Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Sea You, Sea Me

" You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there"
"The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"

Honestly, the water color covers of the pocket reissues of this series are so much better than the original comic-like covers...

Tanabata "Kick" Kikuno miraculously managed to (help) solve two major cases soon after her posting to the Homicide division of the Metropolitan Police Department, even though she was just intended to be a "pretty face" and now the attempt to mix her up in an international scandal failed, some people above her in the command chain are becoming very nervous, as at this rate Kick might climb the career ladder faster than them. Kick's boss Fushimi advises her lie low for a while and tells her to take a holiday. She decides to go to Hachijou-jima, and even Chika and Ryou (her former fellow members of the idol group Blue Sky G) as well as her current colleagues Higashiyama and Shinkai "Angler" Yasukimi decide to fly over for one day to fish together. It's not fish they find at sea though, but an old boat floating around with a decapitated head. Holiday becomes work as they quickly notify the local police. Based on the currents, it appears the boat came floating from Kikakujima, a small island nearby with about three hundred inhabitants. Kairyuuji Shinji, the younger brother of the current mayor whose family has ruled the island for generations, had already been reported missing and the decapitated head is indeed identified as Shinji's. Because Shinji's body is still missing and it's determined Shinji was on the island until his disappearance, it's decided to set up an investigation HQ on Kikakujima and because the islands around here still fall under Tokyo jurisdiction, Kick's unit is sent to the small island to find Shinji's body and catch the murderer. 

It doesn't take long for them to find Shinji's body inside the cabin of one of the fishing boats of the ship graveyard on the other side of the harbor, but the cabin is locked with a chain and padlock from the inside, meaning that the only one who could've locked the door was... Shinji's dead, headless body. This notion of a body rising to lock the door reminds some people of the rumors surrounding Kikakujima: just two generations ago, the islanders lynched a doctor who was said to be conducting human experiments in search of the secret of eternal life on this island, giving the island the nickname Mad Science Island. But while Kick and her team look for clues, more murders occur that seem to have an impossible angle, like Kick and Higashiyama witnessing a burning woman falling into the sea, but when they fish her up, they find she was stabbed hours earlier! With administration ready to demote Kick the moment she makes a mistake, the only option left for her is to solve the case and catch the killer in Katou Motohiro's Kikagakujima no Kioku - Tsukamaeta Mon Gachi! ("Memories of Mad Science Island - Those Who Make The Arrest Win!" 2019).

This third novel in the series about the former-idol-turned-police-detective Kick by Q.E.D. and C.M.B.'s Katou Motohiro is set immediately after the second novel, and it definitely pays to read these novels in order, as the subplot of Kick's management superiors trying to find some excuse to get her away from Homicide is directly tied to what happened in the second novel, and continues here. I first read the second book in this series, Quantum Man Kara no Tegami - Tsukameta Mon Gachi!, which I thought was the best complete work of Katou I had read until now, more enjoyable than his better known works Q.E.D. and C.M.B.. Kick as an underdog character was infinitely more interesting than Touma and Shinra in Q.E.D. and C.M.B. respectively. The real Holmes character in this series is the data analyst Shinkai "Angler" Yasukimi, who acts as a kind of armchair detective because he usually solves the cases based on the mails Kick sends him. Because of this, Kick might initially remind the reader of the female sidekick characters n Q.E.D. and C.M.B. due to her athletic talents, but she's actually quite intelligent and more often than not, she'll solve a large part of the mystery on her own. She's therefore much more fun to follow, being not as brilliant Touma and Shinra in Q.E.D. and C.M.B., but still able to move the plot with both her mental and physical abilities. The political plot surrounding Kick's position are also naturally woven into the mystery plot, which is really entertaining: her bosses want Kick to fail and are ready to jump on every mistake and even use the media to get her out of Homicide, which at times limits the moves Kick can make, which ultimately influence how the plot develops. It's a great way to incorporate Kick's personal story to the ongoing series of murders, as sometimes the murderer sees an opportunity that basically only exists because Kick can't move around freely without worrying about her job.

Kick's position as a protagonist different from the girl sidekicks we see in Q.E.D. and C.M.B. is also noticable in this book, with "Angler" only popping up once in a while on the island, while most of the plot of Kikagakujima no Kioku revolves around Kick's investigation. After the discovery of the locked room in the abandoned fishing boat, suspicions arise that the murderer may be focusing on the members of the Kairyuuji family, the de-facto rulers of the island. In the past, Kikakujima used to be a penal island and the Kairyuuji family acted as the island chiefs, but even now, the islanders all accept Kairyuuji Mitsugu was the mayor, like his father before him. While the island is quite small, there has been a small influx of outsiders lately because they're digging for precious metals in the sea, with lots of people taking the ferry to and from Hachijou-jima daily, so the investigation into Shinji's murder isn't going as smoothly as you'd expect on a small island. The two previous novels were distinctly urban, so it's interesting to see how this series now tackles the Yokomizo Seishi setting of an isolated community, while still being firmly set in a contemporary setting. The book focuses a lot on Kick's digging into the family history and the interpersonal relations of the current members in search of a motive and this aspect combined with the small island with a secret history (there's also a neat map!) definitely reminds a bit of the Kindaichi novels.

When it comes to the individual murder mysteries of Kikagakujima no Kioku, most of the concepts are perhaps a bit simple when viewed seperately. The locked cabin on the fishing boat for example is solved very easily by "Angler" early on in the story and while the following murders on the island (yes, more and more murders occur) usually have an unexplicable element to them initially, these minor mysteries about the murders are usually cleared up fairly soon. Kikagakujima no Kioku is therefore much more enjoyable seeing everything come together, as while the seperate parts don't surprise the reader too much, it's the story that's created with all of those concepts that makes this book a perfectly enjoyable entry in this series: there are a lot more twists and turns than you'd initially expect and the book also makes great use of the island setting to present a story that is at one hand very familar in detective stories (as said, the isolated community setting), but it's also a story that actually uses the characteristics of this specific setting to make the mystery plot possible in the first place: the story wouldn't have worked the way it did had it been set elsewhere. The book eventually builds up to a nice confrontation with the murderer where it's revealed a lot more was going on than appeared at first sight, and it also manages to hit those typical human drama elements you see more often in Q.E.D. and C.M.B. than in  Conan or Kindaichi Shounen.

Kikagakujima no Kioku - Tsukamaeta Mon Gachi! was thus another solid entry in this series and I think that on the whole, it's still the series by Katou Motohiro I manage to enjoy best overall. This entry on one hands builds on the subplot of the previous novels, but also brings something completely new by moving Kick and her unit away from the metropolis to a tiny island, bringing the type of story I hadn't expected with this series. While the mysteries taken seperately are not mindblowing, the overall story told is entertaining and manages to captivate the reader, so if you pick up this book, you're sure to have a good time.

Original Japanese title(s): 加藤元浩『奇科学島の記憶 捕まえたもん勝ち!』

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Through the Looking Glass

You could not see a cloud, because 
No cloud was in the sky: 
No birds were flying overhead--
 There were no birds to fly
"Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There"

Gee, was it only last year I read the previous books in this series? Feels like two, three years ago...

Real estate mogul Hugh Sandford is one of the wealthiest men in the country and lives with his daughter in the penthouse occupying the top floors of Sandford Tower, a 72-story high tower in the middle of New York housing department stores, offices and residential floors (unoccupied at the moment). Unknown to everyone however Sandford also has a secret collection of rare animals hidden in his penthouse, only accessible through a hidden passage. Two-headed animals, animals on the verge of extinction: he has everything, but the pride of his collection are his Glass Birds, beautiful beings that manage to mesmerize everyone lucky enough to ever see them. As his collection is very, very illegal, Sandford only shows his collection to the people most loyal to him, like Travis Wineberg of SG. Sandford's forte may lie in real estate, but he's also the owner of SG, a glass manufacturing company which developed from the little glass factory of his late wife's family. SG has been experimenting with glass with variable refraction and transparency and while not all experiments have been succesful, SG's joint research with the scientist Ian Galbraith of M University has finally led to a working prototype of a glass panel of which they can change the transparency, which could for example be used in houses for optimal lighting, but then switched "off" for privacy. It's early in 1984 when Sandford invites Travis, his assistant Chuck, Ian and his girlfriend Cecilia to his penthouse to celebrate the invention of the special glass, but his guests are knocked out and wake up in... a closed off secret floor with many rooms in a weird layout. The four find they are locked together on this floor together with Sandford's housekeeper Pamela, who informs them they are all being kept here by Sandford and that even she doesn't have a key to unlock the doors leading away from this floor. The only message she has from her master is "that they know why they are here." Unable to understand why they are imprisoned the four roam the floor, but after a loud cry, the walls of all the rooms suddenly turn transparent, allowing everyone to see everything on this floor. And they find one of them is murdered in one of the rooms! But curiously enough, they don't see any murder weapon lying around nor a bloody murderer, even though they can see everything present on the floor due to the transparent walls, making it impossible for anyone, and anything to be hidden. After a while, the walls turn opaque again, but where did the murderer go to?

Meanwhile, an investigation into the smuggling of rare animals from M(exico) has brought Maria and Ren of the Flagstaff Police Station on the trail of Hugh Sandford and they travel to New York, to Sandford Tower to have a talk with him. They don't get to meet him, so they start their own investigation at the tower, trying to find out if there's some way Sandford could smuggle animals unseen into his penthouse. While Ren's off questioning the people working on the department store floors and the service elevators, Maria decides to climb the emergency stairs all the way to the top to see if she can break into Stanford's penthouse, but halfway up a bomb explosion occurs on the residential floors of Sandford Tower. Ren is forced to evacuate the building with everyone else below, but Maria is trapped on the higher parts of the emergency stairs as the fire caused by the explosion rages on below her. But who planted the bomb and what does this explosion have to do with the ongoing murder case in Sandford's secret floor? Maria, Ren and the reader are challenged to figure out what is happening in Ichikawa Yuuto's 2018 novel Glass Bird wa Kaeranai, which also has the English title The Glass Bird Will Never Return.

The Glass Bird Will Never Return is the third novel in this series featuring police detectives Maria and Ren, after The Jellyfish Never Freezes and The Blue Rose Never Sleeps, two books which ranked among my favorite reads last year. The books are set in a kind of alternate universe in the late 70s/early 80s, with the "Jellyfish" (a zeppelin-like airship) one of the biggest change in history. Each of the books focus on a different scientific (sci-fi) theme: the vacuum airsac of the Jellyfish was a major theme of the first novel, the second focused on the illusive blue rose and this book of course has the glass panes which can be turned transparent and opaque again in an instant. While it's kinda sci-fi, the inventions are kept practical and realistic enough to not feel fantastical at all. This book also follows the same dual structure of the previous books, with the story alternating between chapters that focus on the people of SG being murdered one by one on a floor with glass walls with changeable transparency, and chapters that focus on Maria and Ren as they investigate Sandford Tower and then get involved in the bomb explosion in the tower. The Glass Bird Will Never Return is definitely the most thrilling entry in the series up until now, with the chapters about Maria desperately trying to escape the fire while being trapped on the upper floors of Sandford Tower adding a sense of real-time danger we had never seen before. You should read these novels in order though, as The Glass Bird Will Never Return also makes a few references to earlier novels.

I do have to say that after the murders in The Jellyfish Never Freezes and The Blue Rose Never Sleeps, The Glass Bird Will Never Return will feel a bit familiar and it never manages to be as surprising as the previous books. By now, the reader already has a good idea of how Ichikawa likes to use his dual narrative structure to present a mystery plot, jumping back and forth between the two narratives to make the situation more baffling than it actually is. It's done competently here as expected, but there's definitely also a bit of coincidence going on to make the mystery more baffling than it actually is. When it comes to the actual murders of the people being detained on the hidden floor with walls that can turn transparent, I think the biggest "problem" is that it's ultimately a very limited set-up: there are very few characters here, who die too soon after another and while the idea of the "impossible mystery" of the survivors not being able to find the murderer even though all the (inside) walls are transparent and you can see every nook and cranny on the floor, you can never shake off notions like 'perhaps there is a hidden passage' or 'perhaps there are some shenigans going on with the transparent walls'. When the solution of how the murderer managed to kill everyone and roam the floor completely unseen is finally revealed, I think some readers will think it's a cheat, while others might well, not exactly shrug, but not be very surprised by it because it had still been one of those 'perhaps?' solutions in their mind. I like the core idea of the trick of the disappearing murderer, but due to the very limited situation of The Glass Bird Will Never Return, this impossible element of the story seems to be less surprising than it could've been. For this plot to work, the murderer also decided to concoct the most convoluted murder plot to accomplish something that could have been done infinitely times easier and your mileage may vary on how willing you'll be to accept that.

The Glass Bird Will Never Return is more than just the (semi-)impossible murders though and I think that taken on the whole, the book is a lot of fun to read. There's the mystery of the Glass Birds that have escaped their cages and a lot of the plot also revolves around Maria and Ren trying to figure out how Sandford managed to bring his illegal animals to his penthouse without anyone in Sandford Tower noticing. Late in the novel, Maria and the reader stumble upon the aftermath of the series of murders on the floor with the animal cages, and there's not a survivor anywhere in the penthouse, which leads to a new mystery: how did the murderer escape from the burning Sandford Tower penthouse unseen and unnoticed? The book keeps on adding smaller mysteries all the way to the end, making it a very fun read as the mysteries keep piling up until the final chapter.

So while I think that at a micro-level, The Glass Bird Will Never Return has fewer truly surprising/impressive elements to its plot compared to its two predecessors, I think that on the whole The Glass Bird Will Never Return is a well-plotted mystery novel, that is perhaps even the most entertaining entry in the series to read, as it's also the most thrilling one with focus on how the events unfold in real-time. As the third novel, some parts will feel a bit familiar perhaps as all three books follow the same story structure, but it's definitely a solid read that will entertain fans of the series.

Original Japanese title(s): 市川憂人『グラスバードは還らない』

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Homicide Trinity

Something old, something new, 
something borrowed, something blue

Time to use the rarely used short shorts tag again! Many years ago, I thought I'd use the Short Shorts corner to collect multiple, unrelated short reviews and other observations in one single post, usually when I felt I couldn't fill out a full post about one topic. But I seldom use the tag now, as I often just give up on writing a post of something if I feel I can't write a full post on a subject. But as the topics of today are all games and they kinda form a nice contrast as they tackle the idea of a mystery game in different manners, I guess I can use the tag again now...

The Mysteries of Ranko Togawa: Murder on the Marine Express (2021) is the first entry in what is planned to be a series of mystery novels on PC by Spanish developer 1564 Studio. The titular Marine Express, no relation to the Osamu Tezuka animated movie, is a newly developed submarine train connecting California with Japan. The elite St. Joachim Academy for girls has booked seats for its classes on the maiden voyage of the Marine Express, offering their (rich) students an opportunity to learn about marine biology during a one-of-a-kind school trip. However, not long after they have left California, the unexpected happens: the body of one of the teachers of St. Joachim is found in his compartment, stabbed to death. The main suspect is a student whom was rumored to have been in a relationship with the teacher. Ranko Togawa and her bestie Astrid however think there's more to this crime, which seems confirmed when more attacks and murders occur in the running underwater train. Everyone is locked up with the murderer inside the running Marine Express until they reach Japan, so it's up to Ranko to quickly find out who the killer is.

I think it was the title that first caught my attention of this visual novel: the name "Ranko Togawa" reminded me of Edogawa Rampo of course, and I think the Marine Express animated movie by Tezuka is pretty neat (the adaptation in the GBA game Astro Boy: Omega Factor too!), so it was only natural I decided to try it out. This game is a relatively short kinetic visual novel, meaning there is no real gameplay and you're just reading the 2-3 hour long story. As a mystery story, it's presented fairly competent, though the plot is not incredibly surprising: a lot of the twists and turns will seem somewhat familiar because they don't vary much from the known tropes of the genre. There's a PlayStation game released only in Japan titled Murder on the Eurasia Express (1998) that has a similar story setting, with a murder occuring on a long-distance train with female students of an elite school, and because of the similar background story, some of the story beats in The Mysteries of Ranko Togawa: Murder on the Marine Express do remind of Murder on the Eurasia Express: I guess this is a result of both games making use of similiar 'building blocks' so it's not strange they'd end up with similar story ideas too, but because of that, I had a pretty good idea of what was going on early on. I also thought it was a shame the idea of a closed circle situation in an underwater express felt underplayed at times. After a few fish-related jokes at the start of the game, you don't really get the sense anymore this is a train running at high speed underwater. The game is split up in various scenes and chapters, and just having short cut scenes/'eye catchers' that show the train moving underwater and perhaps an Indiana Jones-style map showing the current location of the Marine Express in the ocean wedged between the story scenes would've sold the setting much better. I did love the graphics, music and the writing of this game though. The pixel art of this game is fantastic, and the slightly larger-than-usual sprites really make the characters come to life, and the banter between the colorful cast of characters is quite enjoyable too. There's also a group chat that is updated occassionally for some extra (optional) dialogue to read, though players who want to focus on the mystery can choose to ignore that. The core mystery plot of The Mysteries of Ranko Togawa: Murder on the Marine Express will probably not surprise more experienced readers of the genre, but it has a lot of spirit and I'm definitely interested in seeing more of this universe.

I assume that most Western mystery readers became acquianted with the exploits of the Chinese magistrate Di Renjie through the Judge Dee novels by Robert van Gulik, but van Gulik isn't the only person who has written detective fiction based on this historical person. Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders is a 2019 PC game developed by Nupixo, and like van Gulik's writings, involves a highly fictionalized version of Di, a young magistrate who is appointed to become the head criminal investigator of the capital Chang'an by Wu Zetian, the first and only empress of China. He is put personally by Wu on the case of the murder of Linfei, a woman who was strangled and whose heart had been cut out. The previous magistrate had tried to pin the murder on the victim's father, but the empress suspect there might be a political plot behind this to weaken her (still fragile) hold on the Dragon Throne, so she wants Di to investigate thoroughly. But while Di is investigating the case, more women are killed in Chang'an and the mysterous killer leaves threatening notes and roses behind at each scene, signalling a crazed killer is on the loose.

Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders is basically the complete opposite of The Mysteries of Ranko Togawa: Murder on the Marine Express in terms of gameplay. The latter was a kinetic novel, where you could only read, Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders on the other hand is an old-fashioned point & click adventure, where you search for pieces of evidence on the screen and talk with various witnesses and suspects to piece the crime together. The game is about 3, 4 hours long and with only a few simple inventory puzzles and one or two parts where you might have to pixel hunt, it's also not a challenging game, but it is quite enjoyable. While Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders utilizes a minimalistic graphic style, it works surprisingly well to create a historical Chinese setting (which is one you don't see in games often anyway!) and the story is also quite unique, making full use of the specific historical background. The prologue for example focuses on an international scandal when a Korean ambassador is killed during treaty discussions at a Chinese manor, while the main game does a great job at really making you realize you're playing a mystery game set in the time of Wu's rule. Each chapter is bookended with a segment where the game tests whether you made the right interpretation of all the evidence you found up until then, and while these segments are far from difficult and basically only checking whether you were paying attention, the presentation is quite good and help make the player feel like they're really solving a crime. Definitely one to try out if you like van Gulik's Judge Dee novels!

Murder Mystery Machine is a game originally released for mobile platforms in 2019 in episodic format, but the complete "first season" was released on PC/PS4/Xbox One/Switch in 2021. In comparison to the previous two games, Murder Mystery Machine is the game most focused on letting the player solve a crime themselves. In this game, the player takes on the role of Cassandra, a rookie police detective who is assigned to the District Crime Agency as the partner of Nate, who makes it very clear he doesn't need a partner and especially not someone who just graduated from police academy. Their first job is the investigation into the death of a local politician who was gaining momentum lately. After solving their first job succesfully together, Cass and Nate slowly learn to know each other better as they get to work on more cases, but their investigations also lead them on the trail of a big conspiracy and it seems the only persons they can trust, are each other. Or not?

The presentation is the first thing that stands out in Murder Mystery Machine: each episodes is divided in several scenes, and each scene ("location") is basically an isometric diorama and you control Cass as she interrogates witnesses and searches each nook and cranny for clues. Each diorama is in 3D and you can turn the scene around to look at the scene from a different angle, sometimes revealing evidence that had been hiding behind a blind spot initially. This reminds of a game like Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, which had some brilliant puzzles that revolved around the player turning the level around and looking at it from various angles. In Murder Mystery Machine however, the idea basically remains the same the whole game: sometimes something is hiding behind a blind spot and you're only able to see it if you turn the diorama around, but that's it, the way this idea is used in the first episode is the same way they use it in the last episode. These dioramas look great though and the presentation remains great start to finish. You finish a scene and move on to the next once you have obtained all the neccessary evidence/testimony and answer the core questions of that scene. This is done via an interesting deduction board mechanic.

You basically have all the relevant information on post-its, which you are free to organize any way you want. By linking related nodes with lines, you're able to generate new insights or questions. For example if you have a node about a pistol, and a node about a body that was shot, you can connect those two pieces of information, leading to a new insight that the pistol was indeed the murder weapon. Or you can also connect contradicting information, like A claiming B can vouch for their alibi when B denies such a thing. Connecting those pieces of information would allow you to confront those two people with your new insight. Eventually you'll arrive at certain 'big' nodes, which allow you to answer the scene's main questions like "Who is the main suspect" or "Who has a motive for the murder". While it is required to answer the main questions correctly in order to move on to the next scene, the game doesn't actually punish you when you make incorrect connections between nodes: it will not say that connecting node A and B is unneccessary or punish you for that. This means that if you have a good idea of what is going on, you can keep your board pretty neat because you'll only make the necessary connections between the nodes, while someone just guessing will have a horrible mess of a board, with countless of lines connecting one node to another. Depending on the scene, you'll easily have thirty, forty different nodes which can all be connected to each other, so things can become very cluttered with lines if you are just guessing and not making deliberate connections between nodes. The game can be confusing though, with nodes that have similar information, but you're required to connect specific nodes even though the other node basically says the same. I played this game on the Switch by the way, and organizing your board can be rather frustrating with a controller (and for some reason the Switch touchscreen can't be used!). This gameplay mechanic probably works really easy with touchscreen or mouse, but it's unnessarily complex with a controller.

The game has some replayability as it rewards you if you can find all the relevant connections in each scene (you don't need to make all the necessary connections between information nodes to answer all the main questions in each scene) and the game does become more difficult with each case, as you accumulate more and more information, making each board much more complex due to the possible numbers of connections. The cases themselves aren't very complex, but I like how the game really makes the player make all the deductive connections themselves, allowing the player to make each logical step themselves instead of being a passive experience. The plots of Murder Mystery Machine are often fairly straightforward, but even so, they do make you feel like you're really a detective yourself as you yourself have to connect all the relevant facts to arrive at the right conclusions. The eight episodes are connected through an overarching storyline which develops in a rather predictable manner to be honest, but as an overall package, Murder Mystery Machine is an enjoyable detective game, especially for those who really want to be working on a puzzle themselves.

Developer Blazing Griffin Games is also working on a Poirot game coming out in two weeks by the way, so I'm definitely going to check that one out too!

So a short post this time, with short write-ups on short mystery games.  The Mysteries of Ranko Togawa: Murder on the Marine Express, Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders and Murder Mystery Machine were all quite different as mystery games, and they all had different things to like about them. I guess I might as well ask the other gamers here if there are mystery games they have enjoyed lately, or whether they are looking forward to a certain title? I already mentioned the upcoming Poirot game, and I still have to find time/money to get me the new Shin Hayarigami and perhaps Tantei Bokumetsu... And if you have played any of the games discussed today, what were your thoughts?

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Scent of Danger

Soup du jour / Hot hors d'œuvres
Why, we only live to serve
Try the gray stuff, it's delicious 
"Be Our Guest" (Beauty and the Beast)

In general, I'm not a big fan of anthologies, which is probably why I only get to use the anthology tag once a year...

Disclosure: I am a member of the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan. I didn't vote for the stories this year though. Or any year since I became a member.... Since I basically never read short stories published seperately, I only read them when they are finally collected in a full volume or... in an anthology like this one.

The members of the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan vote on the best mystery novel published in the year and award the work with the Honkaku Mystery Award. This usually leads to the book in question getting a nice new obi to make sure you know it won the award. The Club members also pick the best short stories published in a year, but these are usually published in different magazines etc.  That is why the Club also publishes annual anthologies that collect the selection of chosen short stories of that year. The anthology got a new, smaller format in 2019, and because I also reviewed the 2020 edition last year, I guess that most people guessed that it was likely I would get around to Honkaku-Ou 2021 ("The King of Honkaku 2021") eventually. And in the same sense that the fact that I'm discussing this book isn't a surprise, it also sure isn't a surprise if I tell you that this volume, at the core, isn't much different from the previous volumes: Honkaku-Ou 2021 provides a nice collection of mystery stories and some of them are really good.

Cozy Boys, Arui wa Kieta Izayakaya no Nazo ("Cozy Boys. Or: The Mystery of the Disappearing Izakaya") is part of a series by Fuefuki Tarou, focusing on the Cozy Boys, a small club of people in the publishing industry who gather in a cafe to talk about mystery fiction while enjoying tea and cake. Today, they have a real mystery however. Mystery writer Fukurai Shouichi has a rather vexing problem: last night, Shimamura Etsushi was murdered, an editor/critic who had connections with everyone in the industry, and was hated by everyone in the industry. As someone with a connection to the victim, Fukurai is also questioned by the police, but he oddly has no alibi: he went out drinking last night, going from one bar to another, but while he can remember the first two he visited with a friend, both of them have very little memory of the third izakaya they visited, which would have been around the time of the murder. Fukurai has been going around the area looking for the mystery izakaya, but can't find it, so he hopes his Cozy Boys friends can help figure out where the elusive izakaya is. As the title suggest, this is more like a cozy mystery and the story unfolds through the discussions between the various people present in the cafe. It's the kind of puzzle where it's quite possible you'll just think of the solution instinctively, but the way the story is presented, with everyone trying to piece the location of the izayakaya together based on the vague memories of Fukurai is done competently.

I don't know if there's some rule, but the previous two anthologies had historical mystery stories too, and Hanyuu Asuka's Tomurai Senju ("Thousand-Armed Mourning") is part of that tradition. Set in 1184, the story follows Taira no Yorimori (half-brother of Taira no Kiyomori) as a detective. Yorimori is invited by Minamoto no Yoritomo in Kamakura. Yorimori has been a good friend of Yoritomo and his daughter Oohime, so he's surprised to see Oohime in a very depressive, and enraged mood. It turns out that the young Oohime had been married off to Yoshitaka in a political marriage, with Yoshitaka basically being a hostage of Yoritomo. Oohime had loved her husband though. One night, a maid loyal to Oohime overheard a discussion of Yoritomo and his men about attacking the family of Yoshitaka and this information was relayed through Oohime to Yoshitaka. He miraculously escaped from the Minamoto manor, but was eventually hunted down by pursuers and killed. An act which Oohime has not forgiven her father. Yoritomo however is slowly growing afraid for and of his daughter. Oohime has been isolating herself in her own quarters since the death of her husband, but for some reason she manages to always appear right in front of her father whenever he speaks of Yoshitaka, even when he's in completely different part of the manor or speaking privately with his wife. He fears Yoshitaka's spirit must have gotten hold of Oohime, but Taira no Yorimori can think of a less supernatural way by which Oohime can pull this impossible feat off, and he even manages to uncover a deeper plot behind all of this. This is a story that makes very clever use of the historical setting to create a convincing semi-impossible situation, but it's the deeper plot that hides below the surface that makes this a fairly memorable story, as the hints are rather subtle, but really start to stand out once Yorimori points them out.

Furuta Ten's Kao ("The Face") is part of a series revolving around an incident where someone started stabbing other people in the subway. From what I understand the focus lies not on the actual incident, but on the various people who got involved one way or another. In this story, we follow high school student Ikebuchi Ryou, who was present in the subway during the incident and hurt his leg while trying to escape from the station. Ryou was once the ace of the tennis club, but he had been in a slump the last few months, and with the injury on top of that, things at first looked grim, but he's been slowly recovering and hopes he can regain the position of ace again. The dramatic story of a young talent who got hurt because of the stabbing incident and the path back to rehabiliation has also been made into a documentary by Noe Hibiki, a member of the newspaper club who once exposed a pollution scandal. However, it seems that there's more behind this story, because while Hibiki is following Ryou in his daily life with her camera, she starts asking questions about the stabbing incident and little by little, Ryou notices that her questions seem to lead to a conclusion he had never thought of himself. It's not a story where you'll be solving a lot yourself, as the focus lies more on the slow build to Hibiki's reveal, though this story might be more interesting of the other stories, as I assume that all stories in this series will intersect in some ways.

Each of the stories in this anthology comes accompanied by a message from the author, and on the page Fue wo Fuku Ie ("The Piper House"), Sawamura Ichi explains that this story was originally written for a special feature with ghost stories, and that he added a twist, first making you think it's a normal ghost story only to reveal it's actually a mystery story. Which... of course doesn't work if you're reading this story in a mystery anthology, as he himself notes. And indeed, with the context of this being a mystery story, the tale of a family of three coming across a strange, empty manor in their neighborhood isn't half as creepy, as you 're already prepared and waiting for some twist. And knowing a twist will come, it's kinda easy to guess what the twist is. It's a story that would've worked quite well without knowing it's a mystery story, but that's impossible here.

Shibata Katsuie's Stay Home Satsujin Jiken ("The Stay Home Murder Case") is a story that screams 2020, as you can tell from the title. If someone will be reading this fifty years later, they'll probably have to look up what's so special about 2020, unless we're dealing with COVID-70 by then. Due the state of emergency in Tokyo, maid cafes in Akihabara have to close too, but some cafes still maintain contact with their customers through livestreams. The narrator is one of those customers, and of course always present whenever a maid of the cafe Happy Bloom is doing a livestream. The day after one of those livestreams, the manager of Happy Bloom is found dead in the (closed) cafe, and the maid who found her boss, swears the door was locked from the inside when she went in the cafe that morning. The boss' own key is also found inside the cafe, meaning he was killed inside a locked maid cafe. The narrator is dragged around by Fugashi, a legendary maid who is also a gifted amateur detective who has solved cases in the past and who was asked to look into Happy Bloom because something  had been going on there. As a locked room mystery, this story is fairly simple, but it makes clever use of the maid cafe setting and with all the little references to how life was in 2020, it will make for an interesting read in the future too.

Kurai Mayusuke's Hannin wa Itta. ("Thus Said The Culprit.") has an interesting, and ambitious angle: it thrives to be both a pure whodunnit, and an inverted mystery. So while we see how the murderer commits the crime at the start of the story, we also have to guess who the murderer is despite having seen the murder scene ourselves! Yasuda Hiroshi is found murdered in his house, having just returned to Japan that evening, has he had been working abroad for a while. Earlier that evening, he had met with his friends and the girl he had promised to marry after he'd return to Japan, but to the great shock of everyone, he had declared he wanted to distance himself from them for a while and even the marriage was off. Given that his friends are very close and were thus betrayed by him, every single one f them had a reason to kill him, and because basically only them (and the victim's aunt and cousin) knew he had returned that day, it seems likely one of them did it. Inspector Shishidou, known as "Sphinx" of the Metropolitan Police Department is put on the case, and as her nickname implies, her method consists of asking everyone a lot of questions. A very cleverly written story: the way the inverted part of the story is incorporated into the whodunnit plot is done surprisingly well, and it really rewards you to reread that part again once you're done. The story unfolds like a classic whodunnit puzzler, with the story requiring the reader ot identify what the murderer must've done and using that information to cross off names of the suspect list. The manner how the whodunnit plot (where the reader doesn't know who the murderer is) and the inverted part (where the reader does know what the murderer did and what they talked about with the victim) is used very cleverly to make a very puzzling riddle.

My absolute favorite of the volume however is Houjou Kie's Amulet Hotel. The two novels Houjou has written until now all involved supernatural elements like time travel to present very cleverly written, puzzle-focused whodunnit stories, but in her first published short story, we have a setting that is not supernatural, but definitely not normal either. When a guest of the Amulet Hotel's annex complains that the door to his room can't be opened and it turns out even the owner's master key can't open the door, they break the door down: the door had been blocked by a serving cart jammed beneath the door handle. Inside the room, they find a murdered man and an unconscious employee of the hotel. Normally, this is time to call the police, but not in the Amulet Hotel: the annex of the Amulet Hotel serves a very special kind of guest, the kind of guest who likes their privacy very much, who doesn't like the police and who will make use of the special hotel services like having guns delivered to their rooms. Everyone is a criminal here, so whenever anything happens here, the Amulet Hotel will "clean up" themselves. But while the Amulet Hotel does cater to the criminals, there are still rules they expect their guests to obey to, and the most important one is that they should never ever inconvenience the hotel. Hotel detective Kiryuu is asked to figure out whether the unconscious employee in the hotel room killed the guest, or whether someone else did and if so, how the locked room was created and once they know what happened, they will deal with things properly. What follows is an insanely densily-plotted mystery story with a lot of ideas stuffed in a relatively low page count, but it works. It reminded me of Houjou's debut novel Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei, which I also described as having an incredible number of ideas: this is basically the short story variant. Which starts out as seemingly a locked room murder mystery turns into a very amibitious "which of the three" whodunnit puzzler with a lot of clever clues that remind you that Houjou was a member of the Kyoto University Mystery Club and thus used to writing whodunnit shorts with twist and turns. I can't really mention all the ideas here because it'll spoil the experience, but a lot of the ideas implemented here could also have served as the basic idea for one single story, but Houjou somehow manages to stuff multiple of those ideas in one story, and still make it work. The setting of a hotel for criminals is also used in various clever ways, leading to a mystery story that only works because of this unique setting, as all the characters have their reasons to act very differently than in a "normal" hotel. Fans of whodunnit puzzler short stories should definitely take a look at this one.

There have only been three volumes in this format, but I think that Honkaku-Ou 2021 might be the best year yet, with all the stories being amusing on their own, and a few really nice ones included too. Not one of the stories included feels out of place, which occasionally happens with anthologies.There's quite some diversity too, from historical dramas to a story that is clearly written during the pandemic, and we have pure puzzlers, but also a horror-focused story. Amulet Hotel is definitely the star of the volume, but the book is on the whole quite consistent in terms of quality. I am not a fan of anthologies in general, but reading books like these once a year at least allows me to try a few authors I might want to keep an eye on.

Original Japanese title(s): 『本格王2021』笛吹太郎「コージーボーイズ、あるいは消えた居酒屋の謎」/ 羽生飛鳥「弔千手」/ 降田天「顔」/ 澤村伊智「笛を吹く家」/ 柴田勝家「すていほぉ~む殺人事件」/ 倉井眉介「犯人は言った。」/ 方丈貴恵「アミュレット・ホテル」

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The Flying Stars

"One must follow one's star, wherever it leads."
"Death on the Nile"

The cover art is apparently just based on the title of today's book, but it's a shame it didn't try incorporate element from the various stories included more prominently, because I like the comic-esque style...

Now I think about it, I believe that most short story collections I read and review here are usually collections of stories that have been published/serialized elsewhere first. Usually the stories are published overa period of one or two years and then collected and sometimes, I have even read one or two already before they're all bundled in one volume. This makes Aman Junichi's 2021 short story collection Hoshizora no Palette, which also features the English title A Palette in the Starry Sky on the cover, a somewhat unique read for me, as it's a direct-to-book release, with four all original sories never published elsewhere before. This is also the first time I read anything by Aman, but as an Ayukawa Tetsuya Award winner, his name had always been one I kept an eye on and after glancing through some reviews of this book, I realized his writing style would probably appeal to me so I decided to dive in with his latest work which features four unrelated short stories.

The opening story Kuroi Achilles ("The Black Achilles") is set at Kokonoe High School, where Kousuke, Eimi and Yuki (whose father is police inspector) have formed a little detective club. You'd think there wouldn't be many myseries around an ordinary school, but one day after school, they are witness to a daring robbery: a masked figure snatches a thick envelope from a student and makes a run for it. The victim cries the envelope has all the money members paid for the upcoming trip of the Badminton Club, so a group of students run after the thief. When the thief takes the path up the hill surrounding the school, they think they've got him, but to the chasers' great surprise, the thief leaps off the hill,, only to land safely on a mat prepared on the roof of one of the school buildings. The thief quicky pulls the mat away and makes their escape through the school, while the group of chasers has no choice but to take the long way around back to the school grounds, but it's too late of course. To prevent similar thefts, rules are changed so clubs have to collect money from their members for trips in classrooms under the supervision of teachers, but despite these precautions and the presence of a police detective, the thief strikes again! Like the last time, the thief's escape route leads to the path on the hill, but this time people are of course prepared for his leap back to the school building. The thief however keeps on running up the hill, but just as the chasers manage to come closer, they're in for another surprise: the thief had prepared a zip-line leading from the hill into the empty warehouse right behind the school. Once again, they have to take the long way around, but as the warehouse is locked from the outside, they are sure they have their thief now. But inside they find a dead thief, stabbed with a knife. As the warehouse was locked until the police arrived and the only "open" entrance was the window several meters up the ground from where the thief zipped inside, it seems nobody could've killed him.

This is a fantastic story considering its length. It's not an extremely long short story, but so much happens within its limited page count, complete with false solutions. It's also surprisingly densily clewed, with many minor hints that ultimately explain who committed the murder, which also helps you figure out how the impossible murder in the warehouse was committed. The clewing that leads to the murderer is definitely the highlight of the story: it's classic Queen-style plotting with a lot of clues that point you to specific characteristics the murderer must answer to, but this process plays out across several vectors here, and in terms of information density, it's almost like you've read a story twice the length, even though nothing feels rushed or underdeveloped. I hope this becomes a proper series, because I like the characters and the setting of this!

After an unfortunate accident with their car, Hiromu and his uncle end up at an outdoor log cabin campground in Natsu no Hokuto Shichisei ("The Big Dipper in the Summer"). At dinner they meet most of the other staying guests, but when they return to their own cabin, they run into a horrified woman who says she found a dead woman in her cabin after waking up after her nap. But strangely enough, and to the camp site owner's great surprise, he doesn't recognize the woman who found the body. According to the woman, she's the guest staying in Cabin 2 and when she arrived here earlier this day, someone else helped her at the reception, but the owner says he's the only one working here and that he didn't know about her at all. Whatever the case, the police needs to be contacted, but it's then they find out the phone line's been cut and both the time, weather and the fact that Hiromu's car is lying flipped on the one single road means they can't get help this night. Fortunately, Hiromu's uncle is a former police officer (well, technically, he was in Accounting) and he decides to take over for the moment, but both he and Hiromu are aware that there's something wrong with all the guests and the owner here, and it's clear that the murder is related to their secret, but what? 

After the impressive first story, this story was a bit disappointing. This is best read as a closed circle thriller perhaps, as a lot of the story focuses on Hiromu and his uncle knowing something isn't quite right about all the people here and the two of them slowly trying to figure out what's going on and why there was a body left in someone's cabin. There are some memorable moments: the explanation for why the body ended up there is a bit confusing in this medium, but I have to admit I wasn't reading that concentrated so perhaps it would've been more of an "Aha!" moment, but the idea itself I like. The ending also brings things together in an interesting way, giving more depth to a story that otherwise features a bit too much coincidence and people acting in a way that is obviously only meant to facilitate the plot.

Tanima no Cassiopeia ("Cassiopeia in the Rift") has a story-within-a-story structure, and starts with the horror novelist Raitsu Unmo showing his friend Goetsu Akira (a mystery novelist) a manuscript for a detective story he was sent. The story is about a murder committed in a small bar in a tenant building: just before opening hours, one of the female companions working there was found murdered in one of the dressing rooms. While initially, the case looks very simple as only the bartender and the other female companions were inside the bar, while security cameras show nobody else went to that floor around the time of the murder, but a close investigation into the alibis of everyone shows nobody would realistically have had the time to commit the murder after the victim had gone to the dressing room. While Goetsu is reading the story however, he also notices the story he's reading is very similar to an acual murder case that happened a while ago, and he starts investigating the real case too, which leads to a surprising conclusion. This is definitely the other highlight of this volume. This is again a densily plotted story, with the "story-within-a-story" featuring a seemingly straightforward semi-impossible murder set inside a small bar, but once again Amon shows that it's possible to write complex, well-clewed mysteries even with simple settings and it should come as no surprise that the story-within-a-story structure is used to add an extra dimension to the puzzle that really makes this a memorable read.

The final story, Byouin no Ningyohime ("The Mermaid Princess in the Hospital"), is set at an university hospital, where a female nurse was found dead, having fallen from the rooftop of the lab building. Yukari, who works at oral surgery, was practically witness to the death, as the victim fell right behind her, and it turns out she knew the nurse too. At first, it was assumed she committed suicide, but soon after the police learns the victim cried out when she fell of the rooftop, which doesn't seem to indicate a will to die. The curious fact the victim was clenching her bicycle key in her hand as she died also puzzles the police. Murder is suspected, but the investigation quickly shows nobody went on the roof with the victim and that she should have been all alone when she fell of the roof. If this was a murder, how the murderer arrive on the roof and get away again completely unseen? This story didn't quite work for me: it's basically built around two ideas that could've worked alone, but I don't think joining them really adds something to the plot, at least not in a way that provides synergy. The howdunnit aspect of the murder is a bit unbelievable, as it requires the victim to be very very gullible even if I think the mechanics behind the idea are okay.

As my first encounter with Aman Junichi, I think Hoshizora no Palette was quite amusing. While not all four stories in this book were of the same level, the two highlights of the volume are really good and told me I really should read more of Aman. The four stories are quite puzzle-focused, so if you're into that kind of mystery stories (like me!), you'll find a lot to like here, though I have to say that this volume is also quite diverse in terms of story backgrounds, so I think any mystery fan should be able to find something to like here.

Original Japanese title(s): 安萬純一『星空にパレット』:「黒いアキレス」 /「夏の北斗七星」 / 「谷間のカシオペア」 / 「病院の人魚姫」

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Inner Circle

"A donut hole in the donut's hole."
"Knives Out"

Okay, with Inugami in title and the familiar -kan no Satsujin (... House Murder(s)), the title of today's book sounds a bit too familiar for mystery fans, I think.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Serizawa Hiyoko and her personal maid Tsuyuri Shizuka travel through a wintery cold to the manor of Serizawa's uncle, who married into the Himuro family to attend to a curious ceremony to be held at the house. As of late, Himuro Takamine has been become involved with the Society of Man, a shady new religion who has convinced the man to hold the Ritual of the Dog at the manor. Hiyoko's excuse is that she'll be visiting her cousin Meiko, but in fact Hiyoko has been sent by her grandmother to keep an eye on things to see what her uncle is getting himself into. Upon arrival however, Hiyoko is surprised to see that Meiko herself too is determined to participate in the ritual which is supposed to call down the spirit of Takamine's late wife. The ceremony is held in a specially-built dome-like structure in the house, basically consisting of three circles within each other. Facing the structure from the front, the first door leads to a curved outer corridor which leads to the exact other side of the circle. There a second door leads inoto the second corridor (the second ring), which curves back to the front. The final third door leads into the inner circle of this structure, where the temperature is freezing. The ceremony will have Meiko praying here in the middle for hours on. However, in order to deter people from disturbing the ritual, a grotesque safety measure is built into the building: each of the three sliding doors leading deeper into the structure has a guillotine blade built into it, attached to a box on the inside of each door. Three persons are to lie down in those boxes and be locked inside, with Meiko in possession of the key. Unless Meiko herself uses the lock to free the people lying in those boxes first, anyone forcefully opening the sliding doors will decapitate the people lying in the boxes and who'd be so desperate to kill three humans to interrupt the Ritual of the Dog?

But the unthinkable does happen! While there are people standing guard outside the structure during the ritual, they suddenly hear Yuuri, Meiko's friend lying inside the first box (attached to the first door), cry out. Sensing something is wrong, Hiyoko and Shizuka approach the door only to witness how the door is slid open, decapitating Yuuri. Realizing someone inside the structure slid the door open, Hiyoko and Shizuka make their way deeper into the structure, finding everyone in the boxes is dead, decapitated by the guillotine doors. But when they arrive at the center, they are shocked to find Meiko standing in the middle, but she too has been stabbed to death and was frozen in her standing position. But there's not a single sign of the person who opened the guillotine doors from outside and there are no other exits out of this structure. But what surprises Hiyoko the most is that Shizuka confesses she was afraid this would happen: three years ago, when she worked as a housekeeper at the Yukishima family, the Society of Man had erected the same structure for the Ritual of the Dog and there too someone had managed to penetrate the triple-layered locked room. As Shizuka recounts the events that occured three years ago, she slowly pieces together what happened this time in Tsukihara Wataru's Inugamikan no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Inugami House" 2019).

This is the third novel in Tsukihara Wataru's series set in the late 1800/early 1900s Japan starring the maid Shizuka, a very capable housekeeper of Russian descent who at times has a tendency to fall out of her role and mock her superiors, but who nonetheless is extremely good at what she does, and that includes some occasional detecting. I hadn't read any of the earlier novels before (yep, I never read things in order), but starting with this novel didn't seem to problematic at all. I don't even know whether Shizuka is also working for Hiyoko in the other novels, or whether she's working somewhere else each time, but at the very least, you can start with Inugamikan no Satsujin without worrying too much.

I picked this one entry up because the premise sounded interesting, with a triple-layered locked room murder mystery, with a structure with guillotine doors and shady ceremonies. If you ask me what I think of the book now I have read it though, I have to admit I'm torn. It has some really neat ideas, mostly with the enigmatic structure and the guillotine doors, but at the same time, the story has characters act in rather unconvincing manners in order to make the plot work, and some of logistics behind the murder plot are rather iffy upon scrutinization, so the book doesn't quite manage to completely win me over. But to start with the fun parts first: I love the utterly nuts idea of a building with guillotine doors which force you to commit a murder if you want to open it. In the book they say they can't believe anyone could be so desperate or crazy to use those doors, but as the reader, you of course know it's soooo going to be used to kill everyone in those boxes. This is where you also realize that this book is more focused on presenting the core mystery problem with an interesting murder situation, rather than focusing on really providing a firm foundation to explain why this structure exists in the first place: if you really wanted nobody to disturb the ritual, you could just lock the doors without human sacrifices and the story hardly explains why the ritual demands the middle of the structure to be freezing cold, or why the structure is built inside another building, or why it has that particular circle-within-a-circle-within-a-circle layout. Tsukihara simply came up with an idea for a triple-layered locked room murder, and ran with it. Don't think too hard about it and just accept there's a building with guillotine doors.

The book starts in media res, with Hiyoko and Shizuka discovering the deaths inside the structure, and afterwards, the story follows a dual narrative structure, with chapters alternating between the ones set in the present (starting with the build-up to the discovery of the murders) and chapters set in the past, when Shizuka was working for the Yukishimas and the same Ritual of the Dog was held with similar results. These chapters are titled almost the same and often, events and conversations appear to be echoed between the past and the present, yet at the same time, as this is a mystery, the reader is of course aware that it isn't a coincidence that deaths occur whenever the Ritual of the Dog is held by the Society of Man, and the plot will have you wondering why this ceremony is being held again and what the true purpose is of this insane ritual. The events in the past are very similar to the ones in the present, with a figure opening the killer doors from within and ultimately finding the girl who had been praying inside stabbed. While the narrative of the past is intricately connected the narrative of the present, I have to say that in regards of the mystery plot, things get a bit rushed here, with events that seem barely possible in terms of the timeline and by the end, you're more puzzled about whether all that could really have been done and also about the motivations for some characters to act like that. 

The narrative in the present has a more solid mystery plot and forms a nice contrast with the one in the past, but here too you are left wondering about whether it was really worth it for the culprit to do all of that for those causes. I'm not the kind of mystery reader who usually fuzzes too much about character motivation, but it's really rare for me to me to think a book could have come up with a more convincing reason to explain character actions, because I'm usually very willing to just roll with the plot. The problem of the murderer opening the guilotine doors from the inside and then disappearing from the structure is good though, with some nice moments that don't just focus on the howdunnit, but also have Queenian moments that focus on the question why some objects/circumstances are the way they are and the logical implications from that.

Inugamikan no Satsujin is a pretty short novel, and due to its dual narrative structure, it has to go through events pretty swiftly, which has both benefits and drawbacks. It goes straight to business, throwing a very odd building with guillotine doors at you and people locked up boxes and frozen corpses and more, and it ultimately uses these elements to weave an entertaining locked room mystery, but at the same time, it also rushes through some details which make you wonder, hey, do things really work the way it was just said here? I enjoyed Inugamikan no Satsujin as a short read as it has some genuinely memorable moments and ideas and will also pick up some other adventures with Shizuka later, but at the same time, it's also a book that left me wondering about what it could also have been with perhaps fifty pages extra to work out some of the more rushed parts of the murder plot and the underlying motivations.

Original Japanese title(s): 月原渉『犬神館の殺人』

Thursday, September 2, 2021

番外編:Death Among the Undead Released

Doing announcements of announcements is like shooting myself in the foot, because I'm always left with nothing to say in the actual announcement... It's common practice to make an announcement of an upcoming major announcement, or at least it's like that in the game industry, but I guess you're not supposed to give away everything during the pre-announcement.

So now that Locked Room International has today published my newest translation of Masahiro IMAMURA's 2017 debut novel Death Among the Undead (original title: Shijinsou no Satsujin), do I have anything to add to my original announcement post not even two weeks ago? No, not really.  Pointing out that Death Among the Undead was an unprecedented monster hit that became the first title in history to conquer the first place in all the major Japanese annual rankings of mystery novels, and that it has since become a multimedia franchise, with a manga adaptation and an excellent live action adaptation would just be repeating myself. Raving about how it introduces a completely original take on the closed circle situation and locked room murder mystery is all I have been doing here ever since I read the book back in 2018. It is the book you need to read if you want to know in what (amazing) state the Japanese mystery novel is now currently, but yes, it's all been said here before.

Though I am really excited the book is out now! I assume most people reading this are regular readers of this blog, so they'll be aware that probably about 85% of the books I discuss here are not available in translation (English or any other language) and it's not uncommon to see comments on articles here where people voice their wishes for a translation. And I can safely say that at least on this blog, Death Among the Undead was by far the most wished-for title. Heck, when I reviewed the third novel in the series released only a few weeks back in Japan, the comment section once again had people wishing for a translation of Death Among the Undead. As it hadn't been formally announced yet by Locked Room International, there wasn't much I could say then though. Anyway, it's awesome that the book is now indeed available in English translation now, and that I got to work on it myself!

Edit: Publishers Weekly's starred review is also up!

For those who have read previous translations of Japanese mystery novels published by Locked Room International, this might be a slightly surprising work. Like Lending the Key to the Locked Room released last year, Death Among the Undead is a fairly recent work, as opposed to the early shin honkaku novels from the eighties Locked Room International did before (not to mention the even older The Ginza Ghost and The Red Locked Room). Death Among the Undead follows the classic tropes of the murder mystery, but at the same time it's unmistakenly a contemporary work, a murder mystery written within the current zeitgeist and presenting familiar-looking ideas in a brand new context. I myself love this book, as it really shows the potential the puzzler mystery story has and that there's stll a gold mine of ideas to be explored for the genre. This Locked Room International version features a special introduction by Soji SHIMADA by the way!

Anyway, I can only hope you'll enjoy the book as much as I did back in 2018! It's such an important work in the context of contemporary Japanese mystery fiction, I really recommend you read it even if the premise of the book sounds a bit... uncanny, because Death Among the Undead is an excellent example of how far the Japanese mystery novel dares to go, and how at the same time it still manages to hold onto our beloved classic tropes and structure firmly. And I'm really repeating myself now, so that's it for today! Enjoy Death Among the Undead!

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

The Case of the Photo Finish

It seems his skin was sweet as mango, 
when last I held him to my breast
"Grim Fandango"

Never been to Kagoshima even though I lived relatively close there for a while...

Disclosure: I translated Shimada's 1985 short story The Running Dead. Different series though!

It's very early in the morning, before sunrise, when a writer decides to step out on his balcony again and indulge in a rather bad habit of his: spying on people. He has a look inside other apartments with his binoculars and he thinks he's lucky when he finds a half-open bathroom window, and inside he sees a woman in her bath tub. A little while later though, he realizes the woman hasn't moved at all and that she's kept her window open despite the cold. Eventually, the body does move, only to reveal a horrible sight: the woman's face has been torn off. The writer makes an anonymous call to the police, who find the dead woman in the tub. Even the veterans among the team had never seen someone with the skin torn off the face and the eyeballs removed. The victim is Chizuru, who worked as a companion at a night club. During the investigation into Chizuru's movements on the night of her murder however, they stumble upon a great mystery: around the estimated time of her death, she was also witnessed in the Hayabusa Night Train from Tokyo to Kagoshima. Several witnesses had seen her on that train that left on the evening of her death, and some even saw her after the time of her murder. Was it her ghost that took the Hayabusa or did her body somehow teleport from a riding train back into her apartment? It's Inspector Yoshiki Takeshi who has to make sense out of this in Shimada Souji's 1984 novel Shindai Tokkyuu Hayabusa -  1/60 no Kabe ("The Night Express Hayabusa -The 1/60 Second Wall).

Earlier I have reviewed Izumo Densetsu 7/8 no Satsujin ("The Izumo Legend 7/8 Murder", 1984) and Kita no Yuuzuru 2/3 no Satsujin ("The Northern Yuzuru 2/3 Murder", 1985) on this blog, which were respectivally the second and third novel to feature the character of Yoshiki Takeshi, a Tokyo-based police detective. This series was initially conceived as Shimada's take on the so-called travel mystery, a sub-genre that focuses on, obviously, travel. The genre is strongly associated with trains and brilliantly fabricated alibis that make full use of complex railway schedules and other characteristics of the subgenre include the stories often being set in popular tourist destination/region outside the capital Tokyo and involving references to local habits, folklore and legends. Shindai Tokkyuu Hayabusa -  1/60 no Kabe was the first novel in this series, but yep, I never read things in order. The series is quite succesful, having about 15 novels with the latest being released in 2019, though I am not sure whether later Yoshiki novels are also written to invoke the travel mystery genre.

Though the first pages of this book seem to invoke Edogawa Rampo more! The discovery of the horribly mutilated victim could have come right out of a Rampo story, with its theme of sexual voyeurism which ends in the discovery of a murder victim. It's a technique Rampo used a lot in his stories, and you'd almost expect the foe of this villain to be some kind of serial killer with a crazy name like The Magician, The Dwarf or The One-Eyed Clown. Once the intitial horror has passed though, you're confronted with a familiar sight in mystery fiction: the unrecognizable corpse. The story's main mystery revolves around the question of how the victim Chizuru could have been seen by multiple people in the Hayabusa Night Express, even after her estimated time of death, while her body was back in Tokyo lying in her bath tub in the early hours of the day. Readers are of course likely to immediately become suspicious of the identity of the corpse, but Shimada of course knows the familiar trope and doesn't play this one straight, and it can be quite tricky to figure out what's really going on here. The reason for the skinned face is quite ingenious actually, and perhaps one of the better ideas of this novel.

While the police is investigating Chizuru's private life and the men with whom she had affairs, it is discovered that Chizuru was seen on the Hayabusa express to Kagoshima (the other side of the country) on the night of her murder and some even saw her leave the train. And it aren't just eyewitnesses: people on the train spoke with her, and one of them even took a picture of the beautiful woman (hence the title The 1/60 Second Wall). The mystery of who this Chizuru was, whether she was the real one and or a fake and the connection to the dead body in the tub back in Tokyo is what drives the plot of this book... in theory, though a lot of time is actually spent by Yoshiki to just find out more about Chizuru, so he also travels to her home town to learn more about her family and life before she moved to Tokyo on her own. It results in a mystery novel that at one hand does have an alluring problem of a victim who is seen alive in a train while the medical records say she was dead at that time, but the narrative seems to not dwell on this too much: rather than really proposing new theories or going over time schedules to see how it could be done, Yoshiki spends more time chasing after more 'tangible' leads like the men in Chizuru's life and her estranged family, which might be more realistic, but it weakens the 'ghostly' part of the story a bit. In the end, it never felt like the book really managed to sell the problem of how Chizuru could be at two places at the same time, both alive and dead, as the core mystery. It just felt like Yoshiki going here and there asking questions about the victim's past, rather than about the current situation.

Ultimately, a tricky plot is unveiled of course that manages to explain everything. While the underlying concepts might sound familiar, the execution is done well, using a lot of misdirection and the use of the train theme to create a good variant on the idea and to make the mystery of the dead and alive Chizuru possible. The plot does have to take a few shortcurts to become possible though, which means that the motives for some people to act in certain ways to allow the mystery to come alive, feel a bit underdeveloped, or at least not very convincing at this point. One character in particular just feels like a walking plot device, doing things solely so the mystery can be constructed. And it's perhaps I just happened to pick these specific novels these last few years, but the writing of the women in the last few Shimada novels I have read all have a distinctly negative undertone. It does kinda undermine the core mystery plot I think, because I think the ideas how this and that were done to create a particular mystery and the clues leading up to the solution are okay, but then the characters, and especially the women, have to act in certain, often forced ways to make that mystery possible.

At the end of my post on Kita no Yuuzuru 2/3 no Satsujin, I wrote "I will probably read the first Yoshiki Takeshi novel first before I decide whether I'll read more of this series," but to be honest, I still don't know whether I will continue. Shindai Tokkyuu Hayabusa -  1/60 no Kabe is a perfectly passable travel mystery that has a few really good ideas, but at times it also felt it focused on parts of the story I myself didn't find as interesting as other parts, so it didn't quite manage to win me over to think of it as a must-read. There are some other novels in this series that appear to be fan favorites, so I might try those in the future, but for the moment, I think I'll take a break with this series and be content with having the first three novels.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司『寝台特急「はやぶさ」1/60秒の壁』