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』


  1. Did any of the books in this series do well enough in Japan that it could warrant an English translation?

    1. They seem to be doing well. The first one was an Ayukawa Tetsuya Award winner, and the publisher also gives the series a lot of attention whenever a new release/re-release is out. I believe someone mentioned a Chinese translation of Jellyfish is already available back as a comment to my review of Jellyfish last year, so there's some international interest.