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」


  1. Thanks for the review, and it's good to hear that there is a new instalment for 謎解きはディナーのあとで. I've not read any of the novels, but have encountered some of the cases in manga format. Which I believe might have stopped at the second novel. Your review reminds me I should get round to reading "Lending the Key to the Locked Room", which is still sitting in my Kindle...

    1. The series was really popular about ten years ago with all those adaptations going on, so it was kinda sad that it stopped so abruptly, but I'm honestly glad we have a new set of adventures now. Now I'm hoping we'll finally have another novel with the Detective Club of Koigakubo Academy next year...