonder what kind of fairy tales will follow! Arabian Nights?

Original Japanese title(s): 青柳碧人『赤ずきん、旅の途中死で死体と出会う』:「ガラスの靴の共犯者」/「甘い密室の崩壊」/「眠れる森の秘密たち」/「少女よ、野望のマッチを灯せ」

Monday, August 23, 2021

番外編:Death Among the Undead

After the annual releases of The Decagon House Murders (2015), The Moai Island Puzzle (2016), The Ginza Ghost (2017) and The 8 Mansion Murders (2018),  Locked Room International didn't have a full-length Japanese release in 2019, but last year, two of them were released: Ayukawa's classic locked room & perfect alibi story collection The Red Locked Room and Higashigawa's comedic locked room mystery Lending the Key to the Locked Room. And people who have been following these releases will probably have noticed that the summer is a time to pay attention to, so...

I'm happy to announce that Locked Room International will be releasing Masahiro IMAMURA's debut novel Death Among the Undead very soon and I am even more thrilled that I was the one to translate the work to English. Oh, and to be clear: this is the Japanese cover, the Locked Room International release will have a different cover. Originally published in 2017 as the winner of the 27th Ayukawa Tetsuya Award with the title Shijinsou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead"), it was an absolute monster hit in Japan. It became the first title in history to conquer the first place in all the major annual rankings of mystery novels organized by various publishers and has since become a multimedia franchise, with a manga adaptation and an excellent live action adaptation. Honestly, no other mystery novel in recent years managed to make such enormous waves in Japan as this novel. It became the first novel in an on-going series, with the third novel being released just a month ago in Japan. Imamura's debut work is a novel I was absolutely sure was going to be available in English sooner or later, but I couldn't have guessed I'd be the one who'd get to translate the book!

Having heard about a curious threatening note to the university's Film Club, self-proclaimed detective and notorious campus troublemaker Kyosuke Akechi and his assistant Yuzuru Hamura manages to tag along with the Film Club's summer outing, together with the mysterious Hiruko Kenzaki, who is apparently also known in some circles as a gifted detective. The trip brings them to a mountain-side pension overlooking Lake Sabea and the idea is that the members will film a short film in this nature-rich area. During their stay here, the three student-detectives try to learn more about the threats while they help the members of the Film Club with their project, but in the evening, the students are suddenly attacked by a mob of something very unlikely. The group are forced to barricade themselves inside the pension with no hope of escape from this closed circle situation as the beings try to get inside, but then one of the students is killed inside his locked room during the night: at first they suspect one of the beings killed the poor man, but they soon realize that isn't possible and that a human, ergo, one of them must've done it. But how did the murderer manage to get in and out the locked room of the victm, and more importantly, why now, while they're being attacked by those things and don't even know whether they'll survive this!?

I was late to the party myself and read Death among the Undead in 2018, but I absolutely loved it, and the series has become one of my favorite ones in recent years. Imamura managed to create an absolutely unique closed circle situation for a mystery novel and makes excellent use of the concept to present one of the most original mystery you'll read. While initially you might think the concept is more focused on suspense or perhaps even gore, and that it doesn't fit the mystery genre, you'll be surprised at how brilliantly Imamura uses non-conventional elements to create a fantastic locked room murder mystery that is still all about the fair-play, originality and logical reasoning we love about detective fiction. It's a novel you have to read, and I would have said that even if I wasn't involved with the translation (in fact, I've been fanboying about this novel on this blog ever since I first read it).

Anyway, I hope you'll enjoy Death Among the Undead as much as I originally did, or more! As mentioned on the Locked Room International website, due to circumstances there's a product page online already, but the book isn't actually available yet at this moment: I believe it's scheduled to released very soon though so keep an eye on the Locked Room International website to see when it's available for purchase. People who liked previous Japanese releases by Locked Room International will definitely love this one, but the book has a lot of appeal beyond that I think, so I hope the book will also act as a gateway work for a new reading audience to get into Japanese mystery novels! And that's it for today's service announcement. Enjoy Death Among the Undead when it's out!

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Wrong Side of the Law

「最後の離島」(Garnet Crow)
You know how it often happens that
the hand you've been holding tightly suddenly lets go
"The Last Island" (Garnet Crow)

Perhaps I should write something about the Tantei Kibukawa Ryousuke Jikendan ("Detective Kibukawa Ryousuke's Case Stories") series again soon, as G-Mode has been releasing the ports of these feature phone games at an amazing pace, and there have been interesting entries since...

Much of Lisa Greene's childhood had spent on Renas, birth home of her mother and one of the islands of the British Dymel Isles located in the Atlantic Ocean. But a freak storm destroyed Renas 8 years ago, and afterwards, Lisa's mother had a divorce and moved to London with her daughter. But after the sudden death of her mother, Lisa is called back by her father living on Dymel. It's only upon her arrival upon the main island of Dymel that she learns that her father isn't just a businessman like she always thought: Hudley is the boss of Vessel, one of the four crime syndicates that control the Dymel Isles. Vessel, Cuttlass, Diadem and the Lobo Cartel all control different islands of the Dymel Isles, but they have an understanding to not stir up any trouble on the main island, where the headquarters of all four groups are located. Lisa also meets the three other mafia bosses, who all seem quite nice on a personal level, and it's also clear the organizations aren't intending to start a war any time soon. Lisa hopes to learn more of her father, but the day after her arrival, the body of her father is found washed up on the beach of the main island. The man drowned to death, but it's clear his death wasn't natural, as many clues indicate that Hudley had been met someone in secret last night and that he disappeared after that. Lisa however soon realizes the case won't be investigated thoroughly and upon the advice of Louis, the bodyguard assigned to her by her father, Lisa, as the only daughter of Hudley, decides to claim the position of the new boss of Vessel herself, reinvoking an old agreement between the four crime syndicates to ask for their assistance in the investigation. Ryan of Cutlass, Clyde of Diadem and Daryll of the Lobo Cartel agree and with their permission, Lisa starts digging into the death of her father, and slowly uncovers that there's something big hiding behind the murder in the 2021 videogame Shoujo Shuryou no Suiri Ryouiki - Ougonjima no Mitsuyaku ("The Deduction Territory of The Girl Boss - The Secret Promise of the Golden Island"), available on iOS/Android/Steam/Switch and PS4.

Last year, I reviewed Gothic Murder, a mystery adventure game created by Orange, a small developer that has worked on several of the more recent small entries in the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series like Ghost of the Dusk, Prism of Eyes and New Order: Giwaku no Ace, but Gothic Murder was their first own original IP. It was not a groundbreaking product, but as a reasonably priced game, I enjoyed the short experience it offered, as well as the whole atmosphere of the game, with an amusing mystery story with even a few surprising twists, even if the whole thing could've been fleshed out a bit more. Shoujo Shuryou no Suiri Ryouiki is a game that follows the same format mostly: it's a short and simple mystery adventure, with lite otome (story-driven videogames targeted towards women that usually focus on a protagonist developing a romantic relationship with one of the eligible characters) elements: while Lisa is investigating the death on her father, you'll also interact with Louis and the bosses of the other crime syndicates for some (extremely) light romantic moments. The focus remains on the mystery plot however and the otome elements are mostly reflected in some minor alternative endings you can find. Gameplay-wise, Shoujo Shuryou no Suiri Ryouiki is exactly what you'd expect from a simple mystery adventure game and does exactly the same as Gothic Murder, offering a mix of traditional adventure games, with segments where you solve inventory puzzles and have to confront people with the correct evidence, and novel videogames, with the occasional story-changing choices that either proceed the story or lead to a Bad Ending. No surprises there, and it's not like the game ever does something original with this format, but it's functional. 

As a mystery story though, Shoujo Shuryou no Suiri Ryouiki brings more variety than Gothic Murder, which is apparent right after you complete the first chapter. Whereas in Gothic Murder, you were investigating a different planned murder in each chapter and tried to prevent the plot from being executed, this time, Lisa is confronted with different kind of mysteries each time. In one chapter, you're just trying to figure out who the traitor is within Vessel, while in another chapter Lisa gets involved in a shady deal that might lead to an all-out gang war. While you'll seldom be truly surprised by the truth, the way the stories are written make for competently plotted, engaging mysteries (Mitsue Kaneko is a pretty solid writer in that regard) and because this time, each chapter can offer a completely different kind of mystery, there are even some surprising moments where clues are offered in ways you wouldn't expect right way because previous chapters did the clewing in different manners. From a semi-impossible murder in the vaults of a bank to the disappearance of a stash of smuggled weapons and more, a lot is happening on the island while Lisa's investigating the death of her father, and it's pretty funny to play Lisa, as she's now the boss of a crime syndicate and a lot of the help she gets during her investigation, is actually quite illegal. Each chapter ends with a confrontation with "a culprit" where you have to corner them with evidence and each episode will bring you closer to the truth behind Lisa's father's death, but the individual chapters are always about a different core mystery not immediately connected to Hudley's death, and that really helps sell the setting and story of this game. It's almost a shame this game is ultimately conceived as a small-scale game, because the concept of a group of islands ruled by different crime syndicates could have been fleshed out even more, as some of the chapters in this game do show the potential this setting holds.It's a shame we don't see any of the other Dymel Isles, or more of the different syndicate members, as there's definitely ideas here that could have formed the basis for something more substantial.

While the game isn't lengthy by any means (you'll be through this well within 10 hours), there are surprisingly quite some tracks that are memorable. At first, I thought that this was once again a soundtrack by Hamada Seiichi (AKA Haseda "ACE" Daichi), the composer of the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series who also did Gothic Murder, but it was someone else (SAKUMAMATATA) this time. I have to admit I was surprised by the quality of the character designs and the music in general, which was another reason why I thought it was a shame this wasn't planned to be a game of a slightly bigger scope. You do really notice that this game was designed also for a smartphone audience like Gothic Murder, trying to be fairly concise and ultimately offering the player a very streamlined experience (whenever the game shows the map to allow you to choose the next location to go to.... you're basically only allowed the select the intended location). Orange has worked on slightly bigger tales for Tantei Jinguuji Saburou, so I'd like them doing that with an original IP.

While Shoujo Shuryou no Suiri Ryouiki is far from a ground-breaking game, the short play-time and okay plotting make it a perfect palate cleanser between bigger games. Like Gothic Murder, it's a game that could easily have been worked out into something larger with more depth, but as it is now, it's an okay adventure game that provides just the amount of mystery amusement you'd expect from the price range. The plots are varied and while not difficult, competently written and I'm definitely interested in more games by Orange of this scale and quality.

And while I'm writing this anyway, I might as well briefly discuss MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files 3 "Phantom's Foot" here too, right? The first MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files was a free and short, but entertaining mystery adventure game released on iOS/Android, with a distinct retro, GameBoy-esque visual style. To my surprise, a second entry in the series was released only a few months later. So earlier this week, I just decided to check the page of the developer, and lo, a third entry had indeed been released two months ago! While these games are pretty short, it's still a pretty fast pace, but hey, I get to enjoy a short game, so I'm not complaining! MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files 3 "Phantom's Foot" starts with our protagonist being summoned by a local police detective. Some time earlier, Wakaidou had managed to nab the boss of a human trafficking gang, but the man was released. But since his relesae, three of the top men in the organization have been killed and it's obvious something big is going on in the gang. Wakaidou is asked to assist in the case because of his knowledge on the gang and the boss, and is asked to come along to the crime scene of the fourth and latest victim. Wakaidou is investigating the crime scene in the harbor, when he spots a suspicious figure, whom he follows inside a warehouse, but he's knocked out. When he wakes up, he finds himself holding a bloody knife in his hands, standing next to a dead body. He can't quite recall what happened, but when the police find him next to the corpse, assuming he is the murderer, he panics and runs away. Now he has to find out what has happened and who the real killer is.

In terms of format, this game is exactly the same as the previous one, so you might as well read that review for the details. Once again, you'll just be interviewing people and collecting a specified number of clues in each chapter, and at the Inference sections at the end of each chapter you'll be asked a few questions to check whether you have been paying attention (and while the app is free, it still has that funny income model where you only forced to watch ads if you get the Inference questions wrong). This third entry still retains the odd and cumbersome mechanic of having to "set" a testimony or piece of evidence before you start a conversation with a witness to hear if they have anything to say about it, which can be a bit irritating. The second game did help streamline it a bit with a minor, but helpful QOL update, but this third entry follows the second game's format to the tee.

As a short mystery story about an hour long,  MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files 3 "Phantom's Foot" is pretty entertaining though! We have a completely different type of story this time, with Wakaidou suffering from amnesia and on the run from the police while he's investigating the murders on the gang members. While I have to admit that I'm a bit disappointed that this third entry is clearly smaller in scope than the second game (which had a lot more characters/locales), the mystery tale presented is done fairly well. I'd even say that this particular story works better in game format rather than as a prose story, with some neat visual concepts going on that wouldn't work as well in a novel. The twist about the murderer and how it was all done might not be very difficult to guess, but I can't really complain: MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files 3 "Phantom's Foot" may be a game with a limited scope, but it tells a capably plotted mystery story within that scope, and also tells a story that benefits from it being a game. So definitely worth a try, though I'd advise you to first play the previous ones too.

Anyway, both Shoujo Shuryou no Suiri Ryouiki - Ougonjima no Mitsuyaku and MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files 3 "Phantom's Foot" are relatively short games, but I enjoyed my brief time with them. Sometimes you just want to have something simple, but capably executed, and both these games provide just that. If you enjoyed Gothic Murder or the previous MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files you already know what you can expect, but if not, I can say that while these games are not mind-blowing, they're still entertaining enough for a few hours, so perfect for between other bigger games.

Original Japanese title(s): 『少女首領の推理領域 -黄金島の密約-』, 『和階堂真の事件簿-影法師の足』

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Buried Secrets

「カクテル」(Hysteric Blue)
Adults who see marriage as punishment game
They're like children who can't even dream anymore
"Cocktail" (Hysteric Blue)

No, I don't get the cover.

More than ten years ago, I briefly discussed Arisugawa Alice's An Illustrated Guide to the Locked Room 1891-1998, which was exactly what the title said: a book that discussed forty different locked room or otherwise impossible murder mystery stories, twenty from Japan and twenty from abroad. Each of these stories featured an introduction, but most importantly very neat illustrations of each crime scene. In the decade since, I've read most of twenty Japanese entries, sometimes inspired by the list, sometimes because they were famous stories anyway or because it was part of a series I was reading. One of the entries I honestly wouldn't have known about if not for the mention within this book however is Sasazawa Saho's Kyuukon no Misshitsu ("The Locked Room of the Suitors", 1978). Looking the book up now on the internet shows I'm not the only one, as multiple reviews/write-ups mention An Illustrated Guide to the Locked Room 1891-1998 as the source where they first heard of the book, and as the book isn't in print anymore (though available as e-book), most people will probably first find out about this book through this route. The book starts at the ceremony of the first Journalist's Award, which goes to the celebrated and much-respected freelance journalist Amachi Shoujirou. At the ceremony, he has a chat with the attractive actress Saijou Toshiko and her little sister Satsuki. Toshiko never had a major break as an actress, but has carved a niche for herself as a strong supporting actress. She invites Amachi to her father's birthday party, as Amachi has been an immense help and support for her family the last few months: Professor Saijou was one of the influential professors at the university, but an accusation of sexual harassment quickly changed his position. The professor denied all accusations and suspected it was part of the ongoing power struggle at the top of the university, and eventually the accusation was withdrawn, but by then he had already decided to retire. Toshiko had asked for Amachi to use his connections to keep things quiet in the media, which definitely prevented even worse damage to Professor Saijou's reputation, and as thanks, single father Amachi and his son (as Satsuki's play partner) are invited to her father's birthday party.

It's not a normal birthday party however, as Toshiko's future will be decided here. Her father only allowed Toshiko to become an actress on two conditions: she was not to have any affairs with men, and at the right time, her parents would decide whom she would marry. That time has come, and at the party, her father will annonce which of the two suitors of Toshiko (a medical doctor and a laywer) will marry her. To his surprise however, Amachi also learns other guests include a professor involved with the power struggle at the university, and even the student who accused Professor Saijou. The gathering at the Saijou country house is to take place over two days, and nothing has been announced at the end of the first night. The following morning, the Saijou couple is nowhere to be found. At first, everyone thinks they're out walking, but after some hours, everyone becomes worried and start looking. Eventually, the couple is found dead in an old storage cellar located on the grounds. Before the war, the four-meter deep cellar was used to store coal, but it hadn't been used since. The poisoned bottle of water explains how the two died, but not how or why, and there's also the problem of the scribbled letters "WS" on the floor. The door at the end of the stairs leading into the cellar however was locked with a padlock from the inside and the key found in a deep drain inside the cellar, while the only other exit would be the ground-level window four meters up. While Toshiko's devastated by her parents' death, the two suitors haven't given up on Toshiko and the vast fortune she'll inherit. They insist that the person who can clarify why her parents died like that can marry Toshiko, and it just so happens they all have very different theories whether this was some accident, suicide or murder. However, the two suitors perhaps seem to have forgotten all about Amachi, as he has a different theory all together...

This was an interesting locked room mystery, even though the set-up takes a long time and the core premise is a bit wack. For this novel follows a structure with multiple solutions, where both suitors and Amachi eventually propose their own take on the death of the Saijou couple, but let's be honest, nobody's going to believe this is a suicide despite the initial appearance of the crime scene, especially not if we're only halfway into the book and there's plenty of pages left including chapters which are literally titled "Hypothesis of Murder" and "The Truth". But before the reader gets to the more interesting parts, they'll have to wade to a slow start which introduces the backstory of Toshiko, her parents and their relation to Amachi, the other guests and a detailed explanation of the cellar where the dead couple is found. I wonder if this story would've worked better in a shorter format, because some parts feel too undeveloped for a full novel, while other parts feel too long for a short story. Of the thirteen guests present at the party for example, probably only about half of the characters get significant screentime while the others are basically only acting as background filler for most of the story, simply 'being there' in the scene but never saying anything. Add that to the fact that it takes about half of the book before murder is seriously considered an option and you have a novel that is taking things a bit too slow for most readers.

Also: this first half is a bit frustrating because the whole proposal of the two suitors to do the deduction battles is utterly unbelievable. Whether it was a suicide, accident, murder or something else, Toshiko's parents died a tragic death just one day earlier, and they think the way to woo her is to prove it was a suicide/murder/whatever and force her to marry whoever comes up with the best solution that explains her parents' death. Immediately. after it all happened? "And that's why your parents commited suicide. Let's marry!" I'm pretty sure that's going against etiquette!

By the time we arrive at the theories that propose actual murder, and the story develops further as it sets-up the final denouement, Kyuukon no Misshitsu becomes a much more enjoyable story. While the part surrounding the dying message isn't that memorable, the locked room mystery and the build-up towards the solution are quite good. Both the fake murder theory and the final solution are built on clever clues sprinkled throughout the first half of the book, and they don't expect the reader to just come up with the solution for the locked room murder out of nowhere, but challenge the reader to pick up on minor clues and events and combine them to first figure who could have committed the murder in terms of opportunity, and from that point, how that person could've done it (i.e. what the specific options were for that person to set-up the cellar murder). The locked room mystery itself is also quite memorable. The location itself is a bit 'boring' as it's just a cellar locked from the inside and one window several meters high up at ground level, but with the padlock, the key in the drain pipe, the poisoned bottles of water, the message WS, and no signs of ropes or other climbing tools having been used through the window, there are plenty of elements that allow the characters to come up with very different theories, all based on the same information presented early in the story. Ultimately, I can see why Arisugawa decided to include this book in An Illustrated Guide to the Locked Room 1891-1998 as in a few months, I'll have forgotten about the characters and everything of this novel, but even in a few years, I will remember how this locked room mystery was created.

I'm not sure whether I'd really consider a classic of the locked room mystery, but Kyuukon no Misshitsu is definitely worth a read if you're interested in impossible crimes. Considering most mystery novels I read nowadays are relatively recent (most of them actually post 2000), it does read as a dated novel at times in terms of set-up and characters and sometimes this book becomes very melodramatic, but I think the locked room part of the story still holds well. Worth a read if you happen to come across it!

Original Japanese title(s): 笹沢左保『求婚の密室』

Friday, August 13, 2021

Cross-Country Crime

"Welcome to Tokyo!"
"Detective Chinatown 3"

Then again, how many films released recently feature references to John Dickson Carr and the Locked Room Lecture...?

After their involvement in various Chinatown-related murders in Bangkok and New York, the brilliant mystery fanatic Qin Feng and his troublemaker uncle Tang Ren find themselves summoned to Tokyo by Noda, a fellow detective whom they first met in New York and like Qin Feng, among the top-ranking detectives on the app Crimaster, where real-life detectives compete. Noda, Qin Feng and Tang Ren are hired by Watanabe, the boss of the yakuza organization Black Dragon Group and the sole suspect in a murder case. The Black Dragon Group and the South-East Asian Company (a Thai mafia group) had been conducting business regarding the development rights for New Chinatown and the final meeting between the two bosses Watanabe and Su Chaiwit was held in a pavilion located in the middle of a lake, with only one bridge as entrance. Members of both gangs were posted outside the single entrance of the pavilion itself while Watanabe and Su Chaiwit conducted their business inside. After a while though, the two gangs outside first hear a loud crash, followed some time later by a cry and when they break the doors of the pavilion open, they find Su Chaiwit stabbed in his stomach and Watanabe lying on the ground holding a glass shard from the glass dividing screen which had been toppled over. Su Chaiwit is rushed to the hospital, but it's too late for him, and Watanabe is arrested for the murder on his rival, despite his denial of the crime. Watanabe's trial is in a week, and he offers Noda, Qin Fen and Tang Ren a fortune to help prove his innocence. His claim is that their tea was drugged and that he lost consciousness and that he only woke up after everyone had broken into the pavilion and Su Chaiwit was already murdered, but this seems impossible: all the entrances to the pavilion and the bridge were observed by either cameras or the gang members and there was nobody else inside the pavilion. Qin Feng finds this locked room murder mystery very interesting, but the presence of the rival Thai detective "Rabbid Dog" Jaa and a nosy Tokyo police detective don't make the investigation easy in the 2021 film Tang Ren Jie Tan An 3, better known as Detective Chinatown 3.

The first Detective Chinatown was a pleasant surprise when I first saw it a few years back, presenting a funny action-comedy film that actually had a satisfying locked room mystery. The second one I didn't like at all though, and I didn't even bother with writing a review. So the third one could go both ways. Would it be a surprisingly solid mystery film like the first, or would it be a disappoint like the second? Detective Chinatown 3 was given a major release in Japan recently (not strange considering the Japan setting and the many Japanese actors who star in the film) and reception was pretty positive, also regarding the mystery aspect, so I decided to take a look at this one too.

The elaborate action sequence that opens the film sets the mood immediately, making sure you won't mistake this zany film for a "serious" mystery film, but despite that, the investigation into the locked room murder is definitely the core of this film and overall, it's fairly entertaining. After the chaotic opening scene, we are quickly introduced to the relatively simple locked room situation: the victim and the suspect were the only persons actually inside the the pavilion in the middle of a small lake, while there were security cameras and members from both gangs stationed immediately outside the pavilion, meaning nobody could have gone in or outside without being noticed. Some flashy deduction scenes here quickly inform the viewer that they are probably not always given the opportunity to think about all the clues for themselves as things move pretty swiftly, but it's entertaining to see and the movie is indeed presenting a genuine locked room mystery. Having both Qin Feng and Noda present makes for some nice dynamics: in the first film, Qin Feng was obviously the brilliant fan of detective fiction, while his uncle Tang Ren functioned as the troublemaker charged with the physical action/comedy, but in this film, we also have Noda function as a rival detective/friend for Qin Feng and they use each other as sounding boards like Conan and Hattori in Detective Conan. By the way, did Noda's actor Tsumabuki Satoshi study Chinese for his starring role this time, because I don't remember him speaking this much Chinese in the second film (where he admitttedly had a smaller role)?

It's a shame that Detective Chinatown 3 changes in a completely different film halfway though. A witness who may hold vital information necessary to solve the locked room murder disappears at one point and then the film suddenly becomes Lethal Weapon 3. I think it's trying to set-up/tie in with sequels/spin-offs as we're introduced to a secondary plotline that involves more of the detectives active on the detective app Crimaster as seen in the second film, but it feels like it's a completely different film, about a completely different case. The implementation of this mid-section is incredibly clumsy and while it can be quite amusing at times (the cosplay event!) and also features a few scenes that look really great, it just feels out of place, as it's nothing at all like the story segments that precede or follow it. The whole mid-section could've been cut out of the film and you'd still have a completely coherent story. Actually, the story would be more coherent without the mid-section. A major part of this secondary plotline relies on your knowledge of the previous films and if you aren't familiar with them, a lot of terms and names will just ring no bells, leaving you with a mid-section that doesn't seem to go anywhere. Perhaps this part will feel more important when the pay-off comes in subsequent films, but for now, it's just a different story they forcefully added to another.

But back to the main mystery. While considering all the plausible scenarios that could explain the locked room murder, Qin Feng even quotes his beloved John Dickson Carr and he even compares the situation they are facing with the Locked Room Lecture, hoping to find a category that fits their problem (this visual sequence here is pretty awesome!) But when at the conclusion, Qin Feng declares that this is a completely new type of locked room not covered by Carr... let's say he's exaggerating a bit. A bit a lot. Had this been a Detective Conan episode, this locked room murder would just have been an average twenty-minute anime original episode, as the solution is neither surprising nor original. Perhaps if you're not used to mystery fiction, but then again, then quoting John Dickson Carr wouldn't mean anything to you in the first place, so it's as if were trying to sell off a simple locked room murder to both people not particlarly interested in detective fiction, as well as to die-hard fans. It's a functional mental problem, and while the locked room situation of the first film still remains the best of the series, it is worked out in a competent manner in terms of clewing. 

Overall, the film is entertaing to watch though. It has a distinct, slapstick comic-like vibe to it, which some may like and some may not, but I quite like the over-the-top characters and the silly action scenes that are interspersed throughout the story (which is perhaps partially why I didn't like the second film, which tried to be too serious at times). There's a funny slapstick scene in the morgue early in the film for example, while the various detectives running into each other never seems to feel boring. 

Detective Chinatown 3 is by no means a perfect murder mystery film. It has a simple, but passable locked room murder mystery that is presented in a flashy and visually engrossing manner, but the story is interrupted halfway with a completely different story and depending on how invested you are in the Detective Chinatown mythos, this part might feel completely out of place. The comic-like vibe is one I like though, and while the mystery plot is quite simple, I found the overall film amusing to watch, even if not all the parts made as much sense as others. If you're just looking for two hours of mystery-related entertainment (with lots of comedy/action), you could do much worse than this. If you have already seen the previous Detective Chinatowns and liked them, I'd definitely recommend watching this. 

Original Chinese title(s): "唐人街探案3"

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Curious Interpretation

No news is good news

I really shouldn't wait three months after reading a book to finally get started on the review...

Disclosure: I translated Norizuki Rintarou's short story The Lure of the Green Door.

The last time a standalone book was released featuring the mystery writer and amateur detective Norizuki Rintarou was in 2012, when the second Hanzai Horoscope short story collection was released. Who would've guessed that it'd take seven years for a new book with Rintarou and his father Inspector Norizuki would be released? Norizuki Rintarou's Norizuki Rintarou no Shousoku, which also has the English title The News of Norizuki Rintarou was released in 2019 and collects four stories starring the amateur detective named after the author, but while the previous short story collections featured classic puzzler plots, this volume takes a very different form and it's probably not exactly what most readers were expecting after the fun, puzzle-focused Hanzai Horoscope collections. For besides two 'normal' stories where Rintarou and his father discuss an ongoing police investigation together and slowly deduce the most likely truth, there are also two literary bibliomysteries featured here that go deep into the worlds of Sherlock Holmes, G.K. Chesterton and Poirot.

The opening and ending story of this collection are definitely the surprises. The book opens with Hakumen no Tategami ("The Pale Mane"), where Rintarou is asked to read an unpublished manuscript by the deceased 'occult researcher' Tsutsumi Tomoaki, whom Rintarou became involved with during the events of Hanzai Horoscope. The manuscript involves Arthur Conan Doyle and two specific Sherlock Holmes stories and while Rintarou isn't really interested at first, he also happens to be working on a piece on G.K. Chesterton himself and during his research, he discovers a link between Tsutsumi's piece and Chesterton, leading him to an interesting theory regarding the Sherlock Holmes canon. In the final story Curtain Call, Rintarou is hired in an advisory role to a stage play of the Hercule Poirot novel Elephants Can Remember and also asked to write a short piece for the pamphlet. While he's doing research on Elephants Can Remember however, Rintarou sees parallels to the final Poirot story Curtain and eventually, he holds a little discussion group with the people in the theater troupe to find a truth Agatha Christie had hidden in her novels.

Both stories are quite similar in the sense that they are both primarily academic research papers that delve both into the internal themes of the works in discussion, as well as the relevant publishing and writing history (so for example, Conan Doyle's interest in the supernatural). Both stories may be presented in the form of Rintarou getting involved with these texts for some reason, but the bulk of each stories consists of quotations and literary research which honestly isn't going to be interesting at all to a reader unfamiliar with the material discussed. I knew the stories in question and found the literary theories proposed in these stories interesting, but I honestly can't imagine someone who hasn't read those specific Holmes/Poirot stories or who only has a passing interest in them to be entertained by these two tales, as you're basically reading a Literature paper, with analysis, quotations, more analysis and more quotations. Norizuki tries to make things a bit more interesting with minor mysteries for Rintarou in the outside world, but these two stories are definitely not among the most accessible in this series.

Abekobe no Isho ("The Switched Suicide Notes") is a story that was originally written for the 2017 7-nin no Meitantei ("The Seven Great Detectives") anthology and I already discussed it back then. I read it again this time as I had forgotten the details, but there's little to add to my original write-up back in 2017 to be honest. Inspector Norizuki brings an interesting problem back home for his son: He's dealing with two suicides, one by poison, one by jumping off a flat. Suicide notes were also found at both scenes. However the suicide notes were swapped: both victims had the suicide note of the other person. The two victims knew each other and been fighting over the same woman, so they had no reason to be committing suicide together, but why did they have each other's suicide note? Like many of the short stories in this series featuring Inspector Norizuki, the plot develops in a discussion-style: Rintarou and his father are sitting at home, and keep throwing balls at each other to develop their theories: Rintarou suggests something, the Inspector counters that with a new fact, Rintarou comes up with a new hypothesis, the Inspector introduces another fact etc. The story itself is interesting because the problem of the switched notes is both puzzling and yet somehow realistic and it shows off exactly how a theory has to adapt to the new facts each time, but ultimately, this story is solely about theories. In the end,  Rintarou does come up with a clever solution as to why the two victims had the other's suicide note, but it's completely based on layers of assumptions and guesses and the story ends with the Inspector leaving to find confirmation to their theories.

Korosanusaki no Jishu ("Confession of a Non-Murder") is very similar to the previous story, not only in structure, but also in terms of plot. This time, the Inspector is dealing with a case which just doesn't seem to make any sense. Some time ago, a man came to the police confessing a murder, but his "victim" (an old friend whose "advice" regarding breast cancer led to his wife's death) turns out to be alive and well. Later however the woman is really murdered following the man's confession, but the Inspector can't see understand why the man confessed to the murder before it even happened and it seems more likely someone else did it. When the Inspector also learns that the murder had been predicted by a psychic, the whole thing seems to make no sense anymore, which is why he needs his son's help. While the explanation Rintarou comes up with at the end is certainly entertaining and original, I think the whole story lacks a bit of oomph to really sell the idea. I won't say it fell flat, but I think a much more engaging story could've been built on the same building blocks if this for example had been a full novel.

Even as a fan of the series, Norizuki Rintarou no Shousoku is a difficult volume to really recommend as it's so different from the previous short story collections, which all featured excellent puzzler-type stories. There are only two of those in this collection this time and while not bad, they certainly do not rank among the best of Norizuki's puzzlers. The two other stories are interesting to read as literary research papers about Holmes and Poirot, but they are clearly meant for a very, very small niche even within the mystery fanbase. The result is a volume that longtime fans like myself will read anyway, but which ranks in the lowest spot in the priority list when it comes to this series, as the other volumes are much, much better.

Original Japanese title(s): 法月綸太郎『法月綸太郎の消息』:「白面のたてがみ」/「あべこべの遺書」/「殺さぬ先の自首」/「カーテンコール」

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Clock Watcher

「晴れ時計」(Garnet Crow)
The silver hand that marks the time passing at the correct rhythm
Also makes me excited
"A Sunny Clock" (Garnet Crow)

I'm writing this review literally over four months after reading the book. There's also like three months between me writing this review now, and this review actually getting posted. I guess it fits the theme of clocks and time...

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Kishi Yuusuke's Colossus no Kagizume (The Colossus' Claws), a pocket release featuring two stories which were originally collected in 2017's Mystery Clock: when the pocket version of this book was released late 2020, they decided to split the 2017 release up in two seperate pockets with their own titles. Two of the four stories became Colossus no Kagizume, while the other two stories were bundled together as Mystery Clock. The 2020 pocket Mystery Clock therefore only contains half of the stories included in the original Mystery Clock book. Naturally, the stories here are still about the attorney Aoto Junko and her acquaintance Enomoto Kei, an expert on security whom she strongly suspects is a burglar himself: unfortunately for her, Enomoto is brilliant at solving locked room murders and other impossible crimes, and she often needs his help to save her clients.

The first story Yuruyakana Jisatsu ("A Slow Suicide") is quite short and apparently, I already knew this story as it was adapted as part of the 2014 television special of the Kagi no Kakatta Heya drama series, but to be honest, I could remember absolutely nothing of the tale. Enomoto finds himself dragged to a yakuza office, where he is forced to open a door. Earlier, the yakuza captain Nonogaki left his low-level grunt Mitsuo alone in the office, but just as Nonogaki was greeted by his driver and about to get in the car, a shot rang out from the office. With the entrance locked from the inside and the office being very well secured, the daughter of the head of the organisation decides to bring Enomoto in to pick the lock for them, a job Enomoto would rather not do as it's obvious he's getting involved in stuff he doesn't want to get involved with, but he has no choice. When he opens the door, they find Mitsuo alone and dead inside the office, with a pistol in his hand and a hole in his head. Mitsuo's death has parallels with the death of a rival captain of Nonogaki who died earlier, and at first it seems Mitsuo commited suicide because he was somehow involved with that previous death, but Enomoto quickly stumbles upon a few contradictions at the scene that seem to indicate Nonogaki planned Mitsuo's death, but how could he have killed Mitsuo inside the locked office at the same time he was outside about to get in his car? Not a fan of the solution to be honest. The prologue already makes it clear Nonogaki is indeed the guilty one, but the question of how he managed to kill Mitsuo is a bit unsatisfying: it demands a lot of incertain/unpredictable actions from Mitsuo for example, and because the story is very short, it feels a bit forced too. More time for the set-up/foreshadowing might have helped the tale.

The titular Mystery Clock on the other hand is very, very long and almost closer to an actual novel than a novelette. Junko has been invited to the holiday villa of Mori Reiko, a famous mystery author and her client who is celebrating her thirtieth anniversary as a professional author. Other guests include her nephew, her first husband, her editor and... Enomoto Kei, who Junko brought along as a security expert to help make the villa safer, but she's terrified he's going to steal something. During the little party, Reiko goes upstairs because she has a deadline to meet and needs to finish her manuscript. She asks her current husband, the mystery author Tokizane Genki, to entertain the guests and he shows off her fabulous collection of antique clocks, including the transparant Mystery Clocks designed by Houdini himself. They play a game where the guests have to guess the relative values of the clocks, with the winner being awarded an antique clock, When the game is over, the whole party goes up to check on Mori Reiko, but they find her dead in her study. Her husband Tokizane however suspects one of the guests killed his wife, and he grabs a rifle and threatens them all, hoping the murderer will confess. He eventually decides to have his guests deduce who the murderer is, rounding them up in the dining room and having them basically accuse each other based on the evidence they found earlier. Eventually Tokizane gives up and allows them to call the police, but by that time, Enomoto has more than a strong suspicion that Tokizane himself is the murderer. The only problem is that Tokizane's alibi is perfect: from the time his wife left the room until they found her body, his alibi was vouched for by five different clocks: the real time clock in the victim's computer, the radio-controlled clock in the main hall, a clock in the study and two clocks in the dining room including a grandfather clock. So how did he kill his wife when he didn't have the time?

The story does not pretend like it's a secret that it's inspired by Ayukawa Tetsuya's short story The Five Clocks (included in The Red Locked Room. Disclosure: I translated The Red Locked Room) as it even mentions it explicitly. But Mystery Clock is The Five Clocks on drugs. The moment the story starts, it keeps on making very, very clear that time is very important to this story. Every single timestamp mentioned in this story is bolded, to make it absolutely clear how long each event takes and at what time, and at the end of the first act, you'll realize that Tokizane couldn't have committed the murder as basically every second has been accounted for. And what makes Mystery Clock a lot trickier than The Five Clocks is that we have newer, modern clocks like satellite-linked clocks that can't be easily changed by hand. So how did Tokizane manage to find the time to kill his wife even the clocks say he didn't? Well, by an insane combination of different tricks to fool each seperate clock, but by the time you get to the end of the story, you'll just be exhausted as it's just too complex. Each of these tricks could have possibly worked as the single idea for a short story, but when thrown together it's just too much, and some of the trickery performed is almost too complex. Like with one of the final things explained: I could hardly make any sense of the written explanation of the trick, and I was happy to see the following page had a diagram to make things clearer... only it still took me a long time to really comprehend what that diagram, and the text earlier were trying to convey, and from a certain point on, you kinda understand that the ideas used in this story can be pretty interesting, but it's just told in an incredibly dry manner. It stops being a story and just feels like a puzzle. 

Perhaps the story would have worked better if it had been adapted in a visual format, for while there is pretty ingenious story buried here, the many, many bolded timestamps just make the tale appear like nothing but a set of puzzle pieces and it results in a very tedious read. This is truly a story that's just too clever for its own good.

To be honest, I liked the two stories in Colossus no Kagizume a lot better than the two in Mystery Clock: the first story is just too short with an idea that doesn't really manage to impress, while the titular Mystery Clock is perhaps the other way around: it's way too ambitious, resulting in a story that is more like a dry puzzle than an actual story, with too much tricks packed into the tale of which some are just too clever for their own good. It's more a story where the author can show off his ingeniousness in plotting an imposssible alibi, rather than a story that is actually enjoyable for the reader to err, read. So if you had to choose only one of these two volumes which were released on the same day, I'd definitely recommend Colossus no Kagizume over this one. 

Original Japanese title(s): 貴志祐介『ミステリークロック』:「ゆるやかな自殺」/「ミステリークロック」

Monday, August 2, 2021

Dungeon of Doom

Deep into that darkness peering, 
long I stood there, wondering, fearing
"The Raven"

Unless they're pocket re-releases, I seldom get new books right away on release, but today's book was of course an exception!

Life for members of Shinkou University's Mystery Society changed drastically ever since their encounter  with Kenzaki Hiruko, a second-year student who, unknown to the public, has solved many criminal cases over the course of her life and who has the tendency to get involved in dangerous murder incidents. Earlier this year, they got involved in a murder case happening in a pension near Lake Sabea during very unusual circumstances and a few months later, they got involved in a murder case in a remote, mountain settlement involving a woman who could predict the future. The connection between these cases was not only the involvement of the Mystery Society, but more importantly, the unique circumstances surrounding these incidents were the direct result of research conducted by a suspicious organization that was dismantled many years ago, but much of the organization's research data has disappeared together with members of the organization. Hiruko has been on the trail of this research data ever since the incident at Lake Sabea and now she's been approached by Narushima Touji, director of the medical firm Narushima IMS West Japan. He reveals to her that Narushima IMS was actually a financial sponsor of the organization some generations ago, but having learned what horrors they have produced, he hopes he can retrieve the stolen research data to prevent more harm, while at the same time keeping his company's involvement a secret. Narushima has discovered where one former researcher of the organization is hiding with his research data: inside a theme park. Umagoe Dream City is a small, regional theme park that is old, worn down and hopelessly outdated, but that's actually why it's become popular lately, as it's presented as "a living ruins" theme park. The park is run by Akishima Industries, owned by a Saitou Gensuke, but in reality he's Fugi Gensuke, one of the missing researchers. Fugi actually lives inside the theme park, in what once used to be the haunted house attraction, and he never leaves this place, staying cooped up inside his spacious manor all day. Narushima also explains that there are creepy rumors surrounding Fugi's house: apparently, once in a while, employees who are staying illegally in Japan, or otherwise have a dubious past, are summoned to the owner's home in the middle of the night, only to never return. Narushima's plan depends on this: he has secured the help of an illegal immigrant working in the park who is told to present himself tonight at Fugi's home. Narushima has hired a team of mercenaries and together with Hiruko (who has the tendecy to attract trouble, meaning they're likely to stumble upon *something*) and narrator Hamura, he wants to break into the haunted house and force Fugi to give up his research data. 

The operation goes as planned initially: with the help of the employee, the team breaks into the house and they quickly subdue Fugi and his two servants. The haunted house only has one entrance, operated by one single, specially made key which also operates a few strangely placed gates in the house.  Fugi is told to show them his research data and Fugi leads them deep into the underground floor of the haunted house... when they are attacked by *a certain threat*. Even the mercenaries, with all their weapons and experience on the battlefield, are hopeless against *it* and some of them are killed and decapitated on the spot. In the chaos, everyone flees in different directions and they all hide in different places during the night, hoping *it* will not find them. Realizing they are no match for *it*, they want to leave the haunted house, but this is impossible: the person who was keeping the key operating the single door and the gates which were keeping *it* locked inside its part of the haunted house, was killed deep within *its* territory, in the annex of the haunted house. His remains, and the key are lying there, but it'd be pure suicide to enter the annex part of the house. They also realize they can't just break out of the house, because that would release *it* into the theme park, and would lead to many more victims. As they try to figure out a way to escape, more of the survivors are found killed and decapitated in the haunted house, but slowly the suspicion arises that some of these deaths weren't caused by *it*, but by someone trying to pin the murders on *the threat.* But how could any one of the survivors commit these murders despite *it* roaming around the haunted house? And more importantly: why should the survivors worry about a few murders when there's an unstoppable force roaming around intent on killing you in Imamura Masahiro's 2021 novel Kyoujintei no Satsujin ("The Murders in the House of Maleficence")?

Imamura Masahiro's 2017 debut novel Shijinsou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead") was absolutely fantastic, the sequel Magan no Hako no Satsujin ("The Murders In the Box of The Devil Eye", 2019) also made brilliant use of a supernatural setting to present a very original mystery story, so as you can guess, I was really looking forward to the third novel in this series, which was released last week (July 2021). Kyoujintei no Satsujin follows the same formula we've grown used to by now: the book combines a classic, closed circle murder mystery story with unique circumstances: a supernatural/unnatural phenomenon that threatens our cast, used cleverly to present an original, and more importantly entertaining, detective novel. The closed circle situation is thus not *just* a storm that has cut an island off from the mainland, or a snowstorm raging outside, but something much more threatening because it's basically supernatural, while at the same time, a classic puzzle plot murder mystery is also at play and the core mystery plot makes cleverly use of the supernatural elements to create a story that really couldn't exist without those abnormal elements: it sets clear rules about what the *supernatural element* does and does not do, giving you both possibilities and limitations as you try to deduce who committed the murders.

Kyoujintei no Satsujin's core premise feels similar to the first novel, as the *threat* in the haunted hause poses once again a very physical kind of danger to the cast of members within a closed circle situation, and they literally have to run for their lives and find safe places in the haunted house to stay alive, while at the meantime one of the group is also killing some of the survivors amidst this chaos. As I was reading this book however, I had to think especially of video games. Perhaps it's because of the floorplan of the haunted house presented at the start of the book, shown at a slight angle, reminding me of a map in a videogame. The *threat* that is endangering the lives of the people locked up in the haunted house also reminds of a certain, famous game and the setting of the haunted house itself already feels very much like a video game, especially as the map is "updated" a few times with new discoveries made and the design of some spots of the map feel like they come from video game design grammar, with choke points and a maze-like design. You'll be checking the floorplan a lot while you read this book, which some people may not like, but I quite enjoyed slowly learning the various points of interest of the map.

I'd perhaps say that Kyoujintei no Satsujin as a thrilling experience, is perhaps the best of the three novels. While the idea of a physical threat is similar to the first novel, the mystery aspect of the plot of Kyoujintei no Satsujin is not as end-loaded as that novel, meaning the thrills of the book don't only come from the physical threat, but also from seeing the mystery develop over time. With that, I don't just mean that more murders mean more mystery. Kyoujintei no Satsujin actually shows more puzzle pieces and puzzle solving throughout the story, whereas in Shijinsou no Satsujin, they did talk a lot about solving the mystery throughout the novel, but the actual solving of parts of the mystery mostly happened at the end, with the earlier parts being discussions on possibilities which were then discarded. In Kyoujintei no Satsujin, Hiruko wil solve some parts of the mystery early in the novel, which will make think of certain characters/circumstances in a certain way, which again shine a different light on future murders etc. Because the mystery solving doesn't only happen at the end, but throughout the story, the reader who's looking for a good detective story doesn't have to wait all the time until the end. The closed circle situation is also very interesting this time, as part of the problem is that while the survivors could technically force their way out of the haunted house by breaking down the draw bridge of the haunted house (which is now drawn), it'd mean setting *the threat* loose in a theme park, so they hesitate leaving the closed circle situation in that manner. There are also a few intermezzo's which put the unfolding events in a different context, so with the current predicement inside the haunted house, the frequent mystery solving and the intermezzo's, the reader is always being presented something to keep them hooked. Personally, I don't mind having to wait until the very end to read a long explanation of the whole case, but I think that in general, this novel is better at juggling the various elements in a balanced manner compared to the previous two novels, and the dramatic subplot these novels always had, is perhaps done best in this one too.

I wonder if there'll be plans for a live-action film based on this novel? It'd actually make for a better film than the second novel and I liked the first movie adaptation a lot, so I'd love to see a sequel to that...

Looking at just the core mystery, I do think Kyoujintei no Satsujin won't appeal to everyone right away. There is little doubt about who committed some of the murders, as *it* decapitated the poor saps right in front of the others. But there are a few decapitation murders which seem clearly to be committed by someone else and not *the threat*, but under seemingly impossible circumstances: at the suspected time the body was decapitated in the underground floor, *it* was roaming there around looking for targets and in order to bring the knife used to decapitate the victim to the location where the body was found, one would have to somehow pass by *it* unseen (despite the choke point on the floorplan) and unheard (the survivors had placed glass fragments everywhere to make sure they could hear where *it* exactly was whenever it moved, meaning nobody could've walked there unheard). It's a very technical impossible situation, where you have to keep it clear for yourself where everybody was at what time, where *it* was and everyone's exact movements across the map, which might not appeal to everyone. The solution for this murder does make clever use of the unique circumstances of the story and the particular characteristics of *it*, but unlike the previous two novels, one could argue that the precise workings of these particulars (what works, and what doesn't) isn't as clearly described this time, so it's hard to tell how fair this feels. I really like the idea of how the impossible situation was pulled off though, and it's definitely a solution to an impossible situation that could only work on this novel due to its unique story. In puzzle plot mysteries with a supernatural theme, it's important to make clear to the reader what the "rules" are, but as mentioned before, the rules surrounding *the presence* in Kyoujintei no Satsujin aren't immediately clear to the reader, because *it* does follow a specific archetype directly, so it's harder for the reader to imagine right away what's possible and what's not. That was slightly disappointing, because in the previous novels, Imamura really succesfully managed to incorporate the supernatural in a way the reader could instinctively understand and guess what was possible and what's not. Here the reader must be much more careful to make sure they understand what is possible exactly. There's not one truly grand situation or some revelation that turns everything around in terms of the mystery plot in this novel, but as I said before, there are a lot of minor mysteries solved throughout the story and together they form a satisfying novel (I like the solution Hiruko thought off to retrieve the key for example). Overall, Kyoujintei no Satsujin is perhaps plotted not as tightly as the previous novels and there are a few times where the hand of coincidence and contriveness feels rather obvious (the reason why there's an impossible murder in the first place...), but there's still more than enough to entertain the genre fan.

I would not recommend you read this book without reading the first two novels first though. The book builds on the events of the previous novels and while it does not outright spoil them, the three novels do form one chronological narrative together and references are made to previous events and some of the events that unfold here, even shine a different light on what happened in the first two books. And there's a cameo at the very end of the book that won't make any sense at all unless you have read the first book, so you'll definitely want to read this in order.

Kyoujintei no Satsujin is another solid entry in the series. It does not stray from the formula, so it might lack the oomph the first novel had, but it's still a very good, entertaining detective novel that uses its absolutely unique setting to present a tale of mystery that you won't find anywhere else. I think that in terms of solely the mystery, it's not as tightly written as the previous novels, but as a thrilling experience, I think this one may be the best balanced one yet. It's also clear that Imamura is really expanding on the universe, so it will be very interesting to see what will happen in a future entry. I hope we may see a fourth novel in two years again. 

Original Japanese title(s): 今村昌弘『兇人邸の殺人』