Friday, October 29, 2021

A Study in Black

百年ぶりの世紀末 泣けといわれて僕は笑った
「胸がドキドキ」(The High-Lows)
It's the first end of a century after a hundred years; I was told to cry, yet I laughed 
"The Pounding In My Chest" (The High-Lows)

It's here! 

I already wrote a post to celebrate the joyous occassion, but volume 100 of Detective Conan was released last week. When the series started in 1994, nobody, not even the author himself, could've guessed it'd become the longest running single detective series that would become an even bigger multimedia franchise, but here we are now. The last few years, the serialization schedule has slowed down significantly though: where in the past Conan would be featured in almost every weekly issue of Shonen Sunday, the pacing is less consistent now (often a few weeks consecutively to serialize one single story, followed by a few issues of absence etc.), so the volumes that collect these chapters are also released much slower. What makes scheduling even more complex is that they usually try to release a new volume in April to coincide with the release of the new annual theatrical release, so they often move things back to ensure there's a new volume in April. Last year for example only one volume was released, because they pushed a volume originally planned for winter 2020 all the way to April 2021. So the last few years, all of us saw that volume 100 was coming closer, but it was also so far away because the releases became less frequent with the year. Sadly enough, there's no "special edition" release of this volume, but I am glad to say that this volume has to be one of the best volumes in terms of consistency in story quality in years, and it features one of the most memorable, and best stories in Conan history too.

Volume 100 opens with the remaining chapters of Kudou Yuusaku's Detection Show, which started in the previous volume. Shinichi's parents are back in Japan again, but as he's bored, Yuusaku, the world famous mystery novelist and amateur detective, has been helping the police solve some difficult cases again. When he's ambushed by the media on his way home from the Metropolitan Police Department, Yuusaku announces he has also solved a series of locked room murders that has occured in the city this last month. While no connection was found between the victims and where they were killed, meaning it wasn't even clear whether these murders are connected, Yuusaku quickly recognized how the locked room murders were committed based simply on the photographs. A live television show will be shot at the Kudou residence, where Yuusaku will explain how the murders are committed, but on the day of the broadcast, he's taken down by food poisoning and isn't even capable to explain to his wife Yukiko how the murders were committed. Yukiko (the world famous actress) decides she'll dress up as her husband again and have Conan do the deducing. Going over the files, Conan manages to solve most of the case too just like his father, but right before the television crew is to arrive, his mother is also taken down by food poisoning. With the live broadcast about to start and Conan knowing exactly who the murderer is, what's he going to do?

An interesting story that shows off Aoyama's story-telling qualities. For looking solely at the locked room murder trick, this story is not remarkable at all, as the trick is very simple. But it's presented in such a well-planned manner. For example, Yuusaku and Conan quickly realize the exact same trick is used in the three murders, despite the fact that at least on the surface, the three victms were killed under different circumstances and in different kind of locations. This leads to a clever, leading hint that is basically asking the reader: Can you recognize what the similarities are between the three crime scenes and figure out how it was done? Sounds like a simple idea, but this allowed Aoyama to make something bigger of what is essentially a simple trick. The hinting that ties the victims together and points towards the culprit is also very clever, making good use of the visual format in a way only Aoyama can. And on top of all this is the storyline of Conan having to figure out what to do with the television crew on their doorstep, and while this results in a very funny denouement scene where we do get the "Kudou Yuusaku Deduction Show" from the title despite the fact Yuusaku is lying sick in bed at the moment, there's actually more playing in the background that is far more serious, setting up the climatic following story.

The FBI Serial Murder Case is one of the most exciting stories to have been featured in this series and an excellent example to show how a mystery story doesn't need to be about solving a murder or anything, but that situations can be presented as a mystery to be solved too, and that with proper clewing and hinting, even an action-packed survival thriller can be a great mystery story. The last few days, unknown foreigners have been killed across town, two every day. The victims have no ID on them, and it appears they were illegals in the country. Conan happens to find the latest victim and spots members of the Black Organization at the scene. Searching the victim's body before Vodka can get to the body, Conan finds FBI identification, which makes him realize that all the foreigners killed lately must have been undercover FBI agents in Japan and that the members of the Black Organization are assasinating them. He hurries home to reach his own contacts at the FBI, but he finds all of them already hiding in the Kudou residence: they too realize that the Organization is somehow killing all of their agents. Revealing a clue he found on the victim, Conan deduces that the Black Organization has managed to decipher the code the FBI agents were using to set-up meetings, ambushing them at their meeting spots. The remaining FBI agents decide to use that knowledge to set-up a trap themselves using the code, but this plan fails horribly, as their own ambush is ambushed by the Black Organization. More casualties follow and soon after, FBI agent Camel finds himself desperately trying to shake off the pursuers of the Black Organization hot on his trail. Conan and the other FBI agents at the home base recall that Camel's path has crossed that of a few BO members in the past and it's imperative that nobody gets a good look at Camel's face, because it'll set them on a trail that might lead them back to them. All Conan and the others can do however is guide Camel on the phone while he's trying to hide from Gin and his gang of assassins, which culminates in a game of hide-and-seek and desperate survival on an island, where Gin, Vodka, Vermouth, Korn, Chianti and Kir under the command of Rum, the number 2 of the Organization, hunt for Camel.

What an amazing story! In a way, the tale's reminiscent of 2016's Detective Conan: The Darkest Nightmare, but "remade" in a way to fit the (less explosive/action-focused) atmosphere of the manga. In The Darkest Nighmare, a NOC list of undercover agents who have infiltrated the Black Organization is leaked, leading to a series of assinations, and all the related parties start to hunt for a certain key person who could turn the tide of this covert battle. The FBI Serial Murder Case follows the same idea, with the movements of undercover FBI agents being exposed to the Black Organization, them being killed and then a thrilling chase to capture and kill Camel, while Conan and the gang try to save him. While this story is one of the most suspenseful stories of this whole series however, it is also a good showcase that Detective Conan is at the core always a puzzler, and the whole story is filled with little mysteries for the reader to solve while they root for Camel to come out of this alive. For example, the first few chapters focus on Conan showing how the code the FBI agents use can be cracked, and when the FBI lays a trap for the Organization, but it explodes in their own face, we are shown exactly how the Black Organization was able to figure out a trap had been laid for them, all properly clewed and hinted at. Even when the story shifts to overdrive literally with Camel racing away in his car while being chased by the Black Organization, the story never forgets this is supposed to be a detective story. Little mistakes of Camel allow Gin to deduce where Camel is hiding, while meanwhile Camel is given instructions on what to do to survive, but usually the meaning of these instructions is only explained later, allowing the reader to deduce what Conan is trying to accomplish with the instructions he's giving Camel. The story has a brilliant climax that shows how even thrilling, suspenseful action scenes can be clewed to be presented as a proper detective story, with both parties starting to read and react to each other's actions. I honestly can't wait for this story to be animated, and I wish they'd actually give this the budget of the annual theatrical releases, because story-wise, it's honestly perhaps the story in this series that feels closest to the atmosphere of the movies, without losing the focus on the mystery plot. Oh, and at the end of the story, it's finally revealed who Rum actually is: we were told like six years ago that the number 2 of the Black Organization had infiltrated the secondary cast of the series under an assumed identity and the mystery revolving Rum's identity had been the main focus of the overarching storyline these last few years.

The Murder Case at the Match-Making Shrine is a rather tame story in comparison, being one of the usual "Which of the three" stories, but it's written competently and fairly amusing. Kazuha has invited Ran to visit the Haido Shrine to get an omamori that will help her get hooked up with her love interest. Which is of course Hattori, who's also secretly visiting the shrine at the same time, though Conan immediately recognizes him. The search for love turns into a search for a murder whenever when a man is found lying dead beneath a staircase, having been hit on the head and falling down the stairs. It turns out the victim was a police officer, specialized in finding people on the wanted lists. Ran and Kazuha had overheard him saying he had spotted three of them here, and the police indeed quickly find three wanted people on the shrine grounds, and it's suspected that one of them killed the officer when he tried to arrest them. The problem however is that the murder weapon, assumed to be a missing flag pole, can't be found and it's difficult to stick the murder to any specific person. While the story is simple, there's a nice chain of reasoning laid you where you must tackle the problem from two different angles if you want to solve this. Not a remarkable story perhaps, but it's presented in a very capable manner.

Volume 100 of Detective Conan was well worth the wait not only because of the milestone, but also because all the stories in this volume manage to reach a very consistent level of quality, with the outliers being the first story, and especially The FBI Serial Murder Case, which was one of the best Conan stories in years. It has the usual thrills of the big FBI vs Black Organization stories, but the manner in which it constantly throws new minor mysteries at you despite also being a real-time suspenseful chase story simultaneously is really good, showing that a) a puzzler doesn't need to be about the usual impossible crime to still be darn good as an intellectual challenge to the reader and that b) Conan's fictional world and stories simply have the range to pull this off in a satisfying and convincing manner, as this story is bookended by two "normal" detective stories and yet The FBI Serial Murder Case doesn't feel out of place. The FBI Serial Murder Case certainly feels like Aoyama wanted to have a big story to be featured in volume 100 and he definitely succeeded with that, and I can safely say that even after 100 volumes, I'm still eager to see what will happen next. Next volume is scheduled for a spring 2022 release, which I assume will be April 2022, but there'll be more Conan material soon as The Scarlet Bullet was finally released on home video...

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン』第100巻

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Veiled Lady

"Miss Debenham is not a woman! She is a lady."
"Murder on the Orient Express"

Last year, I was surprised by a sudden new release in Higashigawa Tokuya's Koigakubo Academy series, and today's book was the surprise this year. I wonder what next year will bring!?

Disclosure: I translated Higashigawa Tokuya's Lending the Key to the Locked Room. Different series, also a comedic puzzler!

Higashigawa Tokuya's Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de series is one that has been discussed irregularly in various forms here ever since I started this blog, which should probably give you an idea of how much of a fan I am of this series. It was the excellent 2011 hit drama adaptation (+ theatrical release) which also carried the English title The After-Dinner Mysteries that informed me of this series' existence, but I have of course also enjoyed the original short story collections greatly. The series is about Houshou Reiko, a young female homicide detective. But none of her colleagues know that Reiko's actually the stupidly wealthy sole heiress of the Houshou Group, a pillar of the Japanese economy. Every evening she returns home after a long day of work to enjoy the luxurious banquet awaiting her, as she ponders out loud about the cases she's working on. Her butler Kageyama seems to have a knack for detecting too, as he is always able to solve the most mysterious cases just by listening to his mistress. Kageyama however also has the habit to be a bit sharp-tongued when it comes to commenting on his mistress' intellligence as he solves each case for her. While Reiko hates the insulting (and completely unnecessary) jabs Kageyama fires at her constantly, she has to admit that her butler is truly a brilliant 'armchair' detective who has helped her solve many cases. Over the course of three volumes, Reiko was submitted to a lot of shade by Kageyama, but they also solved many cases, but the series went silent after the third volume, originally released in 2012 (the pocket release added a neat crossover with Detective Conan by the way!).

Since the series had 'stopped' almost ten years ago, I doubt I was the only one who was pleasantly surprised when a new volume dropped in the spring of 2021. Shin Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de ("New Mystery Solving Is After Dinner" 2021) reunites us with Reiko and Kageyama in five new short stories, which also feature both familiar and new faces. At the end of the third volume, Reiko's bombastic and hapless superior Inspector Kazamatsuri (who usually took the credit for Reiko's work) was promoted to the Metropolitan Police Department, but after messing up, he's been returned to Kunidachi Police Station. Kazamatsuri is the womanizing son of a wealthy family in car manufacturing who likes to boast about how rich he is and how he moves in the upper circles of society, not realizing that his subordinate Reiko is actually of an even more prominent family. Having to team up again with Kazamatsuri is of course the source of a lot of stress, but during Kazamatsuri's absence, Reiko also got her own subordinate: Airi is a young female detective who is a bit gullible and has sometimes the habit of saying whatever is on her mind too directly (especially when faced with Kazamatsuri's shenanigans). But it shouldn't be a surprise that both Kazamatsuri and Airi ultimately don't manage to help Reiko very much with her cases and that it's her loyal butler Kageyama who solves her most baffling cases just by listening to her. But of course, he will only explain how it was done after his mistress is done with dinner.

Kazamatsuri Keibu no Kikan ("The Return of Inspector Kazamatsuri") brings Kazamatsuri back to Kunidachi Police Station to Reiko's great surprise/disappointment, and Reiko and Airi have to work with the returning inspector immediately on the apparent suicide of Kunieda Masafumi, the oldest son of Kunieda Yoshio, the founder of the famous Kunieda Manufacturing company. Masafumi was found hanging from the ceiling in his own room, which at first suggest suicide, but there are still some minor doubts about his death, especially as Yoshio is expected to die soon and his second son Keisuke isn't actually blood-related to his older brother, meaning there's a motive for murder somewhere. Keisuke and the other people who were at the Kunieda residence at the time of the death however all have alibis: Masafumi had been working in his room the whole day, while Keisuke was visited by a friend. Keisuke showed his friend the whole, and also tried to introduce him to his brother, who was not in his room at the moment. After that time, everyone was together at the dining table save for Masafumi, who was later found hanging in his room, which happened after Keisuke and his friend swung by his room. But as there was nobody else in the house, Masafumi must've committed suicide, right? The trick of how Masafumi was hanged in his room while everybody in the house had an alibi is rather esay to guess, especially once a certain object is mentioned. I doubt anyone will be seriously surprised by the trick and in that respect, I found the story a bit disappointing as I thought it was waaaaay to obvious what was done. That said, there's a clue in this story that's absolutely brilliantly hidden, and that really made up for my initial disappointment. While it is easy to guess how it was done, this clue actually proves the trick had been used and arriving at this clue is definitely a lot harder than just imagining 'the murderer probably did this and this to commit the murder.' So you could see this as a double-layered story, where the first layer is very obvious, but the second layer cleverly hidden.

Reiko and Airi are investigating the murder on the elderly Shimoirisa Masaru in Chimoji wa Misshitsu no Naka ("The Bloody Writing Is Inside The Locked Room"). The victim was discovered inside the locked storage room in the garden, broken open by the victim's second daughter and his son-in-law (husband of the oldest daughter) who both happened to be visiting the old man that morning and couldn't find him inside the house. When they noticed some blood beneath the door of the storage room, they broke the door open to find the man dead. But there were also clues inside: the victim collected art and a valuable pot made of Satsuma kiriko glass was missing from the storage and most damning of all, the victim had written the name Nakata in blood on the floor. The case seems clear-cut, as the police start looking for someone named Nakata among the victim's acquaintances. As the police investigation continues, they find more clues that seem to indicate this Nakata, but still things don't seem to add up quite perfectly, and it's Kageyama who manages to put a completely different light on the manner. This is a story that focuses more on the why of the locked room than the how, and it's perfectly fine concept on its own, but it's a bit simple. The story is rather economical in set-up, so nothing really surprises: when you hear why the victim was found in a locked room, you'll find it a clever idea, but the story is so short little is done to really show the effects and implications that arise from the creation of the locked room, somewhat undermining its whole concept. The idea is executed perhaps a bit too minimalistically to really make an impression.

Tsuiraku Shitai wa Doko Kara ("Where Did the Falling Corpse Come From?") revolves around the investigation of a dead body which was found lying in a small parking lot surrounded by tenant buildings/apartment buildins on three sides. While it seems a suicide jump at first, a wound on the victim's head sustained before death suggests it's murder instead. Because the building beneath the victims lies has no windows at all on the parking lot side, the police suspects someone must've pushed him off the rooftop, but they come across a witness who swears he was alone on the rooftop all the time around the time the murder must've happened. Meanwhile, the police find a bloody knife among the victim's possessions, and when they investigate in the vicinity, they find an old man has been killed in one of the apartment buildings that surround the parking lot. How are these two deaths connected? This is the type of story which a reader can recognize immediately if they have read similar stories before. The trope in question isn't overly common in mystery fiction, but usually they make an impression, so it probably doesn't take long for a reader to realize what is going on here if they have read similar stories before. It's a competently written variation of the trick, and as often with Higashigawa's writing, the clewing is really good, but even Higashigawa himself has written stories with the exact same type of trick before, so it's easy to see through.

Itsutsu no Mezamashidokei ("The Five Alarm Clocks") is of course inspired by Ayukawa Tetsuya's The Five Clocks (disclosure: it's included in The Red Locked Room which I translated) and starts with Ryuuji and Mamoru chatting in the morning after ending their night shift. Ryuuji invites Mamoru to his place, a house near the train station he shares with a few other people. Lured by the fact that one of the other people living there is a genuine nurse, Mamoru follows Ryuuji to the house, but on their way to Ryuuji's home, they hear two alarm clocks going off in the nurse's room, but no sign of her switching the alarm off. Sensing something is wrong, they go inside and find her strangled, though miraculously still alive and she's swiftly brought to the hospital. When the police investigate the room of the victim, they stumble upon a surprising sight: the victim had five alarm clocks set in her room: two clocks near the head of her bed, two beneath her bed and one on the table in front of her television. The alarm clocks were all set around, but at different times, suggesting the woman probably had trouble getting up each morning, which is why she set five alarm clocks at five minute intervals to ensure she'd get up and not just switch the alarm off and go back to sleep again. Reiko and Airi question the other inhabitants of the house, learning that the nurse had to go out last night suddenly because of an emergency at the hospital which turned out to be a fluke, but that there didn't seem anything wrong when she returned. When she was found this morning, three of her alarm clocks had been switched off, but the last two went off and were still going when she was discovered, meaning she had switched those clocks off and was probably strangled just minutes before she was discovered. But none of the three people present inside the house that morning have a clear alibi, so can these clocks help point out who did it? An interesting take on The Five Clocks, because this time we don't have one single alibi vouched for by five clocks, but it's the time of the crime that is indicated due to the alarm setting of the clocks. It's an original way to indicate the time of the murder and the result is a story that's fun to read: it's very simple in set-up, set inside the shared residence and with only a few characters, but the deduction chain built upon the five different alarm clocks, the implication of the five minute intervals between them, and the way the reader is eventually brought to the culprit is very clever: at first you think the clocks can't mean much because ultimately, none of the three suspects have a clear alibi for the time of the attack, but the thing is twisted around surprisingly by showing the clocks do prove something else.

Tabako 2 Honbun no Alibi ("An Alibi Two Cigarettes Long") is a story that doesn't have any especially memorable or outstanding aspects to the core crime, but it's actually one of the better plotted stories in the volume, showing off Higashigawa's talent to control the actions of his characters to create (semi-)impossible crimes and perfect alibis. This time, Reiko and Airi are put on the case of a student killed in his own apartment room, soon after the victim returned home around eight in the evening. By sheer coincidence, someone had been smoking two cigarettes at the front gate of the victim's apartment building around that time, and this witness claims he always takes five minutes for one cigarette. During his break, he saw a fat man enter the building and ran way a few minutes later, who is suspected to be the murderer and the police soon find three suspects among the victim's acquaintances, who fit the profile, may have a motive and were in the neighborhood around the time of the crime. The suspects all have partially vouched alibis around the time of the crime, but because they were all within walking distance of the scene of the crime, and the witness' testimony relies solely on his estimation of how long he was smoking, it's difficult to pinpoint at what time the suspect fled the building, which in turn means they can't eliminate any of the suspects indefinitely. The puzzle piece that allows you to connect the various testimonies together and construct a precise timetable is devilishly clever, being an incredibly simple and common thing that people do, but which you probably won't think off until it's mentioned in the story. Once you're reminded of it, you'll be able to piece together what really happened on the night of the murder and which of the suspects could've committed the murder. There's no 'grand' situation like a locked room or a corpse which seems to come out of nowhere, but as a puzzler, it's really satisfying.

By the way, is it just me, or is Kageyama a lot milder compared to the previous books? His verbal abuse of his mistress seems less... sharp than before. Guess he softened in these last years...

On the whole, Shin Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de is a nice return of the series. The banter is between pleasantly crazy characters is fun as always and while I don't think that any of the five stories found in this volume rank among the best mystery stories of the series, I think they all have something interesting to offer, from original settings to cleverly plotted roadmaps leading to the culprit or shrewdly hidden clues that are both brilliant and oh-so simple at the same time. If you're a fan of the series, this is a must-read, as it's basically 'more of the same', but that's not a bad thing at all.

Original Japanese title(s): 東川篤哉『新謎解きはディナーのあとで』:「風祭警部の帰還」/「血文字は密室の中」/「墜落したいはどこから」/「五つの目覚まし時計」/「煙草二本分のアリバイ」

Friday, October 22, 2021

The Secret of the Lost Tunnel

"The train had already begun to move as Holmes spoke. Glancing back, I saw a tall man pushing his way furiously through the crowd, and waving his hand as if he desired to have the train stopped. It was too late, however, for we were rapidly gathering momentum, and an instant later had shot clear of the station"
"The Final Problem"

I find traveling by train soooo relaxing, though I guess some countries don't really have a train culture.

It's the year 1879. After the Meiji restoration and the opening of Japan for foreign relations, the immediate focus of the new Japanese government was on modernization and industralization of the country, and one of its pillars to connect the whole country and consolidate the central government's power was of course a railway network. As the dirctor of the Railway Board, Inoue Masaharu is responsible for laying this network of lifelines, and the project that is currently on top of the priority list is the railway tunnel through the mountain Ousakayama: this tunnel will connect former capital Kyoto to Ootsu. The project is also a matter of honor. Up until now, all the major railway projects in Japan were led by foreign engineers from countries like Great Britain and the United States, but this tunnel will be the first major railway project completely planned and designed by Japanese engineers, which will prove that Japan is ready to stand on its own feet. However, several incidents have been happening at the tunneling site: rocks falling from the mountain, measurements to ensure they're tunneling at the correct angle being changed, faulty material popping up or materials missing and there's even an incident with a supplier who fell of a train on his way back from the tunneling site. Worried that these incidents are an attempt to sabotage the project, Inoue decides to hire Kusakabe, a former policeman back when Tokyo was still called Edo. Kusakabe is reluctant at first, because he suspects the only reason why Inoue doesn't call the actual police is because of old rivalries from before the Meiji Restoration still being kept alive through political games, but he gives in and travels to the site accompanied by his Watson, engineer-in-training Onodera. It appears there are a lot of people who would like this project to fail: from other government departments who want the Railway Board's budget to the local people who will lose their jobs due to the railway. Things are murkier than Kusakabe had initially expected, so he decides to give the matter a serious look in Yamamoto Kouji's 2017 novel Kaika Tetsudou Tantei, which also bears the English title The Detective of Meiji Period Railway on the cover.

If you travel to Japan now, you realize that trains are still an important part of Japan as a country, not just as a vital lifeline, but also as part of the culture. This is also reflected in Japanese mystery fiction, where trains are a very common sight, sometimes revolving around iron-clad alibis that make brilliant use of time schedules, sometimes focusing on other related elements ranging from ekiben (lunch boxes with local specialties), the layout of stations, the morning rush and much more than I can name. However, Yamamoto Kouji, who works at a railway company, however interestingly doesn't write about the modern day railway in Japan, but about its past with The Detective of Meiji Period Railway. Most of Yamamoto's novels are mystery stories in a historical setting (Edo period) that predate railways, but with this novel, he decided to look at the earliest days of the Japanese railway network, which is a highly original theme. 

If you're into history especially, this book is really interesting. It genuinely presents the Japanese railway network as the focal theme of the book, and looks at it from various angles. Inoue for example suspects there's a political motive behind the sabotaging of the project, putting the railway network in a 'big history' context about the various parties involved with the Meiji Restoration. At the same time, the book also looks at the railway as an element that juxtaposes Japan and the West, as something that Japan needs to master in order to become a player on the international scene, while foreign powers wish to use the railway to assert their superiority over Japan. And as the investigation continues, we also look at the railway at a smaller level, focusing on people who once earned a living by transporting people and goods across water and who are now losing their jobs, to people who are now able to travel across Japan more swiftly which can sometimes even save lives. The manner in which The Detective of Meiji Period Railway presents trains and a railway network as something new in society, all the changes it brings and how that can lead to crime is highly entertaining. It does help if you have rudimentary knowledge about political/sociological/economical circumstances around that time for the details, but I think that even without that, you can enjoy this as a historical mystery about trains.

The core mystery plot feels a bit like a Holmesian adventure, which is fitting considering the time period of course. Don't expect a Queen-like densely clewed puzzler, or mystifying impossible situations: it's more about Kusakabe and Onodera poking around, stumbling upon some fact that may or may not be relevant and other incidents occuring that push the story forward. A lot happens between the first and final pages of this book, but not everything is actually directly connected to the problem of the sabotage and like a lot of Holmes' adventures, the story feels a bit 'open', making it seem like anyone could've done it, and that you're just there for the ride to see what did actually happen. Ultimately, an interesting plot is revealed and we see some events connecting to others in unexpected ways, but I think the merits of this book as a mystery lie more on the historical setting and its focus on railways, than on specifically the manner in which this story has been plotted.

Strangely enough, the book does feel a bit... cramped? The story is about railways, but most of the story is set just around the tunneling site, and the town nearby, so there's not really a lot of travelling by train done here, and when it occurs, it's never actually shown in detail. This is really a railway mystery, not a train mystery. Most of the important events also play outside or around the half-finished tunnel, so in that regards, it feels more open than you'd expect from a railway mystery (not just inside a train), but at the same, it's less about the connection between various/multiple locations.

So if the topic of the history of the railway in Japan appeals to you, Kaika Tetsudou Tantei (The Detective of Meiji Period Railway) is a must-read, as it brings a rather fascinating story that really focuses on what the railway really means for a modernizing society and uses those changes to bring an interesting tale of mystery. In terms of writing, it's perhaps closer to the adventure-like stories of Sherlock Holmes, so don't expect minute-perfect alibi tricks that use twenty train lines to make the impossible possible or super complex plotting, but it keeps the reader entertained from the start with lots of incidents happening and also a surprisingly broad (economical/sociological/political) look at the Japanese railways.

Original Japanese title(s):  山本巧次『開化鉄道探偵』

Monday, October 18, 2021


"I can't believe it has come to this..."
"Detective Conan"

Today is the release day of volume 100 of Aoyama Goushou's Detective Conan, one of the biggest detective franchises to have ever graced this world and while I'll still have to wait for my copy to be delivered, I figured this might be the best occassion to look back on this long, long-running series. It was in 1994 when high school student detective Kudou Shinichi accidentally became witness to a shady deal, got caught by two men of the Black Organization and fed an experimental drug that was supposed to kill him. Instead he was turned into a child and while staying low as "Edogawa Conan" with his childhood friend/love interest Mouri Ran and her private detective father Kogorou (who don't know his real identity), Conan tries to find a way to turn back into his old self and catch the Black Organization, figuring that the easiest way is to secretly help Kogorou solve as many cases as possible, as this will likely bring him on another lead connected to the Organization. More than 25 years later and 100 volumes down the story, Conan still hasn't succeeded in his goal completely, but readers have been treated to more than 300 different mystery stories that have been consistent in quality, with regularly brilliant entries. And I'm just talking about the original comic here! With an arguably even bigger animated series that adapts the comic, but also has original stories and an incredibly succesful series of annual animated theatrical releases, Detective Conan (or Case Closed as it's known in select regions) is commercially probably the biggest active detective franchise at the moment worldwide. 

When I reviewed volume 99 in April, I mentioned that "the special occassion is a great excuse to do a special Conan-themed post" and I got suggestions like a list of Top 10 stories/tricks or at a greater scale, looking at Detective Conan's influence on Japanese mystery fiction in general. But I think the suggestion to look back at when I started with the series and how my thoughts on the series have changed over the years, and how the series itself has changed over these years resonated the best with me. For while I haven't been reading Detective Conan since the very start, I have been with the series for about twenty years now, and it's also been a large part of this blog in general (it's the series with the most tag entries by far!). Heck, this blog probably wouldn't have existed without Conan: it was also the series that introduced me to a lot of mystery fiction, as the individual volume releases include an Encyclopedia of Great Detectives each time that introduces various fictional detectives, both Japanese and non-Japanese, and it were the names I first saw in these entries that got me interested in Japanese (prose) mystery fiction, and now many years later, there's this blog and I even translate these novels myelf. So perhaps it's time for a bit of reminiscing.

I don't remember the exact year, but it was around 2000 that I had my first encounter with the franchise through the second animated film: Detective Conan: The Fourteenth Target, which I still consider one of the best films of the series. It's an excellent introduction to the series, as it incorporates a lot of the recurring characters of the series (at that moment in time), but their appearances are actually heavily tied to the plot, as the film deals with a series of murders on people connected to Mouri Kogorou. The story is a nice serial killer whodunnit (with a very memorable motive for the murders!) that is tenseful and also cleverly connected to the background stories of the main characters, while also having just enough action to really sell the "theatrical release" feel. The film had me hooked, so then I watched the first movie, and from there I started reading the manga, which by that time was already around volume 35-40 in Japan. At the time, the easiest way for me to read Detective Conan, besides scanlations, was either through the French or German releases: German was infinitely easier for me to read than French and with the help of a friend (whom I'm ever grateful to), I found a shop that would actually import German comics for me and once in a few months I'd binge-buy Detektiv Conan volumes. Which incidentally also greatly improved my grades for German at school. Thank you, Conan.

So what was it that captivated me so? For me, Detective Conan: The Fourteenth Target was an eye-opener in the sense that it was the first original animated detective story I had ever seen that actually dealt with murder and death: besides some Sherlock Holmes cartoons and Basil of Baker Street (where there's no death), I had seen none. That combined with the James Bond-esque gadgets and occassional over-the-top action got me hooked, but the manga was more subdued in tone of course. Being a comic serialized in Shonen Sunday, it's no surprise it has clear rom-com roots, but the stories featured in the comic were also quite memorable as detective stories. Early stories like The Piano Sonata "Moonlight" Murder Case brought us to creepy islands with serial murders or to mountain villas with murderers who decapitate their victims. While the earliest stories might not be exceptional by any standard in terms of originality in plot, plots greatly improve after the aforementioned The Piano Sonata "Moonlight" Murder Case, with several brilliant tricks that could have featured in any classic of the genre: the impossible hanging of a monk that only a Tengu could have done is one of the more memorable early entries for example. One notable thing about Conan is of course that it's not always murder, and there are a lot of puzzle/quiz stories, or treasure hunt stories too, which help make the series feel diverse. One important aspect Detective Conan did perfectly since the beginning was the use of visual clewing: the visual format allows for different possibilities than the prose format and mangaka Aoyama's solid artwork has been used very deviously to literally place clues right in front of your eyes, and still you're likely to miss them. Readers who mostly read detective novels might have to adjust to Detective Conan at first, as it's not just the text in the balloons that's important, but also what is shown in a panel and how, but Aoyama's been great at using the visual traits of the medium. This is especially the case when it comes to stories that feature mechanical tricks for for example locked room murders: even complex Rube Goldberg-esque string & needle tricks are shown very naturally and often, the reader is given a better chance at solving these kinds of stories because they have a better idea of the actual layout of a room/building. I have a feeling these more "complex" locked room murders are more prominently seen in "waves": there were a lot of these impossible stories in Detective Conan like after volume 15, and after a few years you'd get a period with fewer of those stories, and then they'd be back for a while again.

One of my favorite aspects of Detective Conan however is that besides "classic locations" like manors, isolated islands and modes of transportation like trains and ships, the series is often very contemporary and urban, and that is also reflected in its mystery plots. This makes Detective Conan one of the most diverse detective series, because it can very naturally go to any setting and it still feels natural. Personally, I love the urban setting of Conan a lot. While the locations in the earliest stories often feel a bit "isolated", you already get a glimpse of modern urban when Conan is confronted with a murder case occuring inside a karaoke box, with people singing and going and out of the room all the time and once the animated series started and the first film was made in 1996-1997, Aoyama knew he had a hit at hand and started to build more on more on the fictional setting of "Beika Town", setting more and more cases in this fictional part of Tokyo. Because of that, we also see more recurring locations and with them, recurring characters. Detective Conan has a gigantic fictional world nowadays, because Aoyama does re-use locations and characters, so a classmate of Ran who's only mentioned in an earlier story might turn up for real another time with a case for Ran's father, or a television director who was a suspect in an earlier story might return in another story involved with the media. It makes the world feel alive, but also allows the series countless of possibilities to bring Conan to a certain setting. A series like Columbo or Murder, She Wrote also feature a lot of diverse story settings, but Conan has an ever wider range, as it also has a lot of stories featuring children. The contemporary, urban setting is also reflected in the mystery plots, which is also an aspect which sets Detective Conan apart. The series started in 1994, and we're now in 2021. The reader will know consumer society has changed drastically. Fads came and went, as did technology. In 1994, few people would have had internet at homes, then we went through dial-up modems on desktops with their iconic dial-up tune, then we got small i-Mode pages on select phones and now probably more than half of the readers of this blog are reading this very article on a mobile device. Unlike most detective series however, Detective Conan is a series that has been serialized from the beginning, being published at a pace of (in theory) one chapter a week. Because of that and the contemporary urban setting, consumer technology has always been a part of Detective Conan and it's a joy to read detective stories that don't pretend like modern technology like mobiles have made a detective puzzle story impossible because old tropes can't be used as-is anymore. Detective Conan embraces whatever modern society considers "the norm" and uses whatever is available to the modern man living in contemporary society to present an entertaining detective story. Tablets, the Internet of Things, smartphones, chat applications: why should a detective story pretend like we don't use these things all the time? In Detective Conan, modern technology is not a "cheat", but used in the same way as "telephones" or "trains" in Golden Age detective stories: the norm and nothing out of the ordinary for both the culprit and the detective. And because Detective Conan is such a long-running story with a rolling time-line (ergo: the story is always set in the same "present", whether it's a story from 1994 or from 2021), it also serves as an interesting reflection of how the world around all of us has changed too, and how it has changed the possibilities for the modern puzzle plot detective story.

I have seen some mystery bloggers approach Detective Conan who seem more familiar with American comics, not realizing that Conan is a serialized, on-going series that is released in chapters. Without that knowledge, the fact that stories are often "cut off" only to continue in the next volume might seem weird, but that's what happens with an ongoing story. For the fact that the series features an ongoing narrative is of course also quite unique for a detective series. Some stories form a set together, like a budding love story between the police detectives Takagi and Sato that develops over the course of several stories involving the Homicide division of the Metropolitan Police Department, while the phantom thief KID appears once in a while in heist stories with an impossible crime element. While the bulk of the cases in this series have no direct relation to the overall main story, Conan's path has crossed that of the Black Organization a lot of times in these 100 volumes and the story has grown to a much larger scale than you'd suspect readin the first volume. The ongoing serialized nature of the series has allowed for some memorable stories that take their time build up foreshadowing/clues. As I mentioned before, when I started reading the manga the Japanese release was around volume 40 and I remember that the Halloween story in volume 42 was one of the biggest events of the series, showing off what Aoyama could do with this format: while on the surface, the story involves a murder case happening during a Halloween party, the reader is also treated to a grand face-off between Conan and a member of the Black Organization, which recontextualized a lot of the events that had occured until then. While the attentive reader might have noticed something had been brewing for the last few years, it was at this point that Aoyama revealed he had been plotting this confrontation for years, hiding relevant clues and information necessary to solve the plot here in various previous stories, even stories that at first sight seemed irrelevant to the overall plot. The way Aoyama showed how he could patiently build a proper detective story over the course of many years was impressive and he'd use this technique more often in the rest of the series, where he'd have larger storylines develop over the course of many years and very different stories. The Scarlet Series in volume 85 for example was the conclusion of a storyline Aoyama had been working on for 7 years, dropping hints and clues now and then and allowing the reader to deduce the thing themselves, but even if you guessed what was going on, it was still incredibly satisfying to see Aoyama pull off the thing succesfully.

As mentioned before though, the series has changed a lot over the course of these years. My first encounter was through the films. While the first one I saw was The Fourteenth Target, the first one I actually saw in Japanese theatres with a friend was The Raven Chaser, which was already more thriller-ish in tone than the early movies. Especially the last ten years, these films have grown out to be (explosive!) action spectacles and the quality of the core mystery plots may vary a lot depending on the year: the mega-hit Zero the Enforcer was very unlike any other Conan film for example, but was a very entertaining political thriller and while The Crimson Love Letter follows the format we know of beloved early films like The Fourteenth Target, Captured in her Eyes and Countdown to Heaven, a film like The Fist of Blue Sapphire was more action-focused. While the manga has seen less drastic changes in tone in general, you can definitely feel changes as you go through the volumes. For example, you'll see more stories that build up the fictional world after volume 20 and after the aforementioned Halloween story in volume 42, Aoyama starts working more often on similar storylines covering several years, using minor stories to drop hints as he builds towards a climax. You're also more likely to see "classic" mystery settings like manors in the woods, small islands etc. in the first half of the series, with more urban stories in the second half of the series. Character popularity also changes, and it's often easy to pinpoint when a character suddenly explodes in popularity, because you'll see a lot of them then, even if they don't really add much to a story.

But that's perhaps the strength of Detective Conan: while the puzzler core with a rom-com tone is always intact, the series has always been quite diverse in what it offers to the reader in terms of style of detective story, offering both a broad selection, but also a selection that changes with time, and if you're a fan of puzzlers, it's likely you will find at least one story, or a set of stories, that will suit your taste. Whether it's inverted mystery stories, cozies, locked room murders, pure whodunnits, howdunnits, stories using modern technology, stories set in isolated, old-fashioned places, closed circles, political thriller, folklore-based mystery, non-lethal crimes or even non-criminal mysteries of everyday life, and anythng you can think of, there's probably at least one story in the manga, or the extended animated universe that will appeal to you. And despite that range, everything still feels like it's part of one Detective Conan franchise, and while not all stories are as strong as others, the quality of the plots is also fairly consistent.

Anyway, this is enough of me reminiscing about what got me first started on the series and why I have been following the series for over twenty years now, and still looking forward to each new release. Many readers of this blog are also fans of the series I know (the Conan posts always attract most commentators), so to celebrate the release of volume 100: what are your favorite Conan stories? What are your Top 10 stories/tricks? What got you into the franchise? Any memorable happening related to Conan? Feel free to talk about anything Conan-related in the comment section, and try to be generous with your use of ROT-13 spoiler tags, as a courtesy to all the readers here!

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Secret of the Scarlet Hand

"That’s the result of all our Study in Scarlet: to get them a testimonial!"
"A Study in Scarlet"

The book of today has a gorgeous cover! This is the cover for the 2020 revised pocket version by the way.

Disclosure: I translated Ayatsuji Yukito's The Decagon House Murders.

Saeko's life changed the day she learned her parents who brought her up, weren't her real parents. As long as she could remember, she had always been Izumi Saeko, so it was a shock to hear that she was born Munakata Saeko, and that after an incident that took her parents and her sister's lives when she was still little, she was raised by the Izumis. The Munakata clan is an influential family in the city of Aizato, about two hours away by train from Tokyo, but there are few living members left: only Saeko's grandfather and her (childlesss) aunt Chiyo, which is why Saeko is now brought back to the Munakatas as the heir. As per family tradition, Munakata Chiyo is the current director of the Seishin Girls Academy, a prestigious boarding school that has prepared the girls in the upper-class society for their future duties for generations. As the heir of the Munakatas, Saeko too is of course required by her aunt to enroll in Seishin, but the moment Saeko arrives there she's having regrets. Unlike her old school, Seishin Girls Academy is located in the middle of nowhere, with gates keeping outsiders out and all the sudents inside. Saeko also quickly learns that life here is nothing at all like the free life she had always enjoyed: there are strict rules about how to behave, what to wear and what they can own and as a transfer student suddenly arriving in this new environment, she quickly also realizes there's a distinct hierarchy among her fellow students, with the 'madonna' Aya at the absolute top. Everyone here seems to have adapted completely to the strict life here, which makes Saeko feel quite uneasy. Saeko's roommate Kei on the other hand doesn't seem to fit in quite well with the other students, but to Saeko, Kei seems one of the few normal girls here. For some reason however Kei refers to herself as a Witch. With Kei as her roommate, Saeko seems to think she might make it through her time here, but only one day later, Kei is found dead in a special room in the dormitory whcih is usually kept locked: thirty-five years ago, a wealthy student of the academy stayed in this extra spacious room, and she too claimed she was a witch. But one night, she committed suicide in the bathroom and the room has remained sealed since, fueling rumors among the students. Kei too was found burned alive in the bathroom of the sealed room, like a witch. This event is of course enough to greatly disturb Saeko, but she's given no time to recover as more and more murders occur on the grounds of the Seishin Girls Academy. Due to her period, Saeko's also been feeling unwell lately, sometimes passing out or even losing memory of what she was doing moments before, and that's not helpful as the other students slowly start to suspect the new transfer student of the murders in Ayatsuji Yukito's horror mystery novel Hiiro no Sasayaki ("The Scarlet Whispering" 1988).

After writing the first three novels in his House/Yakata series, Ayatsuji decided to try his hand at a different genre for the first time, resulting in Hiiro no Sasayaki in 1988, a book that is more focused on horror than on mystery (though there's a mystery plot there). Nowadays, Ayatsuji is also known for his horror novels, and the horror mystery Another is arguably his best known work across the world due to its various adaptations, but Hiiro no Sasayaki is when he first fused the horror genre with a mystery plot. I'm personally not a real horror fan by the way: I don't watch horror movies at all for example, nor do I really play horror games (soooometimes I play horror sound novels). I do like reading horror manga once in a while, like by Umezu Kazuo and Itou Junji (yeah, those are not really original choices), but that's about it with me and horror. Despite that though, I didn't need the dediction in this book to Dario Argento to realize the main inspiration for Hiiro no Sasayaki, for even though I haven't even seen the movie, it was clear that this slasher horror mystery set in a closed-off girls academy and talk about witches was greatly influenced by the famous giallo film Suspiria.

 Oh, and to go off a minor tangent. I recently read the manga 13-gatsu no Higeki ("The Tragedy of the 13th Month") by Miuchi Suzue, the shojo manga giant best known for Glass Mask. This manga too is about a young girl suddenly being sent to a girls boarding school, slasher murders and a witch cult. I read this manga soon after Hiiro no Sasayaki, so I obviously assumed the same inspiration source, so imagine how surprised I looked when I learned that 13-gatsu no Higeki actually predates Suspiria by several years!

So Hiiro no Sasayaki takes strongly after slasher horror films. It has a creepy atmosphere throughout, with almost doll-like female students who under the burden of the strict school rules and a kind of caste system, all seem to resemble each other in an attempt to "not stand out", people hiding secret pasts from Saeko, gruesome murders that happen across the school (each murder is portrayed from the POV of the victim) and a Saeko who is suspected as the murderer not only by her fellow students, but Saeko even has doubts about herself as she keeps having these moments where she just blanks out and finds herself waking up somewhere hours later. And of course, usually a murder occurs during those moments. The book provides a thrilling, speedy read that follows the familiar horror film tropes and as the story develops, things start to escalate even further until it reaches the haunting climax.

But, I hear you asking, is it a mystery story? For I don't have the habit of discussing non-mystery stories here. It's a surprisingly difficult question. Hiiro no Sasayaki's focus definitely lies on the slasher horror plot, but there is a mystery plot beneath all the blood. Part of the story revolves around Saeko (and an ally) trying to figure out what really happened to Kei in the bathroom and the subsequent murders and while the climax doesn't really have a "here we have clue X, clue Y and clue Z, and that's why A is the murderer" scene, it does have that moment so typical of Ayatsuji's plotting where previous parts of the book suddenly take on a completely different meaning and you see the whole book was plotted and written in a way that was probably cleverer than you had first expected. I think that if you start reading this after the House/Yakata series, the difficulty level is fairly low and you'll be able to make an educated guess as to the final revelations regarding the killer, but if you were just expecting a bloody slasher, you might be pleasantly surprised by what the book has in store. Still, don't be mistaken, you'd best read this book as a horror story, that also uses mystery genre writing conventions to give the reader the 'shock ending' we all expect from a horror movie, and you shouldn't expect a mystery story with people calling themselves Ellery, Carr and Agatha talking about the limitations of the genre here.

As a palate cleanser, I did enjoy reading Hiiro no Sasayaki though. It's not a genuinely surprising horror mystery story, but it reads incredibly smoothly and as a horror slasher, it basically gave me what I'd expect of the genre, plus some minor elements that make it recognizable as specifically an Ayatsuji work. There are two other books in this series and while I won't be binging them, I expect I'll return to this series in the future anyway.

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人『緋色の囁き』

Wednesday, October 6, 2021



"You can't gain anything without any sacrifices."
"Fullmetal Alchemist"

This reminds me, I probably should finish the original Fullmetal Alchemist (not Brotherhood) anime series one day...

2000 years ago, Hermes, son of God, was sent from the guardian star Nibiru to the planet to teach the people. Before Hermes left again, he bestowed upon the humans Seven Divine Secrets and if humans could solve all of them, they themselves would be able to reach the realm of God. It would take nearly two thousand years before humans would finally solve the first secret. Hundred years ago, Magnus was the first person who managed to conduct elemental transmutation, making him the first alchemist. The brilliant Magnus traveled across the planet, coming up with brilliant inventations based on alchemy and paving the way for future alchemists. In the decades since, some people have learned to master the art of transformation and these transformers are able to change the shape of objects, but actual alchemists, who can transmutate objects at the elemental level are much rarer: with time, people realized there are always only seven alchemists on this world at the same time. These alchemists are of course considered human treasures and most of them devote their lives to research the remaining Six Divine Secrets.

While some humans have obtained the gift of tranformation, which allows them to change the shape of objects, only alchemists are able to transmutate objects at an elemental level, making these people very valuable human resources. It's for that reason that kingdom of Astarte has created Alkahest, a special military unit especially for Theresa Paracelsus, one of the current seven alchemists. Following earlier events, she arranged for Emilia Schwartzdelphine to be assigned to her unit as her assistant, though most of the time, Emilia is just busy keeping his boss focused on her work. Alkahest's mission is to conduct research on alchemy and to uncover the Seven Secrets, and it is for that reason Theresa and Emilia are sent on a mission to the Mercury Tower, a tower made completely out of mercury! The building was erected by Hermes himself two thousand years ago, using unknown alchemy to keep mercury in a semi-solid state and one century ago, Magnus also lived for while in the Mercury Tower. The army caught rumors that one of Magnus' secret still resides within the Mercury Tower and that other, rival parties are already on the move, so Alkahest are sent to the Tower too. The tower lies between the borders of the kingdom of Astarte and the empire Bahl and is therefore controlled by the "neutral" Church of Sephirah. When Theresa and Emilia arrive at the tower, they are welcomed by Priestress Sophia Ashton of the Church and her two assistants, but they also learn there are more visitors, including the alchemist Nicolas Flamel and his assistant, who are on the exact same mission for the Bahl army, but there's also a reporter and a unit of the Church Knights present, who are all investigating rumors of disappearing pilgrims who have visited the Mercury Tower. A storm cuts the Mercury Tower and the little island it resides on off from the outside world that night, and with little clues to go on, the alchemists decide to continue their search for Magnus' treasure the following day.

The next morning however, the people in the tower are shocked to discover that two people have been killed: the reporter and the head knight. But they soon realize this is impossible due to the characteristics of the Mercury Tower. The outer and inner walls of the Mercury Tower are literally made out of a body of mercury floating in the shape of a tower. Usually only an alchemist would be able to manipulate mercury to create a door opening there, but Magnus had installed special devices of his own design next to each room that can also temporarily create an opening in the mercury, allowing normal people to open doors too. However, only one single person's handprint can be assigned to a room's "lock" and these devices can't be operated from inside a room during the night. This is what makes the two murders impossible: the victims couldn't have opened the doors to their own rooms to let the murderer in themselves because the "locks" don't work during the night, nor could the murderer have opened the doors of the victims' room from the outside, because only the registered user of the room can operate the lock to a specific room. Everyone realizes that only alchemists could've gained entry to the victim's rooms during the night without using the locks and by forcing an opening in the mercury walls, but why would the two alchemists present here use the one method that'd give themselves away? Realizing there might be a dangerous murderer lurking among them, Theresa and Nicolas decide to forget about their mission for the moment and focus on the crime: whoever solves the murders first, will be allowed to take Magnus' secret back home once everything is settled. Who will be the victor in Konno Tenryuu's Renkinjutsushi no Shoushitsu ("The Disappearance of the Alchemist", 2020) which also has the English title Alchemist in Mercury Tower?

This is the second book in this steampunk fantasy mystery series by Konno Tenryuu: I decided to start with this one because the second book seemed to have been received more favorably, but I have a feeling that wasn't really the best way now, as this second book does spoil a few details of the first book I think, and in other regards it seems to skip over things that are probably explained in more detail in the first book. So if this reviews manages to pique your interest in this series, you may want to start properly with the first book.

So, when you think of alchemy and Japanese pop culture, it's impossible to not think of Fullmetal Alchemist. If you've been into anime and manga somewhere in say the last fifteen years, you'd have to have at least heard of the mega-hit that was Fullmetal Alchemist. You'd think that if anyone was going to make an anime/manga/light novel about alchemy now, you'd try to differentiate yourself from Fullmetal Alchemist in some way, right? At least, that was what I thought, but after the first few chapters, you realize that this book is about two protagonists who have a secret goal they want to accomplish which is why they joined the royal army because they need the connections to accomplish their goals and that in this world, alchemists are so rare and powerful they are used as human weapons by states, you'll probably realize that Renkinjutsushi no Shoushitsu doesn't even try to be very different from Fullmetal Alchemist's premise. What I really thought was shocking was the depiction of alchemy in this book. Fullmetal Alchemist came up with one of the more iconic and unique ways to show off alchemy, with alchemists placing their hands on objects with transmutation circles and transmutating objects accompanied by special effects. Renkinjutsushi no Shoushitsu keeps talking about alchemy from the start, but I was getting really worried when it never explained how alchemy was conducted in this world. By the time I arrived at the scene where... indeed, they conduct alchemy by placing their hands on the object they want to transmutate and you have the flash of light and everything, well, that was what I feared the most. I wonder whether the author really thinks that the way alchemy was portrayed in Fullmetal Alchemist is a standard way to depict alchemy, because the whole book seems to assume that the reader will know alchemy is conducted like that, even though it's a specific Fullmetal Alchemist trope. Perhaps there's a whole generation out there that thinks that alchemy as shown in Fullmetal Alchemist is the standard!

But back to the story itself. As a mystery novel, Renkinjutsushi no Shoushitsu of course has a unique premise as it's set in a world where alchemy exists, and this particular story is set inside a tower with mercury walls, which is probably a one of a kind! The impossible situations in this novel are therefore based on unique premises: normal humans and transformers can't transmutate mercury, while alchemists can transmutate mercury, but the two alchemists present have no reason whatsoever to have to committed the murders using transmutation, as it'd immediately give themselves away (each alchemist would know of themselves if they are innocent, so that'd immediately put the suspicion on the other alchemist). The mystery of how the victims were killed in their rooms/moved out of their rooms, combined with the plot of Theresa and Nicolas competing to solve the case first results in a book that's interesting to follow from start to finish as it basically always has something new to surprise you with. At first, the exact workings of alchemy and the doors of the Mercury Tower might be a bit vague, but it does result in a book that keeps you guessing and as more and more becomes clear, you'll be able to make more informed guesses as to how it was all done.

The book is surprisingly packed with interesting fake solutions and a fairly dense plot, and by the end, the reader will also be pleasantly surprised by the finale that reveals that Renkinjutsushi no Shoushitsu is not only a fun and memorable locked room murder mystery, it's also a mystery novel that only works because of its fantasy premise, with alchemy as its main pillar. The ideas used in this book to pull off the impossibility only work in this universe, but it's set-up well and the attentive reader is offered a very fair chance to solve it themselves. What some readers might find a bit disappointing is how the story does feel 'in progress' in some regards, with some minor plot points obviously written to tie in with future novels in this series, but Renkinjutsushi no Shoushitsu can be enjoyed as a standalone locked room mystery if you just look at the core puzzle, and it's a great one that reminds of writers like Shimada and Oosaka.

By the way, I think most will have noticed by now, but the names in this novel are a bit... cliche. From Paracelsus to Hermes, Nibiru, Nicolas Flamel, Magnus and other names like Hohenheim, Astarte and Sephira: you'll have heard of all of them in relation to alchemy, religion and other esoteric fields of interests and at times, these uninspired names will even make you think of some lazy fanfic, but some readers might be more bothered by this than others. The banter going on between the lazy (but woman-loving) Theresa and Emilia (who has his own problems to deal with because of a personal connection to Nicolas' assistant) is probably easier to digest for most readers.

Anyway, Renkinjutsushi no Shoushitsu is an enjoyable locked room mystery that makes brilliant use of its fantasy setting, but it's also clearly "an entry in an ongoing series" so you might want to begin with the first novel or wait for more to come so you can read more in one go. It's a series I'll be keeping an eye on though, as I thought the core mystery plot of this book was clever, surprising and memorable, showing once again that mystery fiction doesn't need to be realistic to be fun and satisfying. The book arguably does have a lot of trouble to feel unique in terms of atmosphere because how it doesn't even attempt to hide what media influenced it, but the core mystery is definitely unique and one to leave an impression.

Original Japanese title(s): 紺野天龍 『錬金術師の消失』

Friday, October 1, 2021

The Baited Trap

"I, Hercule Poirot, am not amused."
"The Hollow"

So this game was released earlier this week, but for some reason the price of this game in Japan is just a third of the MSRP in Europe, selling for just 1500 yen instead of 35-40 euro...

An earlier encounter left an impression both on Angeline van den Bosch and Hercule Poirot, a patrol officer of the Belgium police force, so when Angeline found herself in trouble, she decided to write to now Detective Hercule Poirot, hoping he would be able to help her. After the death of her father Viscount van den Bosch, Angeline was raised by her mother Cassandra and while there had been financial troubles in the past, the illustrious Van den Bosch name seems to have regained its place among society, and the upcoming marriage betweeen Angeline and Gedeon Demir will only strengthen both families and their social status. However, Angeline has been receiving blackmail letters threatening to reveal a family secret unless she pays. She has no knowledge of any hidden secret and her mother also denies everything, perhaps too strongly even. Other socialites have been receiving blackmail letters too, so it might indeed be nothing and just an attempt to get money out of her, but worried, Angeline invites Hercule Poirot to a private party to celebrate her engagement with Gedeon at the Van den Bosch estate. Poirot makes his way through the heavy snowfall to the manor, where he meets various family friends and business acquaintances who all seem to be hiding more beneath their superficial pleasantries. But Poirot has barely started his investigations into the blackmail matter when the British Major van Hagen, an old family friend of the two Van den Bosch women, is found stabbed to death in his study, with the weapon missing. With the phone lines also down because of the heavy snow, it's up to Poirot to find out who murdered the Major and the crime's connection to the blackmail letters in the game Agatha Christie - Hercule Poirot: The First Cases, released in 2021 on PC/PS4/PS5/MacOS/XBox One/Switch.

I am not absolutely certain, but I think this is the first game based on Agatha Christie's famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot that is not an adaptation of an existing novel, but a completely original story (there have been official licensed Poirot books by new writers of course. Like the title suggests, this game is actually a prequel, set in the times when Poirot was still a police officer in the Belgian police force and long before he had to move to England because of the Great War. It's a period the original stories don't talk about that often (most notably the short story The Chocolate Box), so in theory, it's an interesting period to set original Poirot stories and I guess origin/prequel stories in particular are popular. I wonder whether it's a coincidence that this game's release window is pretty close to Frogwares' (far more ambitious looking) Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One, which is another prequel game based on a famous fictional detective...

Agatha Christie - Hercule Poirot: The First Cases is created by Blazing Griffin, the studio that also made Murder Mystery Machine, a game I wrote about a few weeks ago and which also features a character named Cassandra. Huh. The gameplay and mechanics of Hercule Poirot: The First Cases are a clear sign of this pedigree, as it is quite close to Murder Mystery Machine in design. You control a young Poirot as you question the various suspects and look for evidence in the rather spacious Van den Bosch manor, which is presented with an isometric point of view (unlike Murder Mystery Machine however, you are not able to change the angle of the camera). Relevant information/hints/evidence are are all memorized by Poirot in his brain, and by using your little grey cells, the player has to find connections between relevant pieces of information to bring order among the chaotic sea of information. All the information you gather is automatically organized in so-called "mind maps", which gather all the relevant information pertaining to a certain goal (for example, all the information on the blackmail affair is stored in the "blackmail mind map"). By connecting certain relevant facts yourself on this mind map, you're able to generate new insights or questions to ask your suspects. Connecting two contradicting statements from two suspects allows you to press both characters further on that point for example, or you might uncover a motive by connecting a seemingly innocent mention to a character's past to another fact you learned. People familiar with games like Frogwares' more recent Sherlock Holmes games or Gyakuten Kenji/Ace Attorney Investigations will feel at home here, as do the people who have played Murder Mystery Machine. As expected of a licensed product however, Agatha Christie - Hercule Poirot: The First Cases plays a lot more streamlined than Murder Mystery Machine, and personally, I liked that better. The mind maps are already organized in an easy to read manner this time, allowing you to focus more on the actual thinking rather than struggling with dozens of posts-its. Each information point also has a short description, which really helps a lot with conveying what the context exactly is, as Murder Mystery Machine only had the words without any descriptions. And each mind map in Hercule Poirot: The First Cases shows how much connections are still possible to make and shows what actions you haven't followed up on yet (you migh have generated a new question to ask someone, but not done that yet). 

The mind maps are still quite enjoyable as a mechanic that allows the player to really follow the logical process of the detective and it works especially well with a character like Poirot, who prides himself on order and method.. Because the player has make the logical connections themselves and everything is visualized in a clear manner, you do really feel like you're piecing the case together yourself. There are also some other minor gameplay moments where you need to coax a suspect in revealing information by using different questioning approaches (some people fall for flattery, others need a bit of pressure), but you'll be spending most of the game eyeing the mind maps trying to find the correct connections. Sometimes, the connections can be a bit frustrating to find (why do I have to connect *these two* nodes, instead of the other, similar-looking one?), but the game never punishes you for getting things wrong on the mind map,  so you can brute-force yourself through them.

As a mystery story, Agatha Christie - Hercule Poirot: The First Cases covers familiar ground in a fairly competent manner. The story reminds a bit of Murder on the Orient Express, with the Van den Bosch manor is snowed in, a surprisingly international cast of characters and even the murder mystery plot takes some minor cues from it, while some themes touched upon even remind of Agatha Christie's work in general While the game does a good job at letting the player make all the logical connections themselves and I'd say that ultimately, the mystery plot, while not really original, is perfectly servicable, I would say that the set-up for the second half of the game is rather clumsy: the game will try to present a plot twist halfway through that is supposed to serve as the driving force for the plot of the second half of the game, but is introduced in such an awkward manner it basically gives the whole story away at that point. Simply shifting around when certain plot points or pieces of evidence are introduced to the player would have resulted in a much more interesting detective story, while now the game basically reveals its hand by just dropping all its cards on the table for a second.

But there is one thing where Agatha Christie - Hercule Poirot: The First Cases drops the ball hard, and while it wouldn't hurt any other game, one could almost call it a lethal mistake here: this game doesn't feel like an Hercule Poirot game at all! We're supposed to play a younger Hercule Poirot and sure, he has a moustache and he does mention his little grey cells, but that's it! Nothing about the character in this game, nothing about the writing in this game besides "his little grey cells" and the name indicator that says Poirot, would make you think you're playing a game based on the Poirot series. Not a single remark about his moustaches, never mentioning his love for symmetry or wanting to tidy things up: if you'd just look at the character's lines without any names, you'd never know this was supposed to be a young Poirot. And it's not like there are no opportunities to do so in a natural way. In a scene in the library, you examine some books and Poirot mentions his love for travelling. Why not sneak in a reference here that he'd love to visit Egypt some time? Why not some sly remark on the English and their food when he's speaking with the British characters? Why no funny remarks about a brother when he's talking with Gedeon about his brother? There's nothing that even feels remotely like Poirot here. Earlier this year, I played the game adaptation of The A.B.C. Murders, which as a mystery game was inferior to this game, but at least it had little details that made you feel like Poirot, like having Poirot curse when he walked through a puddle or being able to click on every mirror in the game so Poirot would check whether his clothes were tidy. 

I'm also rather confused about the time period this game is supposed to be set in. Given that this game is about a young Poirot in the police force who is still not very famous (save for his shooting incident), you'd expect this game to be set around the 1890s, but it feels like it's at least one or two decades later, considering the style of clothes of the characters as well as the style of furniture. References to "the war" involving the English army which every Belgian apparently knows about confuse things even more. The writing certainly isn't trying to actually sound like it's set around that time (and at times, it just sounds like... 2021), which doesn't help things either.

So Agatha Christie - Hercule Poirot: The First Cases ends up being a very strange game. It is quite enjoyable as a mystery game that focuses on the logical steps necessary to solve the crime, and while the story and setting don't feature anything remarkably original, the end product is a capably made mystery game that does a good job at making the player really feel like they are piecing the mystery themselves. At the same time however, the game does not do a good job at making you feel like the titular Hercule Poirot. In fact, if you're somewhat familiar with the character and the books, you might end up like me, wondering constantly why the game is so intent on not feeling like a Poirot game. The license doesn't seem to do anything at all: from a pure story and gameplay POV, I can't say the game benefits at all from the Poirot license, while at the same time, the game does nothing to interfact meaningfully with the character Poirot and the many stories featuring him at all. It's a trap very few games based on existing licences fall into: ending up as a game that would have been better without the license. So curiously enough, I'd say that Agatha Christie - Hercule Poirot: The First Cases is an interesting detective game, but it would have been more interesting without the Agatha Christie- Hercule Poirot in the title.