Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Death Casts a Spell

"It's midnight."
"Cinderella"

I watched a lot of the classic Disney feature-length animated films when I was little, but Cinderella is one of the few I never saw...

The Thompson family was once a prominent family in the Kingdom of Illusion, but those days are a thing of the past now. Mother Catherine is still hoping that one day, the family will return to its former glory and her hopes are settled on her two daughters Giovanna and Layla. Cinderella, the child of her second husband who died a few years ago, is of course not part of Catherine's plans, and Cinderella is mostly just doing the odd jobs around the house. While Catherine, Giovanna and Layla are not as mean to Cinderella as you might have heard from certain fairly tales, it's still no surprise that Catherina plans to only take Giovanna and Layla to the 18th birthday party of Prince Olivier, hoping that the future king of the kingdom will fall in love with one of her daughters. Cinderella is to stay alone at the house, but is suddenly visited by a wizard, who conjures up a nice dress for Cinderella, as well as a pumpkin coach and a mouse-turned-human-coachman. The wizard also gives Cinderella a pair of specially made glass slippers that surprisingly aren't the product of magic. Cinderella really doesnt want to go to the castle party, because it was the perfect night to do some reading, but the wizard sends the stunningly-looking, but grumbling woman off, and a few moments later, Cinderella finds herself wandering at the ball under an alias, hoping Catherine and her step-sisters won't notice her. 

Prince Olivier does notice Cinderella though, and while she tries to decline a dance with the prince pointing to her glass slippers, the prince offers to lend Cinderella a proper pair of shoes from his collection and brings Cinderella to his private room. At first, Cinderella fears the prince might try some funny business, but it's really just a pair of shoes he offers her. They return to the ball, but after a while Cinderella decides it's time to return home, so she and the prince return to his room again to retrieve her glass slippers. Cinderella waits inside the room near the entrance while the prince goes behind a corner to get the slippers, but he takes an awfully long time to get them, and when Cinderella goes deeper inside the room to see what's keeping the prince, she stumbles upon the dead body of Prince Oliver lying on the floor. The guard standing outside the prince's room barges inside upon Cinderella's cry, and Cinderella is immediately arrested. Cinderella of course denies the accusation, even though on the surface, she's the only viable suspect: a guard was standing outside the prince's quarters all this time, and the only persons to go inside were the prince and Cinderella, and only one of these two is alive now. While Cinderella is given a minute to confide with Layla about her presence here, Cinderella is immediately put on trial for the murder on the beloved prince. While Cinderella is a fast talker and manages to stall a seemingly inevitable guilty sentence, time is ticking in Konno Tenryuu's Cinderella-jou no Satsujin ("The Cinderella Castle Murder" 2021), as the magic will fade at midnight revealing her true identity as Cinderella, child of the Thompson family and if she's found guilty, it will probably mean the death of Catherine, Giovanna and Layla too.

The last three, four years, I've been enjoying a lot of these mystery stories that are basically parodies of well-known children's stories, fables or other folk tales. These stories are patterned after these well-known tales, but transform them into magical locked room murders, devious murders where the murderer has a perfect alibi or a surprising whodunnit. Examples would be Kobayashi Yasumi's Märchen Murder series for example, which is based on well-known children's literature like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, or Aoyagi Aito's Once Upon A Time series, where he re-tells well known fairy tales from both Japan and the West as puzzle plot mystery stories. I absolutely love how these stories use tales we all know up to some degree, but transform them into detective stories that are both recognizable and new, and they also often utilize supernatural elements (magic) in clever ways. We all grew up on these stories and "know" the magic used in these tales, so it's really fun to see these elements most of us have known most of our lives used in mystery stories. Cinderella-jou no Satsujin was published last year and written by Konno Tenryuu, of which I have also read his Alchemist series, (it's basically Fullmetal Alchemist as a detective series), so I knew I could at least something decent from this book.

Making a comparison with a different work when discussing a certain book isn't the most elegant way of writing a review. In a way, it's pretty lazy, stating that A is similar to B, hoping the reader knows enough about "B" to understand what you are meaning. It's also something I do a lot in my reviews, because I am not really a really good reviewer. But honestly, I can't help but say this out loud: Cinderella-jou no Satsujin is exactly like a Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney story. There really is no other way to describe this book. And I don't even mean it in a negative way! In fact, I quite enjoyed reading Cinderella-jou no Satsujin, but if you have ever played any of the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney games, you can almost perfectly predict how the plot will unfold, because this book really follows the story pattern seen in those video games exactly. After the murder is discovered, Cinderella is immediately put on trial because the implications of the murder on Prince Oliver are just so big, even though the investigation at the crime scene hasn't even really ended yet! Almost everyone is already convinced Cinderella killed the prince as the trial commences, and even the judge doesn't sound really impartial as he makes the opening speech, but fortunately, if there's one thing Cinderella can do, it's think fast, and talk even faster, and it doesn't take long for Cinderella to pick up on little contradictions in the statements of the witnesses and attack those weak points, slowly proving that she was not the only one who could have murdered the prince even though initially it seems like an open-and-shut case.

And it's from this point on, Cinderella-jou no Satsujin unfolds almost as if it had originally been written as an episode in one of the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney games. Witnesses with quirky character traits appear at the witness stand with testimonies that initially seem to prove Cinderella's guilt, but Cinderella points out little contradictions each time, exposing these witnesses as either liars, or at least as someone who is under an misapprehension, and when pushed, it turns out their testimonies don't point unilaterally at Cinderella at all, and even open up opportunities for Cinderella to point at other suspects or prove how the apparent locked room murder of the prince is in fact not a locked room murder. The cycle of testimony -> contradictions -> new testimony or new witness -> contradictions is the bread and butter of the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney games, which in turn took inspiration from Columbo, but the whole courtroom setting combined with the way all the witnesses have some weird quirks or how they "transform" (drastically change mood/tone) when contradictions are pointed come straight out of the famous video game series. The book even has an extra investigation segment between two trial parts, where Cinderella is allowed to do some extra investigations at the crime scene, follows the story flow of any given Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney episode. 

The reader is therefore also kept entertained from start to finish, as Cinderella constantly solves little mysteries throughout the tale by pointing out the contradictions in the testimonies. The reader is also given a fair chance at noticing these contradictions themselves too, making this an engaging read because each time, you really want to notice the contradictions before Cinderella does. And whether you manage to point out these contradictions yourself first or not, there's always the extra question of why a certain contradiction exists. Did that witness just intentionally lie to hide something that would reveal Cinderella's innocence? Or were they deceived into assuming something, and why would that be the case? As the story continues, Cinderella of course also points out the possibility of magic having been used to kill Prince Oliver in the locked room. With Cinderella being given a magic dress and a pumpkin coach and more at the start of the tale, the reader is already mentally prepared for the implications of magic on the mystery plot, and Kanno does a good job at setting out the limitations of magic for this plot, similar to how alchemy plays an important role in his Alchemist series, but where it's not just a magic answer to everything. Magic perpaps plays not as prominently a role in Cinderella-jou no Satsujin as alchemy in the Alchemist series, but it's quite satisfying to see all the magic with a Cinderella motif put to good use in this mystery novel. Ultimately, I think the solution to the locked room murder on Prince Oliver is not really complex or surprising when examined as a singular plot idea (so if you'd only look at how the locked room murder came to be), but the journey to the solution is really entertaining and I enjoyed the ride to midnight.

I don't know if there are more mystery stories that are patterned after Cinderella, I assume there are, but Cinderella-jou no Satsujin at least is a fun one! While the basics of the fairy tale are still intact, the wise-cracking Cinderella and the other figures are funny original takes and additions to the tale, and as a mystery story, Cinderella-jou no Satsujin is a well-plotted mystery story that is especially fun if the reader tries to identify the contradictions themselves too, trying to solve the mystery before Cinderella does. I wouldn't mind if Konno would turn this into a series!

Original Japanese title(s):  紺野天龍『シンデレラ城の殺人』

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Ask a Policeman

One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do 
"One" (Three Dog Night)

Aibou ("Partners") is a very succesful police drama in Japan that's been running since 2000, with season 20 probably nearing its end by the time this review is published. The series is about the Special Orders Unit, a two-man unit within the Metropolitan Police Department that is basically only there to keep Sugishita Ukyou there: while Sugishita is one of the most brilliant men to be found within the police force, his sense of justice often clashes with the decisions of administration. The people at the top know Sugishita is indispensible, that if they need him they really need him, but at the same time, they like to keep him locked up in a box until that time, and that's basically what the Special Orders Unit: he is to do nothing, unless there's a special order. Of course, Sugishita likes to poke into his business that aren't his, so more often than not, he decides to look into homicide cases, figuring that he's allowed to do this, unless there are special orders that tell him otherwise. In the series, Sugishita is always accompanied by a younger subordinate, his titular partner, who forms a contrast with the cool-minded Sugishita. While Sugishita has been a constant in the television show since it started in 2000 however, he has seen partners come and go, with his current partner in Season 21, Kaburagi, being his fourth formal partner in the SOU. I occassionally watch an episode or special of the show, but I haven't really been following this series lately, even though I did watch the whole run of Kaito (the third partner) in season 11 - 13, as well as the first seasons with Kaburagi

Like I said, Aibou is huge in Japan, with the franchise being much more than just the core television show. There have been theatrical releases, spin-off movies, video games, and of course novels. Most of the novels are, not surprisingly, simply novelizations of the episodes, but there is also a sub-series of novels that feature completely original adventures of Sugishita. The novel series is also referred to as the Sugishita Ukyou series, as it focuses on him alone, rather than on "partners." These books, written by Ikari Uhito (a pen name of Torikai Hiu), usually have Sugishita operating alone, for example during a holiday or are set in the periods between partners leaving and coming. Other familar faces in the series do appear in these stories, but these stories do feel a bit different from the television show because Sugishita acts alone here. Sugishita Ukyou no Misshitsu (2013), which also has the English title The Locked Room Mysteries of Ukyo Sugishita, is the third book in the series and consist of two novellas. I decided to read this one, because chronologically, it felt the most "familiar" to me: these stories are set in the period after Sugishita's second partner Kanbe left the show in season 10, but before he met his third parter Kaito in Hong Kong in the pilot special of season 11, which is when I started to really watch whole seasons, so starting with this book also felt the most natural to me. I don't think you need to have any prior knowledge to enjoy this book as a mystery book by the way, and it's written in a very simple manner so it might even be perfect for people starting to read mystery stories in Japanese, but it will probably feel a bit bland, because the stories do assume you know the recurring characters well enough and it barely bothers to explain anything about them.

The first story, Daifugou no Chousenjou ("A Challenge from a Billionaire") in the book opens with Sugishita receiving a letter from an old college friend. Takamatsu Hirofumi belonged to the contract bridge club at university, while Sugishita of course belonged to the chess club, and it's througn these games that the two first met. They had not kept in touch however, which is why Sugishita is quite surprised to receive this letter. After college, Takamatsu started a venture business in semiconductors, which eventually grew into the major company Semicon Z. Recently, he announced he'd retreat as the head of the company however. He plans to retreat to his new house on Kubura Island, an island in Okinawa he has bought for himself and his wife. In his letter, Takamatsu invites Sugishita to a small party to commemorate this new phase of his life, but in a special post-scriptum accompanying the invitation, he says he's planning to hold a special detective game during the party, and he hopes Sugishita will come. Intrigued by this letter, Sugishita decides to go to Kubura Island, where he learns the other guests are all people who work at Semicon Z, as well as the architect of the splendid house Takamatsu had built. The house is built against the cliff, and there's an elevator that goes down into the cliff, leading to a special room below sea level with a glass wall that serves as a private aquarium, looking out right into the sea!

Before the party starts, Takamatsu confides to his old friend that he fears someone's after his life, and that's why he gave up his position at Semicon Z: curious incidents that could've ended very differently for him have occured recently, and he doubts they were accidents Takamatsu suspects this is related to a case of a leak of confidential business information that happened at Semicon Z, and a bugging device he found in his office. The other guests at the party are in fact all suspects in the eyes of Takamatsu, and he has a "detective game" in mind during dinner to smoke out the spy. That evening, Takamatsu disappears during dinner, but is then shown on a television screen to his guests. Sitting in the aquarium room, he announces they are going to play a detective game. The "made-up" case is about a company spy, a bugging device, and the summing up of suspects who all have a reason to betray the company, and of course, the "story" told by Takamatsu basically applies to what really happened, and the persons present at the party. Takamatsu then says that he challenges his guests to guess who the spy is: they have twelve hours to figure out which of them is the traitor, with Takamatsu also claiming he has found a fingerprint on the bug he discovered in his office, and that combined with the fingerprints he will retrieve from the tableware used during dinner, they'll know for sure who the spy is (a bluff). Takamatsu even challenges the murderer to come to the aquarium room, as he and the evidence will be waiting there the coming twelve hours. Sugishita wants to stop this game and urges the spy to come clean, but is immediately knocked out by the servant. By the time he wakes up, it's basically twelve hours later, but there's no announcement by Takamatsu. When they go downstairs in the aquarium room, they find Takamatsu stabbed to death in the aquarium room, as well as one of the guests, but time-wise it doesn't seem he could've killed Takamatsu and what's even more puzzling: the door of the aquarium room can't be opened from the inside and Takamatsu had been acting as bait to trap the spy inside this room. But if so, how did the real murderer escape the room after killing Takamatsu?

An interesting story, also because it doesn't feel at all like a story you'd see in the normal Aibou series, at least, not in this form. A closed circle mystery on a remote island in Okinawa, with an underwater room being the setting of a locked room murder mystery: while Aibou episodes do provide puzzle plot msyteries at time, they seldom have all these tropes in one single story! The mystery revolves around how the murderer could've commited the crime inside a room designed as a trap, as a space that would seal itself once they set foot inside. The trick behind how this was all done has elements that will feel familiar perhaps, but the manner in which the stories lays out its clues and leads the reader (and Sugishita) to the answer is pretty good. It's definitely a concept you will likely not see in the main Aibou television series and it clearly leans much more into the fantastical ideas and tricks you see in mystery novels, rather than on television. So it gets points for that. It's a simple concept that's easy to visualize, though I have an inkling that readers of mystery fiction will soon think of it, though regular viewers of Aibou might find this much more surprising. I do think the story does feature a lot of coincidences that are designed solely to act as misdirection, and a lot of the latter part of the story consists more of brushing away all these red herrings rather than focusing on the core mystery. Of course, most mysteries do feature a red herring or two, but a lot of the elements here feel like they feel added arbitrarily, functioning solely as a standalone red herring and it can feel tiring to constantly learn that something wasn't relevant to the actual murder anyway. 

The second story, Kabe ("Wall") starts with the discovery of the half-decayed body of Watari Junichirou, president of the outdoor sports equipment business Outdoor Dream by his secretary. Watari was believed to have left for the States a week ago and while he was gone, the vice-president wanted to try out the special climbing wall they had built on top of the building of Outdoor Dream. Watari had a special tower made on the roof of the building, with climbing walls on the inside. While "technically" it was for all employees, only the president used it regularly. But the vice-president wanted to have some exercise too, so he decided to ask Watari's secretary to unlock the tower, so he could try it out too during Watari's trip in the US. But it appears Watari never left for the US, and that he had been lying dead in the climbing tower since the day before he was supposed to go on his business trip. At first it's believed the man may have fallen to his death during climbing, but when Sugishita points out the man has no chalk in his hands, suspicion of murder arises, especially when the police learns the man was a notorious womanizer who had been harrassing women at work too. But the tower was locked until the secretary opened the tower eight days after his supposed death, and she saw nobody inside the tower, nor could anyone have escaped from the tower or roof during the time she got help and notified the police. So how was this murder committed?

A much shorter, and more simple story. The idea of a climbing tower as a locked room space is interesting: spatially speaking, it's actually very large (and high), with the extended roof being part of the setting too, but as the only two keys to the tower were either inside the tower, or kept by the secretary during those eight days, it's still a proper locked room mystery. The manner in which the story introduces the culprit and involves them in the core puzzle-solving plot feels a bit forced, but the clues that ultimately point out how the murderer did manage to escape the locked room are good, as are the clues indicating the identity of the murderer. The motive too feels closer to something you'd usually see in the series, which is also strengthened by the appearances of more familiar faces in the series, as we do see people like the forensic investigator Yonezawa despite Sugishita's partner Kanbe having left the series already at this point.

On the whole, I think Sugishita Ukyou no Misshitsu is a pretty decent read for fans of the series. The two stories featured here are definitely more focused on a fair play puzzle plot than the stories you usually see in the television series, which tend to focus more on social school themes, so especially those who do like the world of Aibou, who occassionally wants to see more "classic" mystery set-ups, this book is the way to go. There's nothing mind-blowing here, nor truly original ideas, but the stories are competently written and provide at least the level of entertainment I'd expect from an original Aibou story. I for one am definitely planning to read more of this series. But while these books are written in a very accessible way and take little time to get through them, I do hesitate a little to recommend them to people who don't know Aibou, as these stories do very little to actually introduce the reader to the world and characters. While the mystery plots do work as standalone stories, they do feel a bit underdeveloped without prior knowledge of the series. So this book is best read as a companion to the series, even if theoretically, you can read them without knowing the television show.

Original Japanese title(s): 碇卯人『杉下右京の密室』:「大富豪の挑戦状」/「壁」

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

RePainTrick

君の笑顔ひとつで救われたんだ magic of the smile
"Magic" (愛内里菜)
 
I was saved by a single smile of you
Magic of the smile 
"Magic" (Aiuchi Rina)

Today: a book I should have read a different time.

Most knowledge on magic had been lost after the medieval witch hunts, but about a century ago, people started studying magic again. While many types of magic once known to the world are now still "lost tasks" (forgotten arts), magic has been developing as a genuine academic field of science and there are universities across the world that have a magic faculty. Mind you, this is no Harry Potter. One has to be born with the ability to perform magic and at the moment, there are only six known magicians on the world, who are all put under the supervision of the Order of Zenith (OZ), a governing agency located in the UK. However, "normal" people can still study the workings of magic and do research on it, similarly to how not all Literature students actually write literature. Japan has been one of the slowest countries to become accepting of magic and it was only this academic year that a university opened the very first Magic Faculty in Japan. Jousui University had more big news however: they managed to get Shiina Sakyou, one of the six magicians on this world, on board as one of their teachers. Some months have passed since their promising first adventure at the start of the academic year involving Shiina and his seminar class, and it's become summer. Shiina invites his class to a two-day outing to a university research facility in the mountains, though only Amane (the narrator) and Ririko are able to make it. Shiina will be going there to meet fellow magician and friend Simon L. SmithKlyne. Simon is the youngest known magician, whose powers first manifested after a horrible plane accident in which his parents died. His younger sister Juno was about to die too, but Simon miraculously managed to use healing magic to save her, even though healing magic is a Lost Task and nobody has managed to recreate that old art. Since then, Simon and Juno have been put in the custody of OZ, with Simon specializing in alchemy magic. Through a mutual friend, Simon has obtained a formula that might allow him to use resurrection alchemy, but the magic requires the powers of at least two magicians, which is why he has travelled all the way to Japan to Shiina, under the supervision of OZ guards. 

The experiment is to be held at the Jousui University research facility, which is also where Amane and Ririko first meet Simon and Juno. Simon's lost the use of his legs after the plane accident, and his sister Juno has been taking care of him, while also being an accomplished magic researcher herself, and while they are considered authorities in the field, they are actually still young and turn out to be really nice to both Amane and Ririko. The experiment is held in the basement of the facility, with Shiina and Simon moving into a special closed off booth to protect others from possible magical rebounds. At first, things seem to go as planned, but the experiment suddenly backfires and ends in a complete failure. Simon is obviously both shocked and disappointed in the results nd stays in the lab to find out what went wrong. The next morning, Juno is in a panic because she can't find Simon, and eventually, they discover that the cellar lab is locked from the inside, and the only key is gone, because Simon had been carrying it with him. Shiina manages to open the lock using alchemy. Inside, they find that Simon has hung himside inside the booth, apparently in despair after his failed experiment. The key to the lab is also found with him, seemingly cementing this as a suicide. Juno however refuses to believe her brother committed suicide and she becomes enraged when she learns that the guards of OZ are trying to take away Simon's remains immediately back to the UK, as OZ considers the remains of a magician to important. The local police of course refuse to just let the people of OZ do whatever they want, but the problem is that it doesn't seem possible anyone could've murdered Simon, considering he was found inside a locked room. Of course, there was one other person at the facility who could have used alchemy to open and lock the door again, a thing easy enough to prove as there were only two magicians in Japan at the time. But Shiina isn't the murderer of course, and while the local police and OZ struggle with each other, another murder occurs in Kuzumi Shiki's Tricksters L (2005). 

Tricksters L is the second novel in Kuzumi's Tricksters series, but the third one I have read. Because, yep, I don't read things in order. Both the first Tricksters and Tricksters D (the third novel) were quite fun, so it was just a matter of time before I'd read more of this series, though I have to admit right now: I probably should have read this in order. Not because of spoilers or anything, but my timing of reading this book was just horrible, and it didn't help the experience at all. And there wasn't much this book could have done about that: it was just unlucky. Had I read this book months before, I would have liked the book much better.

About a month before I read Tricksters L, I happened to have read Konno Tenryuu's Renkinjutsushi no Misshitsu (2020), which also has the English title Alchemist in Locked Room. Which was a detective novel set in a world where alchemy exist. Okay, not a problem per se, though I hadn't expected this overlap in theme between the two books. Tricksters was about magic, and the first book introduced minor magic arts like locating people, but Tricksters L decided to focus on alchemy as a specific branch of magic, and little of the magic spells (and their specific rules/limitations) introduced in the first book returned in this book, as D was about alchemy. Fair. But then Tricksters D presented the plot of a mysterious death of an magician/alchemist in an underground lab, a locked underground lab to be exact, and a lot of the book revolving around the fact that only a fellow magician could have committed the murder inside a locked room, and of course, that our hero turns out to be that one person who could've been the murderer. Which is basically the same plot as Renkinjutsushi no Misshitsu, so you could imagine me being a bit disappointed reading these two books only two, three weeks apart. And what certainly didn't help was that ultimately, a lot of the ideas and concepts that make up the solution of both books are very similar. Strangely enough, despite mystery fiction often building on existing tropes and me practically only reading mystery, I don't experiece something like this often, and certainly not to the degree as this time.

Mind you, Tricksters L was released in 2005, and Renkinjutsushi no Misshitsu in 2020, so Tricksters D is of course the older one, and it's not like the solutions to both novels are exactly the same, but they do share a lot of similar ideas and that's why I already guessed what was going on very early in the book, for I still had the solution to Renkinjutsushi no Misshitsu in my mind. And if you know what happens in that book, it's very easy to apply some of the ideas seen there and see how they fit in Tricksters L and you'll realize that the two books are very similar, like a parallel world version. The idea on its own is still good, and ultimately, Tricksters L takes the idea to a different terminal station, and tells a very different kind of story based on the same idea, but still, it's easy to recognize that both books built upon the very same idea. As expected, the concept of alchemy does of course play an important role in this story, and while I think the "rules" of alchemy are not explored as much as the magic spells were in the first Tricksters, nor explained as detailed compared to the alchemy we see in Renkinjutsushi no Misshitsu, Tricksters L still manages to present a good, fair-play mystery set in a world with magic and alchemy. I do have to say that for a moment, I thought I was on the wrong track when a false solution was introduced which was to be completely honest, very memorable. Sure, the solution is proven to be wrong and if you take like a second to think about it, you realize very quickly why that particular idea to explain how the locked room was creeated wouldn't work, but the base dynamics/the foundation of that idea is wonderfully silly, really the kind of idea you only see in mystery novels, and the sort of idea you want to see in mystery novels. I would love to read a detective story that takes this solution and, with some tweaks, makes it the actual solution to a locked room mystery!

False solutions in general are a staple of the series by the way, which is partially why the series is called Tricksters: there's a lot of misdirection going in general, with false solutions being proposed by Shiina, Amane and others, and other misdirection going throughout the story that is only revealed at the end, and while these books are all very short, they usually manage to feel quite satisfying for puzzle plot lovers, as there's a lot of clewing and unraveling going on. While this second book doesn't go as far as the first book, which started with a sort of Challenge to the Reader announcing the reader will be fooled in seven different ways in the following chapters, it's still fun to see how in the end, Shiina and Amane reveal there was probably more misdirection going on than you might've expected at first.

Tricksters L had the unbelievable bad luck I happened to have read the one book on the world that is probably most similar to it just a few weeks before I started on Tricksters L. With similar motifs and even solutions that are at the care basically the same, you can understand why I felt a bit disappointed reading this book, even though it was not really the work's fault. Taken on its own, it's a perfectly enjoyable mystery novel, a bit short perhaps, but still fun and people who liked the first book certainly won't be disappointed by Tricksters L. The only tip I can give is really to not read this book and Renkinjutsushi no Misshitsu closely after another: there are just too many parallels and if you know the solution to one of them, it's really not hard to make the conversion and figure out what is going on in the other. Normally, I'd try to avoid spoiling this for other readers, but these two are just so incredibly similar and I really wouldn't want someone to have the same experience as I had. Let some time pass between the two books until you've forgotten the details.

Original Japanese title(s): 久住四季『トリックスターズL』

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Old Habits Die Hard

"Extra, extra, read all about it!"

Huh, I am really using the anthology tag only once a year...

Disclosure: I am a member of the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan. However, I didn't vote for the stories this year though. Or any year to be honest.... I just never read short stories published in magazines, making it impossible for me to vote in the first place...

We've made it halfway through the year 2022, so here it is: Honkaku-Ou 2022 ("The King of Honkaku 2022"). This annual summer anthology collects the best honkaku short stories published the previous year, as selected by the members of the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan. It is basically a counterpart to the Honkaku Mystery Award, which is awarded to the best published book each year. Short stories are usually published in magazines or online, which occasionally can make them difficult to track down several months later, so that is why each year, this anthology is published, to ensure these stories can be easily found. I've been reading this collection since they started the current format in 2019, and while it's not like I love every single story each time, the anthologies do give a good idea of what's going on each year in the mystery scene of Japan. Last year's volume for example had a #StayHome themed story because of a certain pandemic, so I was curious to see whether that would still find its way into this volume one way or another. But while each year can be quite different, the last two entries featured some stories that were really strong and some even ended up on my favorite reads of the respective year, so it's always worth it to at least take a look at these books.

Nemuranai Keiji to Inu ("The Detectives and Dogs That Don't Sleep") by Michio Shuusuke and Island Kitchen by Ashizawa You are the stories by the two novelists I had never read before, and to be really honest, these were also the two stories in this volume I liked least. I can easily explain why though, as both stories feature a somewhat vaguely defined problem/case, so it takes a long time for the story to get to a point where you really feel you are reading a mystery story, rather than something else. Both do start out with a seemingly "straightforward" case though. Nemuranai Keiji to Inu for example has a police detective hiring a... pet detective to find a missing dog. The dog's owners were murdered in their home, and their dog went missing on the same night, so it is assumed the dog is involved in one way or another with the case. The pet detective in question is Ezoe Masami, a pet detective who has an incredibly good track record, but the narrator, a female police detective knows Ezoe isn't always honest to his clients, occasionally finding pets early and keeping them hidden so they'll hire him for a longer period. She hires Ezoe to find the missing dog behind her superior's back and thus the two go looking for the dog together. What follows is a story that works pretty good as a character study, where parallels are drawn between the two detectives and dogs, but the reveal about how the dog is ultimately connected to the murder feels a bit... underwhelming, because most of the page count seems to be more focused on the characterization than the puzzle. Which is a matter of personal taste of course, but I feel like even with the same puzzle elements, this story could have been a tricker, and more amusing detective story had the emphasis on the themes been shifted a bit. The same holds for Island Kitchen, which starts with a retired police detective visiting a real estate agent, hoping to find a home with a garden for him and his wife. He spots an apartment building among the listings where he once investigated a deadly fall and he starts reminiscing. The case involved a woman living in the building falling to her death, but it was unclear whether it was an accident, suicide or murder. The woman had been stalked by someone for a long time, but the police hadn't done anything to help her, so suicide due to despair, or murder both seemed quite possible. As the former detective thinks back to the case, he realizes not everything was as it was, and personally, I think the *idea of the twist* is pretty good. But the "set-up" to the twist is so long and involves so many elements that ultimately aren't relevant to the twist specifically, it kind falls flat for me, because now it's almost like you're reading two seperate stories that are only linked in a very, very minor manner. I really do like the twist itself though, so I kinda wish it had a different story as the set-up.

Ooyama Seiichirou's work is always a joy to read, and he mostly writes short stories, so he fits here really well. Karamazov no Doku ("The Poison of the Karamazovs") is of course a story inspired by The Brothers Karamazov and is part of a series about Kayou Daisuke, an actor specializing in villain roles, but who is actually a gifted armchair detective. This time he is consulted by the elderly Yamazono Marue, who in her younger years as a housekeeper for an agency. She recounts the time she was involved in a murder case. At the time, she had been assigned by her agency to work at the house of the wealthy Karamura Tatsuo. On her first day, she met with the man, and his three sons, and they soon reminded her of The Brothers Karamov and the characters of Fyodor and his sons Dmitri, Ivan and Alexei. She has only just arrived when she is asked to pour in tea for everyone, and she quickly returns from the kitchen with the refreshments. But the moment Tatsuo has his drink, he starts coughing and gagging. An ambulance is called, but it is too late, and the man ends up dead. The police learn he was poisoned, but can't figure out how: the young maid had never met the man before and had just arrived on her first day here, while her three sons each had a motive to kill the man for his money, but couldn't have tampered with the drinks the maid had prepared. It's a very short story, so I think the actual explanation of how this seemingly impossible poisoning was done will not be incredibly surprising, but I do like the initial one or two clues that put the reader on the trail. I think that even when the actual "how" of an impossibility in Ooyama's work is simple at the core, he always does a good job at actually laying out a trail of clues for the reader to follow in order to arrive at that how logically (instead of just guessing), so in that sense, his stories never disappoint.

It's been while since I last read something by Morikawa Tomoki... Wa-wait! It's been 8 years!? The last one I read was back in 2014?? Anyway, Whodunnit Reception is a pretty interesting story that is foremost a puzzle. The story starts when Masatsugu and his classmate friend Yumiko sneak into the room of Masatsugu's brother Masakazu, a young mystery writer. Masatsugu is just looking for some files he knows are in the room that'll come in handy for a school project, but Yumiko accidentally knocks over some coffee over some hand-written documents, which turn out to be a finished, but unpublished manuscript, being the solution to a mystery story that's being serialized right now! Masatsugu knows his brother doesn't use computers and hardly keeps any copies, so he realizes in how much trouble they are right away as the coffee has erased a lot of the text. Masatsugu and Yumiko eventually manage to reconstruct most of the documents, but there are still spots that were tainted too much by the coffee, making it impossible to see what was originally written there, and it turns out they are the most important part of the story, where the detective explains how they figured it out and who the culprit is. Yumiko, a budding writer herself, however comes up with a plan: they are going to guess what is supposed to go in the blank spots based on the context of the surrounding passages, reconstrucing the solution of the story! A very interesting story, as it turns the solution of a mystery story into a mystery! There are 17 blank spots, and the reader, Masatsugu and Yumiko have to deduce what goes in each blank spot based on the surrounding context of the detective's explanation of the case (they do not have the first part of the story). It's very puzzle-like: you first fill in the spots that are very obvious based on the context, and that allows you to fill in other spots too because of the implications of the previously filled in spots etc. The story surprisingly has a few twists too while you fill in these blank spots, and it's pretty fun to read, but it does very "puzzle-like" because you are really filling blank spots, and some readers might find it a bit too "artificial." I myself enjoyed the whole concept though of a solution part of a mystery story being a mystery itself and have you deduce the solution of a mystery story of which you don't even know the first part!

Houjou Kie has been a personal favorite since she made her debut of course and I loved her short story Amulet Hotel last year, so I was really looking forward to her short story Kage wo Kuu Mono ("Shadow Eater"). And of course, this story features supernatural elements: the narrator is out camping deep in the woods with a friend and his dog. The narrator wakes up in the middle of night and happens to spot a Shadow Fish, a kind of yokai (supernatural being) that feeds on the shadows of living beings. The Shadow Fish can only move in shadows, jumping from one shadow to another, and it preys on the shadows of living beings. Once they have jumped into the shadow of their victim, they remain in their shadow (even if the person/animal wakes up) and feeds on the shadow until the shadow is gone, which kills the person/animal in question. The narrator sees how the Shadow Fish jumps out to the shadow of a dead fox and in the direction of his two sleeping companions and by the time he has waken both of them, he realizes it's too late: the Shadow Fish is in the shadow of either his dog or his friend, but they can't tell which of them. They happen to have a very powerful drug that can kill the Shadow Fish, but they have only one tablet, and the drug is so powerful it will kill a person/animal if they take it without a Shadow Fish being their shadow. With little time left until the Shadow Fish is done feeding on its prey, the narrator and his friend have to quickly deduce where the Shadow Fish is, based on the shadows at the time the Fish was spotted. Houjou once again brings a new kind of mystery story by using supernatural elements: this is almost like a "whodunnit", only you are looking for the "culprit" hiding inside a different person. You can also tell Houjou is a gamer (like with her third book), as there are (segments in) games where you have to move from shadow to shadow as a gameplay mechanic and this story of course feels very similar to that. While there is an emphasis on deducing where the Shadow Fish went based on "rules" (the Shadow Fish can only jump a certain distance, it will always go for the nearest sleeping target etc.), the way the story is also very focused on visuals do form an obstacle for this story, I think. A lot of the story hinges on how far each shadow of everything in their camp reached at the time the narrator spotted the Shadow Fish, and while this story has diagrams, you do have to consider multiple "moments" of where each shadow was, so I think this story, ironically, would have worked better as a game, allowing you quickly "scroll" between the various moments. It's a good mystery story though that as always shows detective stories don't need to be realistic to present interesting mysteries.

Asakura Akinari's Ito no Hito wo Sagashite ("Looking for the Person of My Thread") is tied as my favorite in this volume with Kage wo Kuu Mono and is in a way the polar opposite, as it pertains to a very "realistic" occassion: a goukon or group blind date. The narrator, Kawase, is an unremarkable university student who never had a girlfriend, which is why he didn't really believe his friend Yoshimi told him his girlfriend knew a girl who was interested in Kawase. The girl is rather shy however and doesn't dare to approach Kawase without "any cause", so the idea is having both of them appear at the same group date, with five men and five women. That would give the girl an opportunity to strike up a conversation with Kawase and see how things'll go from there. Kawase has never been in a group blind date before, so when Kawase first arrives at the restaurant, he's quite nervous, but the first girl to arrive immediatey says she knows Kawase from classes, so the plan to find the person on the other end of the red thread of fate seems to work... until the second girl also says she knows Kawase. And the third, fourth and fifth too! Kawase remembers he was never told what the other girl's name was or how she looked like, and now all five girls seem somewhat interested in him (to the chagrin of the other four men). At first, Kawase thinks that it shouldn't really mattter with what girl he ends up with: his friends may have  intended him to meet a certain girl and arranged for both them to attend this group date, but they can hardly critizie him if he happened to get along better with someone else, right? But then he receives information that tell him he has to be very, very careful, as there's "something dangerous" about each of the other girls: one of them for example is actually a married woman cheating on her husband, while another girl is the daughter of a boss of a crime syndicate, and another is an underground idol with very fanatic fans who are willing to kill if they learn their idol is dating someone... So can Kawase deduce which of the five girls in front of him is the girl he was supposed to meet? Okay, so the setting of this story is a bit silly, as apparently people around Kawase do recognize some of the women in their group date and know they are "dangerous" one way or another, but at the same time they don't actually know which woman they are or don't tell Kawase. The way the puzzle is constructed feels a bit forced, but you know, I can live with it, because this is just a fun story. It has a distinct, comedic tone where Kawase keeps falling in love with basically every girl all over again every time he thinks they are "safe". At the same time, this is a well constructed detective story, where you have to use the few hints Kawase did learn about each girl and try to deduce the identify of each girl. Some of the hints are a bit too obvious I think, or in some instances the "time" between a certain clue and the revelation which girl is who is a bit too short, giving you too little time to think for yourself. But overall, this is a very memorable story, because it is basically a "whodunnit" only now you're just trying to figure out which girl Kawase is supposed to be dating. So as mentioned earlier, this story is strangely enough very different, and similar to Kage wo Kuu Mono, as both are original takes on a "whodunnit" concept, but in very different manners.

Like the 2021 edition, Honkaku-Ou 2022 is a pretty solid anthology, with a few really strong puzzle plot stories. Personal favorites are the entries by Houjou Kie, Asakura Akinari and Morikawa Tomiki, but none of the six stories are truly bad, and while these volumes usually only have five, six stories, they tend to be fairly consistent in quality exactly because they have been selected by a whole group, rather than just one single editor. This is the fourth volume in this format, but I have really grown to appreciate reading this anthology once a year, just to see what is going on in the short story format. Hopefully we'll have a solid volume next year too!

Original Japanese title(s): 『本格王2022』: 道尾秀介「眠らない刑事と犬」/ 大山誠一郎「カラマーゾフの毒」/ 芦沢央「アイランドキッチン」 / 方丈貴恵「影を喰うもの」 / 浅倉秋成「糸の人を探して」 / 森川智喜「フーダニット・リセプション」

Saturday, July 9, 2022

To Kill a Legend

犯人はこの中にいる!
『金田一少年の事件簿』
 
"The murderer is among us!"
"The Case Files of Young Kindaichi"

This year, Kindaichi Hajime, grandson of the famous detective Kindaichi Kousuke, "celebrates" thirty years of solving mysteries! When the manga series Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo started in 1992, its creators couldn't have known that their puzzle plot mystery manga would become such a long-lasting hit, which would also leave a mark in the history of mystery fiction. As explained in the seminal Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar, the publication of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, followed by Detective Conan two years later, was a true watershed moment, as they became big multimedia hits and paved the way for future puzzle plot mystery manga. If you're looking at the history of mystery fiction in Japanese popular culture, there's a period before Kindaichi and Conan and after. Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo in particular is an interesting case, because the manga was followed by a live-action adaptation relatively soon, which became a hit on its own and an icon in pop culture, making the franchise widely known beyond just a comic-reading audience. Both Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo and Detective Conan have became huge multimedia franchises with anime series, spin-off series, theatrical releases, drama CDs, novels, games and much more, but unlike Detective Conan, Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo does not have one continuous main manga series. It technically consists of multiple, shorter series, like the original series, the 20th anniversary series and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R, with sometimes one or two years rests between these. Nevertheless, the series has never really been out of the public eye in Japan in these thirty years, whether it is in manga form, television drama, games or something else. And at the moment, it doesn't seem the series will end any time soon, so let's hope for another thirty years of this giant in mystery history!

The current main manga series is called Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo ("The Case Files of Kindaichi, Age 37"), and is set twenty years after the previous series, with a middle-aged Hajime working for the promotion/marketing company Otowa Black PR. Volume 13 was recently released, collecting the last chapters of the story The Killer with Twenty Faces which started in volume 11. Hajime's company is one of the companies involved in an grand Edogawa Rampo exhibition produced by none other than Araki Gou, better known as the Japanese Banksy. The hugely popular anonymous artist has reproduced a 1920s Tokyo inside a large event hall, themed after the works of Edogawa Rampo and even Hajime himself is impressed by all the references to Rampo's work hidden in the hall, from a Red Chamber of the same-titled short story to a reproduction of Rampo's own storage house. Hajime and his assistant Marin are responsible for a special preview event of the exhibition, with some of the guests including an influencer and a journalist. One of the attractions they visit during the tour is the Red Chamber: the first time they look at the chamber, situated on the other side of a courtyard, it's empty, but when they look at the chamber a few seconds later, they see one of the guests is sitting in a chair in the chamber, stabbed in the heart. They rush to the room and confirm the man's dead. Everyone else was together on the other side of the courtyard when they observed the empty chamber the first time and also when the body appeared, so nobody on the preview tour could've killed the man and placed his body in the chair. Leading to the question, who killed him? A message signed by the "Killer with Twenty Faces" (yes, that's a reference)  direct the party to Rampo's storage, and when they arrive there, they find the doors locked. They unlock it with a special key carried only by the manager of the event, who had been with Hajime all the time, but when they look inside, they find another of the guests killed, strangled like the victim in Rampo's debut story The Case of the Murder on D. Hill. Hajime soon realizes this is a locked room murder, as the person holding the key had been with him all the time, so how did the Killer with Twenty Faces pull this off? When they learn they are locked inside the event hall, Hajime knows he has to solve this case quickly or else they might all end up dead in one of Rampo's works.

This is most of all a fun story, I think. I am of course quite fond of Edogawa Rampo's work (disclosure: I have written the introduction to The Fiend with Twenty Faces), so the idea of an exhibition with a rebuilt "Rampo-esque" 1920s Tokyo full of Rampo references is just a really fun setting for a good old closed circle murder case, which is made even more interesting if you are aware that Yokomizo Seishi, the creator of Kindaichi Kousuke, knew Edogawa Rampo very well in real-life and even acted as his editor for some time. Anyway, the first murder definitely has the right amount of Rampo references I like: a body suddenly appearing in the Red Chamber, which is under observation by all the characters. Voyeurism is a big theme in Rampo's work, so to have an impossible situation hinging on the fact the characters witnesses the Red Chamber across the courtyard through binoculars and then having a body suddenly appear feels really like a Rampo-inspired situation. The second murder, in the locked storage, is perhaps less "Rampo-esque" despite it supposedly being themed after The Case of the Murder on D. Hill, but overall, I think this Rampo amusement park setting does a lot to sell the story. That is perhaps also why I think that the story works pretty well, even though the actual tricks behind the impossible murders aren't really mind-blowing. Some of the things pulled off by the killer in this story almost feel like a parlor trick, but you know, that's exactly the kind of tricks Rarmpo used in his works! Some of the tricks may feel very familiar and some of the fundamental concepts behind the trickery here have definitely been featured before in earlier Kindaichi Shounen stories, but in this particular context, in a story that is about murders being committed in what is effectively a Rampo story, I think they work perfectly fine. Volume 13 ends with this story perfectly by the way, so we'll have to wait for the next volume, though I am not really sure when that'll come out, because....

To celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the series, a new manga series has started, titled Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo 30th, or The Case File of Kindaichi 30th, and this series takes us back to the "normal" timeline, with a seventeen year old Hajime and Miyuki. So it's basically the direct sequel to Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R, which ended in 2017. I have to admit, after about four years of the 37-year old Hajime, it's nice to go back to the familiar format again. The story starts in the usual way, some chatter with fellow classmates like Souta, and then Inspector Kenmochi arriving to invite Hajime and Miyuki to some remote village: Yatagarasu Village is a place which will be erased from the maps in just a week because the nearby dam project will be finished, which will flood the village. Most people have moved out already, and the few remaining villagers are those who help coordinate the final days of the old village. Kenmochi wants to visit the village for a recently deceased friend: this fellow police inspector always regretted he never managed to solve a strange disappearance case in Yatagarasu Village a few years ago: the man had been threatened and was given police protection, and yet the man disappeared from his inn. Kenmochi, Hajime and Miyuki arrive at the same inn as the last tourist to visit the village and are also invited to attend the last ritual visit to Yatagarasu Shrine. The Yatagarasu, the mythological three-legged crow, is worshipped in this village, and for centuries, there's been a monthly ceremony which involves a visit tot the deepest quarters of the shrine. The participants all have to walk in procession as they go deeper and deeper in the shrine, which consists of five chambers. The doors to the first four chambers are locked by two different keys, carried by two different important figures of the village, while the last door is sealed with special ceremonial paper by the shrine maiden. The procession slowly proceeds through the shrine, opening each door after another, but when they arrive in the inner chamber, they find a decapitated head on the altar. The victim is the secretary of a former village council member, but how could the killer have placed this head here despite the five locked doors? The road to the village *happens* to be blocked too, so while they wait for police reinforcements, Hajime and Miyuki decide to help out the villagers cleaning the village before it'll be flooded, but then another decapitated head is discovered, but everyone in the village has an alibi for the murder. It is then they realize that according to legend, the Yatagarasu eats humans, but always leaves the head...

Okay, this is just the set-up of the story, but for now, it feels like a classic Kindaichi Shounen story, and I'm perfectly fine with it! I like how The Case Files of Kindaichi, Age 37 sometimes gave us locations the old series didn't really have, but once in a while, Hajime just needs to end up in some isolated village or island with weird ceremonies! By the way, this first volume also has a limited edition, and I was kinda hoping for Original Video Animation DVDs like they had done in the past.... but the limited edition is basically just NFT marketing. You get a booklet with Hajime talking about NFTs, and an NFT. Sigh. The normal edition, it is!

Another important "pillar" in the celebration of the thirtieth birthday of the franchise was of course the new live-action drama series, which ended last week. It is quite unique in the history of the franchise, because it was immediately picked up for worldwide streaming on Disney+ with the English title The Files of Young Kindaichi. Michieda Shunsuke is the fifth actor to play Kindaichi Hajime on television in what is technically the fourth television series, though that is not reflected in the title. The fact this series was also made with an international audience in mind probably played a role in the decision that this is actually the first television adaptation of the series that also adapts stories that had been adapted before. The first drama adaptation aired in 1995, and since then, Hajime seem to return on Japanese television once every five-ten years with different lead actors and production teams, but they had always avoided redoing stories previous series had done. The Files of Young Kindaichi is the first time they started "remaking" these stories. For example, the first episode of The Files of Young Kindaichi is actually an adaptation of The Seven School Mysteries Murder Case, the fourth story in the manga, but the first story featured in the anime and also the first story to be adapted as a live-action special in 1995. It is in a way the quintessential Kindaichi Shounen story, so I can understand why they decided to redo this story as the first episode of The Files of Young Kindaichi, considering it is also aimed at a wider, international audience now who don't know the older series and episodes and have no (legal) way to watch them.

That said, most stories are adaptations of stories that had not been featured on television yet (not in anime form either), like the excellent The Seiren Island Murder Case from Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R or the third Opera House story (unlike the anime adaptation, this version doesn't cut out a complete part of the mystery!). Overall, I'd say The Files of Young Kindaichi is a pretty solid adaptation by the way, and an excellent way to experience Kindaichi Shounen if you happen to have Disney+ anyway. I liked the previous adaptation, Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo NEO from 2014 a lot, but that series was made intentionally to feel very much like a continuation of the original 90s adaptations. While the same director worked on both NEO and The Files of Young Kindaichi, you can tell the new series was created to function almost like a reboot, so is a bit more accessible even if you are not familiar with the franchise at all, and is also slightly more serious than than NEO (it still uses a lot of stylistic choices of the old series though, old-school fans will be happy to know, and there's of course also the use of some iconic background music). The mysteries in this show often focus on space, and the layout of the locations, and I have to say this show generally does a great job at clearly conveying "space" to the viewer. The stories are also rewritten to be set in contemporary times, as of course a lot has changed between the 90s and now (no pagers and word processors anymore!). Some of the changes I didn't really like or felt indifferent too: the background story in the Seven School Mysteries for example is surprisingly different, and it didn't really work for me, but some other story or character changes, like in The Murder of Young Kindaichi, definitely made the story more convincing than the original story. I think overall The Files of Young Kindaichi is a really solid adaptation and a good mystery show on its own, so definitely take a look if you want to see a locked room focused live action mystery series, whether you are a fan of the franchise already or not!

Anyway, a lot of Kindaichi Shounen talk today, but even though the franchise is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year, it's clear the series is still going strong, with multiple running series and a brand new live action drama series. So you can rest assured that I'll be looking at Hajime's adventures in the future too. But while we're here anyway, let's all look back at thirty years of Hajime solving mysteries in the name of his grandfather! Feel free to leave comment on what some of your favorite stories are, your first encounter with the series, and all of things Kindaichi-related!

Original Japanese title(s):  天樹征丸(原)、さとうふみや(画)『金田一37歳の事件簿』第13巻
天樹征丸(原)、さとうふみや(画)『金田一少年の事件簿30th』第1巻
『金田一少年の事件簿』

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned

残酷な天使のテーゼ
少年よ神話になれ 
(残酷な天使のテーゼ」(高橋洋子)
 
A Cruel Angel's Thesis
Boy, become a legend 
"A Cruel Angel's Thesis" (Takahashi Youko)

A few weeks ago, I reviewed one of Kitayama Takekuni's earlier novels, today it's his newest one!

When Tenjin Hitoshi made his debut as a professional writer in 1970, people mainly read social school mysteries, but his puzzle plot mysteries, or honkaku mystery novels were received so well, he brought forth a revolution, leading in the revival of the honkaku detective novel and the subsequent shin honkaku movement. People therefore refer to him as the God of Honkaku Mystery, but not only for his personal accomplishments, but also because he has also been pro-active in nurturing his fellow puzzle plot writers. Tenjin and his teenage son Noah live in the Moonlight Manor, a mansion in the woods faraway from the city, but this Moonlight Manor has been the home for many, many mystery writers: Tenjin often invites fellow mystery writers to stay in his home as his guests, sometimes for weeks, months or even years, as the Moonlight Manor offers them an environment where they can focus completely on their writing, as everything they need is provided for by Tenjin himself. Before Tenjin made his debut and bought the Moonlight Manor for himself, he too had lived here with other mystery writers, an experience comparable to the legendary Tokiwa-so, an apartment building where some of the greatest names in manga history lived together, so he knows very well how great a home like this can be for his fellow authors.

Kogi Uron's the newest guest to be invited to the Moonlight Manor, as Kogi's editor hopes an extended stay will finally help Kogi get over that writer's block and get started on a second novel. Kogi arrives on the first day of snow: an ominous day, as snowfall in this region is extremely harsh, and every winter, the Moonlight Manor gets snowed in, keeping the inhabitants inside for a month or so. Kogi is the sixth mystery writer currently residing in the Moonlight Manor, with the other guests being people like Yumekawa Ran, who was accused of plagiarism with her debut novel, and Kuromaki Koryuu, a mystery writer who looks up to the classics and writes in a very classical puzzle plot style. Most of the guests keep to themselves while staying at the Moonlight Manor however, and most writers only regularly see the two servants, or perhaps Tenjin's son Noah hanging around in the library. A few weeks pass by, and by now the Moonlight Manor is truly snowed in, as expected. On the Winter Solstice, everyone is invited by Tenjin Hitoshi to attend to a dinner, though not everyone comes. During the dinner however, a tape suddenly starts playing in the dining room, which accuses all seven mystery writers in the house of being guilty of one of the seven Cardinal Sins of honkaku mystery: pride, theft, ignorance, greed, kitsch, sloth and envy, and collectivelly they are dubbed the Seven Fallen Angels of honkaku mystery. The parallels with And Then There Were None and Mr. U.N. Owen are obvious, but nobody admits to knowing anything about the tape and nothing happens, so dinner ends early and everybody retreats to their room, thinkin it's just a prank. Of course, until the following the morning. When Tenjin Hitoshi can't be found for his breakfast, Noah and the servants find the dining room has been locked from the inside, and when they break the doors down, they find a crucified Tenjin Hitoshi upside down from the chandelier. And he's missing his head. Everyone of course now understands the tape wasn't just a prank, especially when they learn the phone lines and their internet connection have been cut and they can't get help from outside. Noah and Kogi decide to investigate this locked room murder, but it doesn't take long for a second locked room murder to occur, and a third... What is happening in the Moonlight Manor and what will happen when all Fallen Angels have been killed in Kitayama Takekuni's Gettoukan Satsujin Jiken ("The Moonlight Manor Murder Case" 2022)?

Kitayama's latest novel, released last week, is touted as being his attempt at a so-called yakata (house/mansion) story, the familiar trope of a creepy country house serving as a closed circle location as seen in works like The Decagon House Murders (*insert disclosure message about me translating said book*). Of course, in truth, Kitayama has written plenty of novels that follow that exact same trope, even if those books weren't formally set in buildings named as such. Three of the four books in his Castle series for example are practically speaking about "series of murders happening inside an isolated building" and Alphabet-sou Jiken, a book I reviewed just two months ago is basically the same too. And about half of the stories in his Danganronpa: Kirigiri novels follow the same trope too. So Kitayama tackling this type of story isn't really out of the ordinary at all, in fact, he's quite used to it, and you can definitely tell, for Gettoukan Satsujin Jiken is a very amusing novel, even if I don't think everything works out completely.

For example, Kitayama is of course best known for the mechanical trickery behind his locked room murders, and you have quite a few locked room murders in this book considering it's not actually a very long book. A decapitated man being crucified upside down in a locked dining room, a decapitated victim in a locked library, a decapitated man in an atelier... you might recognize a pattern here. Some of Kitayama's best work involve a lot of "moving parts" in the explanation of his locked rooms, with ingenious mechanisms that seal off a room and often in a way that is both absolutely ridiculous yet memorable and entertaining. Diagrams are a must in his books, and like I mentioned in my review of the last Danganronpa: Kirigiri novel, while Kitayama's puzzles are often very technical and mechnical, they are also at the core very simple, and can usually be explained with one clearly drawn diagram that explains all the magic, even if the concept and execution is fairly complex. The puzzles in Gettoukan Satsujin Jiken are, in comparison to some of Kitayama's other novels I'm familiar with, a bit smaller in scale, and while you can definitely recognize his hand in the manner in which he constructs his locked room murders, I do have to say they feel slightly underwhelming because of the more modest approach. A major warning by the way: this book explicitly re-uses, and spoils one of the locked rooms in Kitayama's own Rurijou Satsujin Jiken (and this is pointed out in the book), and while thematically, there's an explanation for it, it doesn't take away it does casually just use the same trick and tells you it's from Kitayamas novel, so I think a warning is fair. The other locked room murders that occur in this novel have fairly simple solutions and while none of them are "oh, wow, this is an idea I'm going to vividly remember in 10 years" they are functional and fit with Kitayama's style and are cleverly written in this tale. There's a different instance of misdirection that I will remember though, because I usually am not easily fooled by this type of misdirection, but Kitayama definitely caught me completely off-guard and I had to page back immediately to re-read the corresponding passages because I couldn't believe how I could have missed it!

For I do think the underlying themes of the book are really what sell Gettoukan Satsujin Jiken, but at the same time, it does feel a bit underplayed. The book is undoubtedly about honkaku and shin honkaku mystery fiction in Japan. While it rewrites history with the insertion of Tenjin Hitoshi as the "God of honkaku mystery" the book addresses a lot of "issues" that play among both authors and readers of the puzzle plot mystery. A writer being accused of plagiarism, even though she feels she was only inspired by a certain type of trickery in another novel, an novelist who is more about quantitity than quality, a writer who "abandons" mystery fiction because she can make more money in other genres, an author being so fixated on classic puzzle plot mystery he won't in the least accomodate to modern reading tastes and then starts criticizing the reading audience... Kitayama touches upon a lot of questions and problems that may play with contemporary mystery writers and makes it into a Grand Theme, calling them "Cardinal Sins" and having people murdered in this novel who are considered Fallen Angels of honkaku mystery. It is certainly an interesting approach... but you need to be somewhat familar with the history of honkaku fiction, shin honkaku fiction and trends in these genres to really appreciate what is touched upon here. For Kitayama doesn't do any of that for you. The book very much assumes you know all of this, and I think that without prior knowledge, the book does lose an important layer. Of course, this book is published in a line that is very much aimed at a very specific audience who is likely to know about all this, and had this book been written for a different publishing label, I think Kitayama might have expanded more on the history of honkaku mystery novels. In a way, it's similar to Garasu no Tou no Satsujin, which touches upon similar themes by looking back at the history of shin honkaku novels, but the latter tried more to explain the underlying themes by explaining more about the history within the book. But I do think Gettoukan Satsujin Jiken does point out some really interesting points about shin honkaku fiction in general and its future by focusing on the theme of the Seven Sins, and I think both authors of shin honkaku fiction, and people who are interested in the development of shin honkaku fiction will get a lot out of this book. Kitayama focuses on this theme in an almost fantasy-like manner/tone like we know from his Castle series, but it does keep you thinking about it even after you close the book.

The idea of a Tokiwa-so for mystery writers is pretty interesting by the way. People interested in the history of manga should of course know about Tokiwa-so: it was an apartment building where many of the legends of manga lived, including Osamu Tezuka, Ishinomori Shotaro, Akatsuka Fujio, Fujiko Fujio (both of them) and Mizuno Hideko. The idea of these young artists living together, helping each other out and inspiring each other is of course very attractive, and part of the reason why for example shojo manga legends Hagio Moto and Takemiya Keiko came to live together in a house that became known as the Ooizumi Salon. So the concept is very well known among people familiar with Japanese pop culture, so having the concept of a Tokiwa-so for mystery writers explored in this book was very fun, especially as I had been reading a lot on the Ooizumi Salon last year. While quite different from actually living together in one building, I guess a lot of university mystery clubs in Japan come close to the idea: young writers coming together, exchanging and bouncing off ideas at each other while all working on their own stories in their own style. I think it'd be pretty cool to read a story with a more straightforward take on the concept of a Tokiwa-so for mystery writers (without people ending up killing each other).

If you are already familiar with Kitayama's Castle series, I think you already have a good idea of what you can expect from Gettoukan Satsujin Jiken: despite the isolated, closed circle situation, the book does addresses rather big themes concerning shin honkaku fiction, themes that may have troubled Kitayama himself even and I think the book in that regards does make you think about the genre in a meaningful manner. The locked room murders are perhaps slightly less grand than you might expect from Kitayama, but I think that thematically, it works very well in this book, so that's not really a problem, but perhaps this is not the book you'll want to be reading as your very first Kitayama. Overall though, I really enjoyed this book and I think people who enjoy Kitayama's books and themes in general, will find this one quite satisfying. 

Original Japanese title(s): 山猛邦『月灯館殺人事件』

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Dead Man's Gold

Rheingold! Rheingold! Leuchtende Lust wie lachst du so hell und hehr! 
"Das Rheingold

Rhine gold! Rhine gold! Radiant joy, thou laughest in glorious light!
"The Rhinegold" (Frederick Jameson translation)

I think today's book was on the "I should probably read this book one day" list for over ten years now...

Not surprisingly, many of the comments that are posted on this blog are lamenting the fact they can't read a certain book, especially if I keep referring it to them all the time, making it obvious there is probably some kind of interesting factor to it. In a way, I have had the same for the longest time with the Norma & Alexander Gold novels by Herbert Resnicow: I saw a lot of the English-language puzzle plot blogosphere writing about Resnicow's work in general, especially in the earlier days, but I never came across the books myself, so Rescinow always remained an author I defnitely wanted to read eventually, but never really got a chance too. A while back though, I finally got around to reading The Gold Solution (1983), the first of Resnicow's detective novels and also the first about Norma and Alexander Gold: both brilliant minds in their own fields, and both not willing to even consider their spouse might be smarter than themselves. Norma, the narrator, is definitely the snarkier of the couple though, but even she acknowledges that while she's more "practically" smart, it's Alexander who's best at tackling abstract problems. After a stroke that was nearly fatal, Alexander is forced to quit his job as he'll take months to recover properly, but not being able to do anything but crossword puzzles isn't doing much for his mental health.

That is until neighbours and best friends Burton and Pearl Hanslik swing by with a problem for Alexander. Pearl's niece Nina's fiance Jonathan Candell is accussed of the murder of his employer, and not even Burton, a high profile criminal lawyer, can figure out how to prove how his client and cousin-in-law-to-be is innocent. The victim, Roger Talbott, was one of America's most prominent architects, and he was found murdered in his penthouse studio of his brownstone, with... Jonathan bent over his boss' body, with the knife in his hand. Talbott craved privacy during work and nobody could ever get into his studio without his permission. The studio was only accessible via the elevator, which needs to be unlocked to reach the studio floor via a special switch in Talbott's desk in said studio. On the morning of Talbott's murder, both Talbott's wife and Jonathan chatted with Talbott through the intercom before Talbott unlocked the elevator for Jonathan, who went up alone. After a frantic call for help by Jonathan through the intercom, the maid went upstairs too, only to find her master dead and Jonathan holding the weapon in his hand. As Talbott's wife and maid were downstairs and Jonathan the only person who went up the elevator, it seems only he could have committed the murder, as the elevator is the only way to reach the studio: while there were emergency stairs leading to the floors downstairs from the studio, the alarm would go the moment the emergency exits on each floor would be opened. Alexander, who had been worrying about his finances too, arranges so he'll receive a reward if he can find the true killer of Talbott, with Burton, Pearl and Norma doing the work "in the field" for him to gether information. Naturally, it doesn't take long for them to discover that while Talbott, as the golden child, was the face and name of the company, most of the people working with him had at least one or two reasons for wanting him dead too...

The Gold Solution is a very detectivy-novel. It is both very fun to read, but also at times not really fun to read. To start with the good: the banter between Norma, Alexander, besties Pearl and Burton and all the other characters is really good. It's easy to read and absorb, light-hearted witty dialogue with people throwing things back and forth constantly and with both Norma the narrator and husband Alexander boasting huge egos (Norma is slightly better at hiding her ego), the at times bombastic tone of the book is from start to finish a fun experience. The other characters are at times even cartoonish, with names that are easy to remember because they are literally based on their role in the story, and all of that makes for a smooth read that at least in terms of writing, is enough to keep the reader engaged.

As purely a detective story though, I think The Gold Solution is a debut novel that is competently written, but it doesn't feel ambitious at all. In fact, at times, the book even feels like it follows the less interesting parts of the Detective Fiction Tradition more than the more interesting aspects, making the book, despite its short length, feel dragging in terms of how the mystery develops (which is luckily somewhat obscured by the funny writing). The middle part of the book is just a series of interviews with all the other suspects in order, where they talk about alibis, how they all hated Talbott, their possible motives etc. While the banter in between might be funny to read, it is mystery-wise an incredibly boring segment where nothing occurs but just info dump after info dump (not to mention that this part was preceded by some reports written by Norma about Talbott, which are by definition info dumps). Nothing happens for most part of this book, just a chapter with Suspect A, followed by B, then C, then D etc. it's not Norma and Alexander make really worthwile deductions until the very end of the book, nor do they act upon things they might have thought of during their investigation. 70% of the book is, in terms of plotting how to present information to the reader, very boring in this format: I can totally live with this in short stories, but here it feels dragging, especially as the dialogue parts are actually good in this book, which makes the uninspired manner in which the puzzle pieces are laid down feel stand out. This is a thing that might be improved upon in later novels of course, but this was one aspect where it felt like the book took over the worst part of puzzle plot detective novels.

As for the main locked room murder puzzle in the penthouse studio... it's a practical, yet not at all awe-inspiring solution. It is basically one of the first things you'll start to suspect once all the facts/parameters have been presented to you, and while yes, it is a solution that fits the known facts and "works", it is a bit disappointing. In a way, it reminded me of the little of Norman Berrow's work I have read: a solution that does explain how the alluring murder could've been committed, but it isn't going to win any originality points because come on, that is going for the first and most obvious explanation any reader will think of considering the given facts! At no point does the solution surprise the reader, nor will I ever remember what happened in two months because the whole affair was ultimately just so... nondescript. Sometimes you read mystery novels that have very silly solutions that seem improbable (even if possible), but at least those make an impressiona and I remember, and I can imagine how they could be tweaked for better execution. The Gold Solution's solution however is on the other side of the spectrum, presenting a workable, but very boring solution that one reads, shrugs at and will forget the moment they close the book. 

Does that mean The Gold Solution is a bad book? No, it doesn't. The writing is good, and while the mystery plot is not particularly memorable, it's not like The Gold Solution is an utterly impossible or cheating mystery novel. But it is not a book that stands out in any way looking at its merits purely from a mystery POV. It works, and that's it. As the characters and dialogue are fun to read, I can definitely recommend this as an easy read in between more heftier works, just don't expect something that will manage to amaze you when it comes to its locked room mystery. But then again, this was Rescnicow's debut novel, so perhaps this will be one of those cases where you see an author improve with each following work. I sure hope so!