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」


  1. I've been looking forward to this review, mostly because I was curious about Amulet Hotel, but this sounds like a really strong anthology in general. Tomurai Senju, Kao, and Hannin wa Itta especially stand out, although Amulet Hotel is still the one I'm most looking forward to reading. (I really like the concept of a hotel catering to criminals and it's interesting how the detective is explicitly not working to serve justice or uphold the law.)

    1. Yeah, I think Amulet Hotel would make for a great short story collection, with different kind of 'happenings' occuring at the hotel involving different kind of criminals. It kinda reminded me of the Ishinomori manga "Hotel".