Friday, December 2, 2022

Programmed for Murder

「俺に解けないコードはない!」 
『プロジェクトハッカー:覚醒』
 
"There's no code I can't crack!"
"Project Hacker: Awakening"

A short post this time because today's topic isn't really a mystery game, but as there aren't really many write-ups on this game in general...

Amatsubo Satoru is a gifted hacker who in his free time enjoys breaking into computer systems, though all he does is "innocently" weaving his way through security systems and peeking inside, and usually he leaves right away without causing any damage. One day, he returns to his apartment to find it completely ransacked by two threatening men who are demanding a CD-R. Satoru manages to escape to Rina, his 'always-act-before-thinking' childhood friend and after some conversation, Satoru realizes the men were actually looking for Rina: she had picked up a CD-R by accident, and the men had accidentally assumed Rina was living with Satoru. Checking the disc, Satoru realizes it holds a special virus program targeting mobile phone models from one company, and this of course means they're now involved in a big corporate scandal. Satoru decides to use his hacking skills to fight back against the men who are after them, but this only puts the two of them in danger again, until they are recruited by the Japanese division of GIS, an international counter-cybercrime organization. As part of GIS, Satoru is put on several cybercrime cases, often involving the mysterious cracker Blitz, and these cases demand quick thinking and even faster hacking in the Nintendo DS game Project Hacker: Kakusei ("Project Hacker: Awakening" 2006).

Project Hacker: Kakusei is a mystery-themed adventure game on the Nintendo DS which people nowadays probably only know from a Spirit reference in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. The game was only released in Japan, though it was apparently planned for at least a North-American release, but for non-specified reasons these plans fell through. The game is rather interesting in terms of publication, because while Project Hacker was developed by Red Entertainment (of Sakura Taisen fame), it is published and co-owned by Nintendo itself. Nintendo doesn't have that many mystery adventure games in its catalog, and let alone one where you play a hacker! While the game does seem to set things up for further adventures, the game never saw a sequel and is basically a mostly ignored IP.

As mentioned in the opening line, for the most part I wouldn't say Project Hacker really should be discussed here. It is, for most of the time, a fairly conventional command-based adventure game, where you can travel to various locations to talk with people, from whom you will learn new information which will allow you visit other locations or confront other people with your new knowledge. No surprises here. The episodes in this game always start with Satoru and Rina being assigned a mission to investigate a certain cybercrime, like a company's money being transferred to a charity, or having them investigate rumors of an IT problem having led to deaths in a hospital, the plots themselves are fairly straightforward and don't really read like a mystery stories, more like thrillers or tales of suspense, though with a fairly light-hearted tone, with Satoru and Rina always arguing and fairly out-of-there characters like a high school student prodigy programmer who also happens to be incredibly into aliens. But don't expect brilliant cybercrime puzzle plot tricks from this game or having to connect clues together to figure whodunnit or howdunnit.

One very memorable aspect of the game however is its (fake) web functions. Within Project Hacker, you can use computers or your special handheld device to access the web, or at least, the web as it looked like in Japan around 2006. When you connect (in-game) to the web, you're brought to a homepage like you had in the earlier days of consumer internet: a "curated" list of links to all kinds of websites all categorized. You can explore all these links, which can range from corporate websites to homepages of hobby clubs or bands, or personal blogs. The pages are of course all fake and made for this game, but they do feel a lot like the mobile feature phone sites you had in Japan around this time and playing this game now in 2022 does feel a bit like you just opened a time capsule. The layout of these pages, the visitor counters, the type of content you'd find there... it's all really neat to see now, and while it feels like a time capsule now, upon the 2006 release, these websites must have felt pretty "real" too. I think there are like easily over 100 different pages about a variety of topics to be found here, which is quite impressive considering each site does feel distinct. This faux web environment of course plays a role in the game: often you have to do some background research using this internet. One of the earliest examples is simply finding the address of a certain company, so you look up their website and check out their directions sub-page, but later cases have you explore these sites for more subtler hints and sometimes it takes a while for you to find the specific page you're looking for, and this is quite fun. The lower screen on the DS can be used to take notes by the way.

But getting back to me discussing this game here despite me saying it doesn't really belong here. The main reason for that is the hacking gameplay in this game, which is pretty interesting, and definitely a fun mystery mechanic At least, part of the hacking is. Hacking in this game can mean two things, you see. The boring hacking in this game is just a series of minigames that test your hand-eye coordination. Breaking through a firewall is sometimes literally breaking a wall in a "cyber-environment" using well-timed taps on the touch screen, making a conection is often like a racing game, where you rush down a "cyber-corridor" while avoiding obstacles, and sometimes you're just playing a shoot' em up to shoot down viruses. These minigames can be pretty tricky near the end of the game actually, giving you little room (time) for failure, so for those not used to action games, this part of an otherwise slow adventure game might be difficult. But these minigames are the not fun part of the hacking in Project Hacker

So what is the fun part of hacking? That is when you have do social engineering to find out passwords for computer systems! Every once in a while during his investigations, Satoru will find himself confronted with a locked computer or door which requires a password. How do you learn this password? By looking around, both in the actual room you're in, but also on the web! Of course it's never that easy as finding a note with the actual password inside a drawer. But if the owner of the computer for example has posters of the series Captain Pepper hanging on the walls, why not check out the homepage of Captain Pepper and see what words could be used as a password? Could it be the release date, or the name of the creator? Is it perhaps that character they have multiple figurines off in the room? While the first passwords you have to guess are very straightforward, other passwords have you explore more possibilities, for example when a person has multiple hobbies, and because you don't know the length of each password (though always alphabet and/or numbers), it often takes several tries to find the exact one, but it is still very fun, because you really have to read through the (fictional) sites and determine what could be a password. Later passwords have you look at multiple sites about very different topics, but which may have a surprising link with a common term for example. But it is during these moments that the game feels the most like a mystery game, where you look at hints in the room, and search for other clues on the web, and have to guess what the password could be. Because the sites are all fairly well-designed as "proper" sites, these passwords are hidden quite organically in the text and there are of course many 'dummy' pages which I don't think are ever used in the game, but put in there to flesh out the fictional web environment and act as red herrings. It's a shame this mechanic only comes up like two or three times per episode, because it's by far the most fun part of the game.

I assume more people have played Flower, Sun and Rain given the Nintendo DS version was actually released in the West, but the main mechanic there is quite similar to the hacking mechanic here. in Flower, Sun and Rain basically everything required a numerical code, which you could find based on dialogue hints and hints and clues found in a guidebook to Lospass, the island that serves as a setting for the game. The guidebook is acquired at the start of the game and you can look through every single page right from the start and it does actually read like a travel guide, but as the story develops, you'll find all kinds of clues necessary to solve the numerical codes hidden within these pages, so in that aspect, it's very similar to the websites found in Project Hacker, being an "universal" clue you use from start to finish, with the guidebook/websites only turning into proper clues once you have the correct context and know what you're looking for.


Project Hacker looks pretty good for a DS adventure game by the way with interestingly animated characters and really well-designed backgrounds. The characters have a 90s anime vibe with their broad shoulders and fashion, though the music is a bit... limited. Like, the main overworld/investigation theme isn't really exciting or fun to listen to, but you'll only be hearing that for 80% of the game...

Again, Project Hacker: Kakusei isn't really a mystery game, so don't expect too much of it in that regard, but it's overall a competently created crime adventure game, and while I feel really indifferent about the hacking minigames, the social engineering parts of this game are really the highlight of the game and that coupled with an interesting cast and a game that overall has good production values, it's certainly worth a playthrough if you're looking for adventure games on the Nintendo DS, especially as even a brand-new, unopened copy doesn't cost much now.

Original Japanese title(s): 『プロジェクトハッカー:覚醒』

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Secret Cargo

War, huh, yeah 
What is it good for? Absolutely nothing, uhh
"War" (Edwin Starr)

Just pointing back to the Honkaku Discord server, in case you missed it. Also: I should've planned these posts better, because now I mention the author of today's book twice in a row.... I recently played the second Nintendo DS game supervised by Nishimura, but I should probably not plan that post as my next...

Nishimura Kyoutarou was one of the most prolific mystery writers in Japan and a household name there, even known to people not interested in mystery fiction simply due to the enormous media output that used his name, from television films to video games. When he passed away earlier this year, he had nearly 650 books on his bibliography list. I have probably not even read three percent of that total list, and not surprisingly, most of the books I have read are the better-known ones, like Koroshi no Soukyokusen ("Hyperbola of Murder", 1971), Shichinin no Shounin ("The Seven Witnesses", 1977) and of course several entries in his Inspector Totsugawa series, like Akai Cruiser ("The Red Cruiser", 1973) and Terminal Satsujin Jiken ("The Terminal Murder Case", 1980). Nishimura will forever be associated with the "travel mystery" subgenre, which focuses on traveling (tourism) and means of transport. As you may guess, the subgenre does have have elements of the Croftian school, as it often involves alibi tricks using trains, airplanes and other means of transport, but more importantly they focus on "the country": stories are often set across various locations and areas in Japan (not just Tokyo) and so they also include a touristic element, often delving into specific local train lines, famous tourist spots or places with historical importance (which is one reason why there are so many adaptations of Nishimura's work on television).  

The first Nishimura Kyoutarou novel, and the first novel featuring Inspector Totsugawa, I ever read was, probably not surprisingly, the English release of The Mystery Train Disappears. The first one I read in Japanese however might be surprising, because it's not a very well-known book. I have seen on the internet a few people mentioning it's one of their favorites, but those mentions are rare, as with over 650 books, a story really has to stand out in order to attract the attention of many. So why did I end up reading Choutokkyuu Tsubame-gou [Event Train] Satsujin Jiken ("The Event Train Super Express Tsubame Murder Case", 1987) as my first Nishimura in Japanese? The simple answer: the book was free. There used to be a table in front of the library of all the East-Asian studies at my university, and they'd put books and magazines there they didn't need anymore, and sometimes you'd find a pile of fiction pockets too. So one day, I happened to stumble upon this book and took it with me and it was actually one of the very first books I read in Japanese. And that of course meant that I was reading this book with a dictionary next to it, as I had to look up (simple!) words every two sentences and all of that. Ultimately, I did finish the book, but never thought it was anything special, and most of it was already forgotten by the following week. But a while back, when I was cleaning up books, I came across this pocket again and decided to read it again: my first time was simply not optimal as I was still learning the language, so I thought a second read would result in a fairer experience.

The book starts in the late eighties, when Inspector Totsugawa receives an anynomous letter at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, which seems to warn the police about death coming to the Super Express Tsubame. Totsugawa and his subordinate Kamei, as people who grew up as children in post-war Japan instantly recognize the name: the Super Express Tsubame was the fastest train in Japan before World War II, and when it started running in the 1930s, it shortened the trip between Tokyo and Kobe by an hour, making it "just" nine hours. The train was seen as a symbol of luxury and admiration for all children before and after the war. Eventually, the Shinkansen bullet trains would of course become the fastest trains in Japan, but the romantic image of the Tsubame remains strong among people who grew up in that period. But of course, the Tsubame hasn't run for decades now,  so initially Totsugawa thinks this is just a weird letter, but he asks Kamei to see if he can find the sender, but when Kamei succeeds in that task, he finds the sender murdered. They also learn that in two days, the Super Express Tsubame will actually ride again, as an anniversary Event Train: in 1940 there had been a special event celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Tsubame, and a special, super luxurious observation car had been created to host a number of special guests. The new 1987 event train has a replica of that observation car and while ride along the same time schedule as in 1940, and the guest are either the same guests as in 1940 or their children/relatives in case they had already passed away. Inspector Totsugawa suspects something must have happened in the train in 1940, which is why the murder victim sent a letter to the police warning them, so he decides to board the train himself too, as he is also convinced the murderer is among the guests. Meanwhile, he also comes in the possession of an unpublished manuscript of a reporter who was one of the guests in the 1940 event, and through that manuscript, Totsugawa learns the story of a young Japanese army official who boarded the Tsubame heading for the ship heading to the China war frontlines, but who seemed to have disappeared on his way...

As I was reading this book again, I realized I really had forgotten most of this book, and while some segments seemed familiar, it was clear that reading a book when you're just starting to learn a language is probably going to result in you not remembering a book down to the details, simply because you "lose" a lot of time and focus as you try to struggle with the book at a linguistic level, having to look up words and grammar. Anyway, re-reading this book didn't reveal to me this was some kind of hidden gem, but I have to say I did appreciate the book better upon my second read, even if I wouldn't call this a must-read Nishimura work.

You might expect this book to be one of those stories where they jump between the present and past between chapters as I mentioned the old manuscript Totsugawa was reading, but in actuality the past narrative only takes up about one-third of the book, even though mystery-wise, it forms the core of the novel. Totsugawa (correctly) guesses *something* must have happened in 1940 to lead to a series of murders among the guests of the event train in the present, and indeed, in the old journalist's report he learns about a curious event, at least, from the reporter's point of view. In 1940, the Japanese army was already waging war in China and nationalistic sentiments were at a high in the country: many people were clamoring to fight Western powers like the United States to "liberate" Asia to be put under Japanese rule. This ultranationalistic, suppressing atmosphere comes alive in all aspects of the past narrative and definitely one of the more memorable points of this novel. The special guests who have been invited to the event train all have different thoughts about the war, some are absolutely against the war, while others seemingly welcome it and see everyone who dares to even pause to think about it a traitor to the country. Even the luxurious observation car of the Tsubame is seen as too decadent by some, as "luxury" was seen as a national enemy in times of war. It is under these circumstances that a young Japanese army officer forces his way into the observation car of the Tsubame during the celebration event in 1940: while the car is reserved for the train company's guests, the officer declares that he is heading to Kobe's harbor as he has been assigned to the frontlines and that as someone willing he give his life to the glorious homeland, he has at least as much right, nay, even more right to occupy the observation deck than any other person here. Considering the ultranationalistic, ultramilitaristic atmosphere at the time, nobody is able to shoo him away, so he stays in the train, though obviously as an outsider to the invited guests. The officer stays inside a private compartment during the trip, while the train stops at Kyoto and finally at Kobe, but there the reporter is surprised to see the officer has disappeared. He wanted to have a short interview with him at the end of the trip and had been extra watchful to catch the officer at the platform, but the reporter swears the officer never left the train at Kobe, or Kyoto and yet he wasn't in the compartment either. While one could just assume that the officer just managed to leave the station at Kobe without the journalist noticing, as according to the files the officer did reach China, where he died on the battlefield, the reporter still thought it was very strange. It's this seemingly impossible disappearance that Totsugawa sees as the motive for the murders in the present, and he is soon proven right, as he notices that all the guests in 1987 who also attended in 1940 initially lie about the officer being in the train and seem very evasive about his presence even after admitting he was there.

As said, the past narrative only makes up for about one-third of the book, so this disappearance isn't a really complex case: most of what happened can be guessed pretty easily as there are a few scenes that are telegraphing a bit took much, but I have to say: the reasons explaining what exactly happened in the past are really well grounded in the war sentiments of that time, and a lot of it makes only sense in that ultranationalistic atmosphere. It really builds on the idea of a society in war, where some are too afraid to open their mouths in fear of being accused of being a traitor, while others are seeing a higher cause in the war and think their actions are absolutely right. It results in a rather unique setting and this is definitely an aspect of the book I appreciated a lot more on this second read. And I am not sure if this was the intention, but for some reason this book also feels like it subverses/plays with the solution to one of Agatha Christie's better known stories (okay, *most* of her stories are well-known), and while it's not a *brilliant* play, I do find it funny how it could play with your expectations if you already knew the Christie story.

The present chapters in comparison aren't as interesting: more murders happen here and Totsugawa sees the officer's disappearance (?) in 1940 as the motive, but the murders that occur here aren't "mysterious" in the sense of how, as anyone could've committed them and it just comes down to Totsugawa having to figure out who could have some connection to the missing officer. The ending also feels a bit too convenient, with people having exact knowledge of what happened just turning up to explain things. Again, the motive here is really well-connected to the past and the circumstances there, but don't expect impossible disappearances or crafty time schedule-based alibi tricks here. The deaths here are straightforward, and mostly serve as a vehicle to tell the story of the past.

Choutokkyuu Tsubame-gou [Event Train] Satsujin Jiken isn't some kind of hidden masterpiece by Nishimura Kyoutarou, but I am happy to have given it a second chance. Of course, part of the fun for me was reading this book in just a few hours now rather than weeks with a dictionary, but I could appreciate some aspects of the book better this time now I didn't have to look up things all the time and could just focus on the narrative. The war-time atmosphere and the focus on the Tsubame are definitely the highlights of this book, resulting for some memorable moments, and while I don't think this is a book I would especially recommend to someone looking to read a Nishimura, it's definitely I can see as a Rank B book that I might suggest if you have already read the truly famous ones.

Original Japanese title(s): 西村京太郎『超特急「つばめ号」(イベントトレイン)殺人事件』

Monday, November 28, 2022

The Silent Speaker

In the previous post, I asked about a honkaku-themed Discord server, but while I did get suggestions, it didn't seem there was a specific dedicated server. So err, I think I just created one? I named the server Honkaku, because I don't intend it to be a direct extension of this blog and the posts here, but a general place to talk about puzzle plot mystery fiction from across the world in all media formats, from books to manga and digital and analog games. Though I have to make clear now this is mostly me trying something out as I have never run a Discord server, and to be absolutely honest, I hope the server remains juuuuust small enough for me to manage, but we'll see what happens. If nobody joins, that'll just be the end of things and at the moment, it is really just me in the member list, so it can never get worse than it is now! But if the idea of a honkaku-dedicated Discord server sounds interesting, you'll find the invite link below.

Invite link: https://discord.gg/z3HMSmf8qd

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Death Times Three

Time after time 
ひとり 花舞う街で
「Time after Time ~花舞う街で」(倉木麻衣)
 
Time after time 
Alone, in the city of dancing flowers
"Time after Time ~ In the City of Dancing Flowers" (Kuraki Mai)

By the way, is there like a honkaku Discord channel or something similar?

Still so many Nintendo DS mystery adventures to play.... A few months ago, I bought a bunch of DS adventures I still haven't gotten around to, but there are still so many I want to try out too...

Yamamura Misa and Nishimura Kyoutarou are two of Japan's mystery novelists who are often mentioned together, as there was a time where they were simply the best known detective writers in the country, at least in terms of name recognition. Both writers were extremely prolific, and their works were also often adapted for television, which of course eventually meant everyone had at least heard of their names, and likely they once caught one of the many television specials or series based on their works and characters. Nishimura was strongly associated with train-related mysteries, and by extension the travel mystery, a sub-genre that focuses on crimes occuring at touristic destinations and other places away from Tokyo that require travelling, whereas common themes in Yamamura's work were female protagonists, stories focusing on romance and romance-turned-to-hatred and most importantly: the city of Kyoto. Which is a very popular tourist destination in general, even for domestic tourism, which also makes her work feel part of the travel mystery genre. Another common point these both authors have, is that their work were also among the earliest in Japan to be adapted into the video game medium. The Famicom (the Japanese counterpart to the Nintendo Entertainment System) saw several mystery adventure games based on the works of Nishimura Kyoutarou and Yamamura Misa, and interestingly, these games weren't adaptations of existing works, but based on their works, often involving the original authors as supervisors. 

In 2018, I reviewed DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense Shin Tantei Series: Kyoto - Atami - Zekkai no Kotou Satsui no Wana ("DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense - A New Detective Series: Kyoto - Atami - The Lone Isle In The Deep Sea - A Murderous Trap"), a mystery adventure game released on the Nintendo DS in 2007 by developer Tecmo. As the title suggest, it was a game based on the work of Nishimura Kyoutarou and actually the first original game bearing his name in over a decade at the time. His "connection" with Yamamura however remained strong, and the following year, a second entry in this series was released, but based on Yamamura Misa's work: DS Yamamura Misa Suspense - Maiko Kogiku / Kisha Catharine / Sougiya Ishihara Akiko - Koto ni Mau Hana Sanrin - Kyouto Satsujin Jiken File ("DS Yamamura Misa Suspense - the Maiko Kogiku / Reporter Catharine / Funeral director Ishihara Akiko - The Three Petals Dancing In the Ancient Capital - Kyoto Murder Files" 2008) once again has a supercalifragilisticexpialidociously long title, so I'll just be referring to it as DS Yamamura Misa Suspense. As the title suggests, this game focuses on three of Yamamura Misa's famous female detectives who are all active in the former capital Kyoto: Kogiku is a maiko (geisha in training), Catharine Turner is the daughter of a former US vice-president, who now works in Japan as a journalist and Ishihara Akiko is a funeral director with a keen eye for crime. DS Yamamura Misa Suspense consists of three episodes, each starring a different detective, supported by their respective boyfriends, and also by Inspector Kariya of the Kyoto police force, who is in charge of the criminal investigation each time and knows all three detectives acting as the connecting thread between the three episodes. Yamamura Misa had already died by the time this game was made though, so the game was supervised by her agency. 


As a spiritual sequel to DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense Shin Tantei Series 1, it's probably not a surprise when I tell you that technically and game design-wise, the two games are very similar. They use the same user interface, you have the same kind of (fairly well-animated) character sprites transposed on real-life-esque backgrounds. In my 2018 review, I pointed out that DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense Shin Tantei Series 1 was very beginner-friendly though, and it was obviously designed for non-gamers. It is an adventure game at the core, so expect to talk with the suspects about a variety of topics, explore several locations and find clues, and ultimately, use the physical evidence and other clues or testimonies you acquired throughout the game to solve the crime by answering questions from foes or allies, and correct answers will further drive the plot. Nothing surprising here when it comes to game design. This game however does not punish you for wrong answers and also guides you to the next location you must visit, so you can't ever get lost in this game or not know what to do next. This game is actually even more streamlined and linear than the previous game: whereas DS Nishimura Kyoutarou at least occassionally did more than just ask you what happened three minutes ago, DS Yamamura Misa almost expects the player to be not familiar with either video games, nor with mystery fiction because the questions it fires at you are ridiculously simple.

So you'll be mostly playing this game to just experience the three stories with the three detectives, as challenge is definitely not to be found here. I'd say that overall, none of the three episodes are truly memorable, though most of them have one or two ideas that are pretty interesting. You can play the episodes in any order, though the game has the episode with Kogiku lined up first. She's booked with a fellow maiko to act as a companion at a party, but on her way to the party, Kogiku stumbles upon the body of a fellow maiko who was supposed to appear at the party. The mystery plot is more about figuring out who had a motive for wanting the maiko dead and as the player, you don't really get to do much, though I liked an early part of the story where a maiko's alibi depends on how long it would take to put her clothes on! Traditional Japanese arts do play a big role in Yamamura's work, so this felt quite natural. The last story features the funeral director Akiko, who meets up with a friend who's been worried about another friend she can't reach. When they visit this person, they find she has passed away in her apartment, having cut her wrists. Akiko soon realizes something is off about her death, but the victim's father refuses to call in the police and wants her funeral service to be handled as quickly as possible. Akiko offers her services to the father, hoping to buy herself some time to find out what really happened. Again a story that is mostly about learning who had a motive to want her dead, but this time there's not even some small moment that stuck with me.

The episode with Catherine is definitely the most memorable: Cathy is writing an article on Noh theater, and she and her boyfriend visit a Noh hall sponsored by a tea maker. A young talent is rehearsing the piece Doujouji with his mentor in the hall and will have time to be interviewed by Cathy afterwards. Only the master and his apprentice are inside the theater while they are rehearsing, but as they finish and the mentor comes out the hall first, the young actor is poisoned with arsenic, even though nobody was inside the hall anymore once his mentor stepped out to speak with Cathy. The story once again focuses on finding out who hated the actor enough to want to poison him, but there is also an impossible crime angle to this story that makes this the best episode of the game, as the mystery just has more volume to it. The way the real play Doujouji is integrated into the mystery plot is actually really clever and even leads to one of the few moments in the game where the player has to think and figure the connection out themselves. I can actually imagine a full novel being based on this episode alone, as there are more than enough parts and segments that could easily be expanded a bit for a mystery with more body. 

 

DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense Shin Tantei Series 1 had a fun extra mode titled West Village, featuring 50 short mystery quizzes and riddles, reminiscent of Professor Layton puzzles. This game sadly enough does not have such a feature, instead featuring a mode with quizzes on Kyoto and traditional Japanese culture, starring Yamamura Misa's daughter Momiji. West Village was a great way to present more interactive mysteries for the player to solve, so it's really a shame this game doesn't have those mystery quizzes anymore.

But as the game is now, I would not really recommend anyone to play DS Yamamura Misa Suspense - Maiko Kogiku / Kisha Catharine / Sougiya Ishihara Akiko - Koto ni Mau Hana Sanrin - Kyouto Satsujin Jiken File, at least, not if you're looking for an engaging mystery adventure. The game is too clearly aimed at non-gamers, so you're just led down a linear path with basically no mental input from the player. I do think it serves as an okay introduction to these three detectives by Yamamura, and while I have already read a few Catherine novels, I think I might try those with Kogiku and Akiko too in the future. I went in this game with pretty low expectations and I am also trying to play most of the Japanese mystery adventures released on the Nintendo DS, so I don't feel too disappointed with the game, but it's far from memorable. Its big brother DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense Shin Tantei Series is more amusing in comparison, and even that is a title that hardly stands out.

Original Japanese title(s): 『DS山村美紗サスペンス 舞妓小菊・記者キャサリン・葬儀屋石原明子 古都に舞う花三輪 京都殺人事件ファイル』

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Always a Thief

Money, money, money 
Must be funny 
In the rich man's world 
"Money Money Money" (ABBA)

So many books I discuss here involve supernatural elements nowadays, so let's do a very grounded, realistic one this time...

Shylock no Kodomotachi ("Shylock's Children", 2006) is a book I have owned for about a decade now, but never finished. At least, I don't think I did: I honestly can't remember. I bought the book, because it was going to be the topic of discussion at a book club and couldn't find a copy to borrow and while I did read the first few chapters, I think I never finished, because I couldn't make it to that book club session after all or something like that. But I kept the book. A while back though, I was re-arranging my books and came across the book again, and because I couldn't remember whether I had finished it, I decided to look up a story summary on the internet, and I learned two surprising fact. One was that the author, Ikeido Jun, was actually the person who also wrote the Hanzawa Naoki novels, upon which the extremely succesful live-action series are based. I haven't seen the series myself, but anyone even somewhat familiar with Japanese dramas and popular culture the last few years should surely know about Hanzawa Naoki, as this series was not only popular as a thriller about the banking world, but it also spawned lots of memes (the faces!). In hindsight, the fact Shylock no Kodomotachi is also a book about the banking world should have tipped me off. The second surprising fact I learned was that Shylock no Kodomotachi was going to be adapted for the screen. Twice even! A television adaptation was planned for October 2022, while a film adaptation is going to follow in 2023. And because I am also one of those people who decided to read The Lord of the Rings when they first announced they were making the films, I decided that this time, I was going to read Shylock no Kodomotachi (and yes, I finished the book before the October 2022 drama aired).

Shylock no Kodomotachi introduces the reader to the many, many people who work at the Nagahara Branch Office of the Tokyo Daiichi Bank. The Nagahara Office is not located in the bustling financial heart of Tokyo, but in a somewhat quiet, semi-residential area, and its business focus is on small and medium-sized enterprises, serving as house bank and providing loans. While bankers always say they are here to provide valuable services to those in need, the individual parts of the great machine are in reality just there for themselves. For all employees here, the Nagahara Office is just one stop in the long journey as a banker: like with many great corporations in Japan, employees are reposted every few years to other offices, and depending on their performance, their reposting might also involve a promotion or reposting to a certain section of location of their liking, while those who underperform will probably not very much like their new position. Once you fall behind in the race for promotions compared to the people who started at the bank in the same year, you'll never be able to catch up, doomed to the one who 'didn't quite make it' until you retire. Some even have already given up, who know that each new reposting just means going to a similar job at a different office, but those are a minority, and many people here see the Nagahara Office as just one phase in a bigger adventure, and in order to advance one needs to perform. Those who do well are praised in the grand meetings, those who underperform are scolded in front of the others. It's in this stress-inducing environment that one day, as they are recounting all the cash money at the end of the business day, it is discovered a million yen in cash has gone missing. Money is recounted, the whole premise is searched but they can't find the money. The envelope that held the money is found, but the person on which it was found absolutely denies she stole the money and eventually, the money is found back at the office, but nobody knows why the money disappeared and who took it, yet the head of the office is eager to keep things as quiet as possible as this would ruin his future career. The direct superior of the person who was accused however, isn't quite ready to let things go and is determined to found out why the money had been taken.

Ikeido Jun has worked in a bank, and he has stated that this book is the turning point in his novelist career, showing him what to write in the future and this mode would also influence his big success that is the Hanzawa Naoki series. Shylock no Kodomotachi features an ensemble cast, and in each chapter, we follow a completely different character working at the Nagahara Branch Office, from the deputy chief of the office to a part-time teller.  Each of them deal with other problems, some worrying about their future reposting and willing to do everything to improve their evaluation to lower-level employees who just can't cope with the stress and are desperate to at least make this period's target goals. Because we follow a different character each time, we also see everyone through different eyes, and before long you'll have a good idea of all the major characters working at the Nagahara Office, and you'll be asked to pay attention too, as I think there are like twenty recurring people in the office alone, some of which you actually follow directly in one of the chapters, but most of them always seen through the eyes of a third person. I should probably mention at this point that Shylock no Kodomotachi is only a mystery novel for about thirty percent, while the rest is basically focused on the human drama that plays out at a bank. Many of the chapters in this book are not directly related to the missing million yen: Shylock no Kodomotachi's main focus is portraying the working environment of a Japanese bank and its employees, and this environment then also happens to serve as the setting of a mystery involving money gone missing. But the book doesn't really start focusing on the missing money until the second half of the book, and even then most of the chapters are about the focus character of that specific chapter and their personal lives and what the bank means to them. 

As you can guess from the set-up of the book, the mystery of the missing money is portrayed like a caleidoscope: each of the chapters, while focusing on a different character, will also give you glimpses in the background that tie in to the mystery of the missing money. Because these focal characters all work in different positions/have different personalities, you get insights from various angles, which can be interesting. I wouldn't call these insights "clues" per se, but together these little facts and character observations do paint the underlying circumstances that led to the missing money. Most of the mystery is revolved rather swiftly in the final three chapters though, and there's little time for the reader to really get puzzle-solving themselves, though the plot itself is interesting. The money goes missing, and is returned in the first quarter of the book, but until the finale, you don't really get to hear much about it again, and it's only at the end you understand that the novel was more focused in portraying the background that led to the theft, rather than having you solve the mystery yourself. That said, I do like the plot behind why the money was stolen and what was done with it: it is clear that Ikeido is familiar with the inner workings of a bank and how business is conducted there and shouldn't be expected to be able to solve this yourself based on the clues, for you'd need to be quite knowledgeable about banking products and how everything works in a branch office to be able to figure this out, but it's certainly a plot that sounds "realistic" within a proper banking setting, and the book certainly does a great job at presenting the background to the crime through the various character vignettes.

But I do think this book is best read as a novel about banking, rather than as mainly a mystery novel. It presents a very interesting peek at how these big Japanese companies work with people getting reposted every few years automatically, having to move from one location to another, living in company-owned living quarters and having each transfer connected to a possible promotion. But also showing the very "personal" approach of banks, or service-focused companies in Japan in general, where the salesmen do their rounds and visit some companies almost daily, sometimes with gifts, in the hopes of securing business with them. 

Shylock no Kodomotachi is definitely very different from what I usually read and it's also not a book I would immediately recommend, at least, not if you're looking for a puzzle plot mystery like most books discussed here. Shylock no Kodomotachi is mainly a human drama set in a bank, and it's really effective in portraying the lives and thoughts of a group of people working at a small bank in Japan. It also provides a minor mystery plot that make good use of its unique setting and Ikeido's own experience as a banker definitely helps sell the realistic background. But if you are looking for an interesting glimpse at Japanese banks (or similar large companies), the lives of their employees, and that mixed with a minor crime plot, Shylock no Kodomotachi can be fun.

Original Japanese title(s): 池井戸潤『シャイロックの子供たち

Sunday, November 20, 2022

The Dead File

"Oh, oh, one more thing before I forget."
"Prescription: Murder"

I can't quite recall which episodes of Columbo I first saw, though I have distinct memories of watching some kind of rerun of the first two episodes of season 8, Columbo Goes to the Guillotine and Murder, Smoke and Shadows on television. Though I think I already knew Columbo at that point, so that means I had already seen episodes before those...

While I often take a look inside the little free library in the town centre, it's not often I take something back with me. Of course, sometimes, you manage to stumble upon Christianna Brand, but more often than not, I leave empty-handed, or it's a book I end up returning swiftly because it was not very interesting. Today's book was one I was surprised to see in the free library and I immediately took it with me: William Harrington's The Grassy Knoll (1993) was Harrington's first original tie-in novel based on the Columbo series, which would be followed by a few others. The book introduces us to TV-host Paul Drury of The Paul Drury Show, a rather popular live talkshow, not in the least due to Paul Drury's personal interest in a topic that has interested Americans for decades: the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. The experience of actually having been there as a child when this happened turned into an obsession, and Drury has dedicated almost fifty shows to the JFK assassination, inviting historians, legal experts and people with new theories to appear on the show. The real star however is Drury himself, who has a gigantic database on everything JFK-related and is always ready to fact-check anyone on the show or callers back home. But what Drury didn't know about, was his own murder-to-be. After another show on JFK, Drury returns home in the evening, only to be ambushed in his own garage by Tim Edmonds, the producer of the show, and Alicia Graham Drury, assistant-producer on the show, but also Tim's current lover and Paul Drury's ex-wife. They swiftly murder the star of The Paul Drury Show, and also set-up things so it looks like a burglary and arrange for a false alibi for themselves, and the following day, the two naturally appear at the house again after the discovery of the murder by the housekeeper, playing the roles of the shocked producer and ex-wife. At first, they seem rather delighted to see this scruffy detective Lt. Columbo lead the investigation, but as times passes by, Alicia in particular starts to realize there's more to the man than meets the eye. Meanwhile, a virus is used to wipe out Paul Drury's computers and his whole JFK database at the office, which seems to suggests his murder is related to this database, but how?

The Grassy Knoll is a novel that often feels very much like a Columbo story like you'd see on television, but at the same time, it often feels very much unlike a classic Columbo story. Some elements, I will let slide because this book was published in 1993, so after the (relatively) newer series of Columbo which sometimes do have a different vibe compared to the original series. A bit more sex, Paul Drury apparently liking to walk around naked, not exactly what I expect from classic Columbo, but I could imagine things like that in the series from season 8 on. And the fact that the narration actually refers to Mrs. Columbo, confirming her to be absolutely alive and all is also something later Columbo seasons did, having third parties confirm her existence, though I must admit I always loved the ambiguity regarding her existence of the earlier seasons. But on the whole, we have an inverted mystery story set in the flashy television world of Los Angeles, we have murderers who think they are thousand steps ahead of Columbo and make fun of him only to find that the man is slowly but surely learning the truth by asking a lot of questions and finally, it all comes falling down. In that sense, The Grassy Knoll is of course what you'd expect of a Columbo novel.

But one thing that does make this feel very much unlike any other Columbo stories is the focus on the JFK assassination. Apparently, the other Columbo original novels by Harrington also tackled real world crimes, but it's just something I didn't really like about this book, as it is definitely more just 'fluff' or a thing only Paul Drury was on about, the actual murder becomes a major theme of the book when Columbo starts suspecting Drury's obssession with the case is what led to his murder, so some parts of the book have Columbo actually looking into the JFK assassination and learn the details about that death and theories regarding the "true" shooter. It is weird seeing Columbo investigating a real world crime, and while he doesn't come up with some history-altering theory about this murder, it was still something that felt out of place to me, even though it is apparently Harrington's hook for this series of books.

The mystery plot itself is also slightly different from what you'd expect of a Columbo. Yes, it is an inverted mystery, with the murderers having created a false alibi for themselves for the murder, but this element isn't even the most important part of the story: the false alibi is torn apart rather easily, and when you come to the end, you'll realize there's not really a "big" satisfying moment where Columbo laid a clever trap, or where the murderers made a truly "oh, in hindsight I should've seen that coming" mistake (their biggest "mistake" was just having a rather simple plan...). The murder itself, and the way Columbo solves whodunnit are Columbo-esque in form, but in terms of feeling as satisfying as the best of Columbo episodes, like the gotcha moments in episodes like Suitable for Framing or A Case of Immunity, you won't find that here. It doesn't help that Tim and Alice aren't really interesting opponents either. What the mystery is mostly about, is the reason why Tim and Alice killed Paul Drury. We soon learn that Tim and Alice are actually in contact with a third person in regards to this murder, and most of the mystery for the reader is figuring out why Tim and Alice decided to kill the star of their show. This quest into the motive brings Columbo even outside Los Angeles for a short period, and ultimately links back to the JFK assassination in some way, but as I mentioned above, I didn't really like the real-world crime connections here, so it kinda fell flat for me. I think the idea behind the motive itself is interesting, just that it doesn't really belong in Columbo.

As a 1993 book, the book is interesting in the way it was modern for the time when it comes to the usage of computers, but it's really dated when you read it now, which is quite funny. We're not just talking about the police doing 'zoom and enhance' on pictures and having to explain what a virus is, but also Columbo being impressed by computers with dozens of megabytes of storage space or computer back-ups on hundreds of floppy disks.

I wouldn't say The Grassy Knoll feels completely unlike a Columbo story, for that is not true. It has all those trademark moments and lines you should expect of a Columbo tie-in novel. But the murder mystery itself is not particularly memorable and when the book goes deeper into the matter of motive, it does feel like it's doing something you normally wouldn't expect of the series, and your mileage may vary on how much you like that. Tone-wise, the book is also a bit closer to the last few seasons of Columbo, which I'll admit are not my favorite seasons, so that plays a role too in how I feel about the book. But still, it was perfectly fine for a book I found in the free library!

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Magic and Tricks

If there's somethin' strange 
In your neighborhood 
Who ya gonna call?
"Ghostbusters" (Ray Parker Jr.)

So the film didn't release on Halloween, but in April, and then the home video was released the week after Halloween... I guess the theme was Halloween because of ghost of the pasts returning, but still, they could have at least released the home video in the week of Halloween...

Detective Conan manga & movies:
Part 1: Volumes 1 ~ 10
Part 2: Volumes 11~20; The Timebombed Skyscraper (1) / The Fourteenth Target (2)
Part 3: Volumes 21~30; The Last Wizard of the Century (3) / Captured in Her Eyes (4)
Part 4: Volumes 31~40; Countdown to Heaven (5) / The Phantom of Baker Street (6)
Part 5: Volumes 41~50; Crossroad in the Ancient Capital (7) / Magician of the Silver Sky (8) / Strategy Above the Depths (9)
Part 6:  Volumes 51~60; Private Eyes' Requiem (10) / Jolly Roger in the Deep Azure (11)
Part 7: Volumes 61~70; Full Score of Fear (12) / The Raven Chaser (13) / Lost Ship in the Sky (14)
Part 8: Volumes 71~80; Quarter of Silence (15) / The Eleventh Striker (16) / Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17)
(You will find the links to the reviews of volumes 70, 72~76, 78, 82~102 and the films Quarter of Silence (15), The Eleventh Striker (16), Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17), Dimensional Sniper (18), Sunflowers of Inferno (19), The Darkest Nightmare (20), The Crimson Love Letter (21), Zero the Enforcer (22), The Fist of Blue Sapphire (23) and The Scarlet Bullet (24) in the library or via the Detective Conan tag)

A Russian man blown up with a bomb which engulfed him in purple flames right in front of the Metropolitan Police Department is a shocking event on its own, but the police detectives at the Homicide division are very surprised to find among the unknown victim's belongings a business card bearing the name of Matsuda Jinpei, a police detective who was posted to the Homicide division for one week, but died in the line of duty several years ago. Conan is given information by his contacts within Public Security that in the week when Matsuda worked at the Homicide division, he and some friends he knew from the police academy stumbled upon a bomb terrorist by accident and while they failed to apprehend the terrorist, they did manage to disarm the bomb that was going to blow up a building. This terrorist has recently re-appeared in Tokyo, and the distinctive purple flames of the bombs used by this terrorist make it clear they are also involved with the death of the man who exploded right in front of the MPD. Meanwhile, the Homicide division and Kogorou are also asked to help secure the upcoming Halloween wedding of Muranaka, an old friend and co-worker of Inspector Megure, who had to retire early due to an injury, but has now finally found someone to tie the knot with. Muranaka has received threatening letters for his wedding, something sadly expected due to the many people he caught while he was with the police, but as the wedding approaches, they learn the bomb terrorist is apparently behind these threats on Muranaka and his soon-to-be wife, but why? The story comes to a climax on Halloween, as ghouls and ghosts come out to play, but some of them are carrying rather dangerous surprises in the 2022 theatrical release Detective Conan: The Bride of Halloween.

And once again, this new film managed to break the previous earnings record of this film series. Detective Conan may have been running for nearly thirty years, and even if we look at the annual animated films series alone, this is the 25th film already, but they still draw huge audiences! Can you think of a different mystery franchise that's been going so strong so consistently?


As an extension of the animated television series (itself an adaptation of the original comics by Aoyama Goushou), the theatrical releases have always been in flux, trying to find different ways to present themselves to bring the "Detective Conan" experience on the big screen. The tone and atmosphere of the films have changed greatly too in these 26 years, as they adapt to the tone and atmosphere of the original series, but also because different directors and screenplay writers try something else. The earlier movies felt relatively close to the original comic, with some added spectacle in the form of action scenes (explosions!). These films were followed by few movies that seemed to focus more on the action and in more recent years, you even had a few Detective Conan movies that seemed more inspired by political thrillers. Things come in waves however, with 2017's The Crimson Love Letter for example featuring the focus on the core mystery plot the earlier movies had, without sacrificing the bombastic action scenes we had grown accustomed to by then. Last year's The Scarlet Bullet also felt like a "modern" throwback to the style of earlier Conan films with a plot revolving around a moving vehicle, invoking earlier films like Magician of the Silver Sky (2004), Strategy Above the Depths (2005) and Lost Ship in the Sky (2010), but with a lot more stylish action and also the typical character focus we have seen in recent years.

2022's The Bride of Halloween is both a very interesting Detective Conan film, but also a very not interesting Detective Conan film. It does things I hadn't expected a Detective Conan film to do, but also didn't do a lot of things I expect, or at least hope to get from a Detective Conan film. To start with the negative: as a mystery film, The Bride of Halloween is pretty disappointing, and that's right after the also, but not as disappointing The Scarlet Bullet last year. The film kinda wants to make the identity of the bomb terrorist and their master plan a mystery, but it really isn't considering the cast of suspects is incredibly small, which reminds me of the very first film, 1997's The Time-Bombed Skyscraper, but that film at least had more "puzzle solving" segments sprinkled through the story, whereas you simply have less of that here. You do get minor mysteries like why the Russian man had Matsuda's business card and what he was doing at the MPD, or how this all connects to Muranaka's wedding, but ultimately doesn't really manage to impress because there's just too little body to the mystery. I like a certain repeated clue pointing to the identity of the terrorist, because it makes good use of the visual aspect of the film, but it also feels wasted because there wasn't really any mystery about it in the first place. So you won't be watching this film for the mystery, that's for sure.

 

So why would you watch The Bride of Halloween? Well, surprisingly, this may be the first Detective Conan film that feels so strongly connected to the main series. The previous few films already featured a bigger focus on characters besides Conan, giving them more time to shine here than they can in the original comics, but the Detective Conan films have always been something of a Schrödinger's cat when it comes to their connection to the storyline of the original comics. They never refer specifically to events that occured in the films, but often, the films will feature small segments that are absolutely canon to manga, for example having small character snippets where some background information is revealed that is considered canon to the manga, introducing new characters that are reverse-imported to the manga and Dimensional Sniper even making a big reveal before the big reveal occured! The Bride of Halloween goes further however, and feels much more tightly connected to the main storyline. The film for example starts off with very specific references to the Trembling Metropolitan Police Department storyline from volumes 36-37 that first introduced the (by that time already deceased) Matsuda Jinpei and the way the first half of The Bride of Halloween builds on that storyline, focusing on the police detectives Satou and Takagi who also starred in that previous story, makes this film feel like a kind of sequel or epilogue. The first half of the film also focuses a lot on the five characters who starred in the Detective Conan spin-off Wild Police Story, which is set quite some years before the events of the main storyline, and focuses on five young cadets in the police academy, Matsuda Jinpei being one of them. By the time the main storyline starts, they have all gone different ways, but this story brings the group together again in an extended flashback and in that sense, this film also serves as a sequel/epilogue to Wild Police Story, as we get one final look at them helping each other out again. And that is where The Bride of Halloween does manage to surprise and be captivating, as long-time fans of the series will find this film quite rewarding with its more open connections to the main series compared to previous films. I think the film is still understandable for newcomers, but it does juggle with a lot of established characters, so it's defnitely more enjoyable to longtime fans.

And wow, they dared to do that to a manga canon character in one of the films? Makes you wonder if they'll dare to do something similar in future films!


We have a new director for this film by the way and the somewhat denser pre-title card sequence can perhaps be seen as a sign of change, and the new and stylish, but still familiar opening where Conan narrates the premise of the series looks gorgeous. The above-mentioned closer ties to the main storyline may also be a sign of things to come, though I do have to say the action scenes in this film felt a bit lacking. I have grown used to the over-the-top action of the Detective Conan films of recent years, and while The Scarlet Bullet already felt more tame compared the films preceding it directly, I think The Bride of Halloween lacked... the type of dynamic action set pieces that build on the mystery element, putting Conan in a seemingly unwinnable situation, but him still turning things around with everything properly clewed. That's still here in a way, but the set pieces were just less... surprising/clever than we had seen in earlier movies. I looooved having that track back though!

Detective Conan: The Bride of Halloween will not be my favorite Detective Conan film, and as a mystery film, it's even quite disappointing, but it is still a film I can easily recommend to fans of the franchise, because of the way it meaningfully ties back to certain big storylines in the original comic, and in a way none of the films have ever done. Watch it as a kind of epilogue to both Wild Police Story and The Trembling Metropolitan Police Department and you have a film that is quite entertaining overall, even if leans a bit much on these connections to actually shine and isn't as interesting as a standalone film. The next one is already announced for of course a Golden Week release, and considering the few lines we hear in the teaser, it's clear who the focus character will be this time, and if that film will also build more strongly on specific storylines from the original manga, this might turn out to be very interesting!

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵コナン ハロウィンの花嫁』

Friday, November 11, 2022

番外編:Death Within The Evil Eye

I'd better say this right away: don't expect another announcement next Friday. This post following my recent announcement of the upcoming release of The Mill House Murders is more-or-less just a coincidence... Let's not make this a habit!

2021 was a weird year, as two mystery novels I translated were published, but not only that, on the surface, they had rather similar, but unique themes. Publisher Ammo's YAMAGUCHI Masaya's Death of the Living Dead was about well, the living dead. The lengthy tale follows Francis "Grin" Barleycorn who has returned to the family home, the famous Smile Cemetery in New England, as his grandfather Smiley Barleycorn is terminally ill. Meanwhile, a strange phenomenom has been plaguing the world: the dead have started to rise. The scientists haven't figure out why yet, there have been several cases across the world where people simply "wake up" from their death and are still able to think, speak and act basically as if they were alive. It's amidst these circumstances that mysterious deaths occur at the Smile Cemetery, and it's up to young Grin to solve these deaths, which is easier said than done when the dead don't stay dead. The book was originally released in 1989 and is one of earliest and definitely one of the best Japanese mystery stories that utilized a supernatural setting to present a fair play puzzle plot detective. The other book I translated last year was also about mixing the supernatural with the classic puzzle plot mystery: Locked Room International published IMAMURA Masahiro's Death Among the Undead, an absolute hit 2017 mystery novel in its home country. It told the story of Akechi and Hamura, two students who make up the Mystery Society. The two of them are invited by Hiruko, a fellow student and accomplished amateur detective, to join a short trip organized by the Film Club of the university. Staying at a mountain-side pension overlooking Lake Sabea, the idea is that the members will film a short film as a club project. But on the first evening, the students are suddenly attacked by a mob of something very unlikely and very unnatural. They barricade themselves inside the pension with no hope of escape from this closed circle situation as the beings try to get inside, but then one of the students is killed inside his locked room during the night: at first they suspect one of the beings killed the poor man, but they soon realize that isn't possible and that a human, ergo, one of them must've done it. But how did the murderer manage to get in and out the locked room of the victm, and more importantly, why now, while they're being attacked by those things and don't even know whether they'll survive this? The book is an excellent example of how a mystery story can still utilize very irrational and supernatural elements, and yet be a completely fair, puzzle plot tale.

And for those who enjoyed Death Among the Undead, I have good news, for Locked Room International will be releasing its sequel too! Death Within the Evil Eye was originally released in Japan in 2019 as Magan no Hako no Satsujin and is the direct sequel to Death Among the Undead. Once again, I was fortunate enough to be able to work on this translation: I originally read the Japanese version of Death Among the Undead late 2018, so I was thrilled when I learned the sequel would be published just a few months later, and I loved the book, just like the first novel. While the book is a direct sequel, it does not directly spoil any big details of the plot of Death Among the Undead, so you could start with this book if you want to, though obviously, it is much more rewarding if you do read these two books in order. Death Within the Evil Eye brings the members of the Mystery Society to a remote community deep in the mountains as they trace a lead connected to the events of the first book. Some other people happen to arrive at that place too, and the party eventually arrives at a curious, block-like building where an old woman lives who is said to have powers of clairvoyance, capable of telling the future. But the bridge collapses, trapping everybody in the building, and it's then they learn that knowing the future is certainly not always a good thing, as what if it is foretold you will die?

Readers might be surprised on one hand to see how different the theme is this time compared to Death Among the Undead, on the other hand, Imamura does here what he did so well in the first book too: Death Within the Evil Eye uses a supernatural premise, in this case prophecies, to bring an incredibly original mystery novel. I'll be lazy today and simply quote myself from my review of the Japanese version: "In a way, the concept behind the prophecies isn't very different from what was done in the first novel: Imamura locks his whole cast up in a closed circle situation, and then has a supernatural/unnatural phenomenon threaten our cast. What makes his novels different from most other closed circle mysteries is that the threat isn't simply a force of nature, like a snow storm or the raging sea or something like that, but something out of the ordinary. What's more, Imamura is sure to make use of these unique special circumstances to come up with situations that can only exist because he's utilizing these unique ideas, resulting in mystery stories that are in the core recognizable, but also like something you have never seen before." For those who are curious now, my review of the Japanese version is here, but you could also wait until you've read the book yourself and compare notes later.

Oh, and what prompted me to write this post in the first place: Publishers Weekly has their early review up already, and they seem quite enthusiastic too with a starred review! 

And the big question is of course, when is the book out? ... I don't know exactly myself actually! At least, I can't give you an exact date, though I believe we'll still have wait a few weeks at the least as there are still some i's that need dotting in regards to the final release. So consider this just an advance announcement, and I'll be sure to make another announcement once you can actually purchase the book.

In the meantime, you could always read Death Among the Undead if you hadn't already!

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Footnote to Murder

For want of a nail the shoe was lost. 
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

Sometimes, people ask in the comments how I find/choose the books I read, and the answer is: I don't really know. I have a tendency to read novelists I already know, and stick with series I know/enjoy, but even then, the question remains how I first got started on them of course. Another matter that often pops up in the comments are people asking me to make lists, as they like to have some kind of guide to find books worthwhile to read, but I have to say, I don't look into lists myself too often, which might also be a reason why I am always very reluctant to make any lists. I think that when it comes to mystery fiction, the fact I like puzzle plot mysteries (i.e. the puzzle element), and not for example "locked room murders/impossible crimes" specifically, is related to my reluctance. People like to make lists of "best locked rooms" and analyze the trickery there, but it's for example harder to really analyze a good whodunnit puzzle plot in the same manner, and there's just so many ways in which a puzzle plot mystery can be pulled off, even outside familiar tropes like impossible crimes/closed circles/etc., so I myself seldom rely on such lists to find whatever to read, and it also doesn't really motivate myself to work on such a list. So how do I find the titles I want to read? Basically, very randomly. Sometimes it's just a title that's mentioned in a review of a book I liked, the other time it's part of a series I already know/writer I already know and the summary sounds interesting, sometimes it's just the title that convinces me to read the summary, other times it's for example through a link to a game or movie I like... I just find titles everywhere and see if they sound interesting.

Disclosure: I translated Shimada's 1985 short story The Running Dead.  

Shimada Souji's Kisou, Ten wo Ugokasu ("A Fantastic Thought Can Move The Heavens", 1989) is a title I had seen mentioned a lot basically everywhere. Sometimes people point at it as one of their favorites from Shimada, it ranked in at a very respectable 51st place in the 2103 edition of the Tozai Mystery Best 100 and it has a neat title. The book features Inspector Yoshiki Takeshi and this was actually the reason why I actually first started reading the Yoshiki novels back in 2020: Kisou, Ten wo Ugokasu wasn't available as an e-book yet (still isn't at time of writing), but they had released the first three books in the series already, so while I actually wanted to read Kisou, Ten wo Ugokasu, I started with the first three novels. Mind you, I didn't really know what the book was about, just that people often seemed to mention it, and as I am familiar with Shimada's work, I figured it'd be worth taking a look at it. The book isn't only published in 1989, but also set in 1989, when consumption tax (VAT) was introduced. Shop owners knew their customer weren't going to like having to pay consuption tax, but nobody could've guessed it would lead to murder! An extremely short, elderly homeless man wanders around the streets of Asakusa and buys a bag of snacks, but doesn't pay the consumption tax. He quickly makes off, but is chased by the proprietress of the shop who yells at the man to pay the tax. But when she finally catches up to him, the man stabs the woman, and she dies on the spot. Plenty of people are witness to this murder, and the man is quickly arrested, but the man doesn't say anything to the police. Of course, with all those witnesses around, and testimonies of people who had seen the old homeless man wandering around Asakusa for about a year, just playing the harmonica to entertain people, make it an open-and-shut case: there's probably something with the man's mind, and he lashed out over the consumption tax. But when Inspector Yoshiki has a look at the man, he can't shake the feeling the man isn't quite what he seems to be. It takes some time for Yoshiki to discover the man's name, but when he learns that the man had been in prison for thirty years for a murder and only recently released, he can't believe the man would just commit another murder so easily, knowing how harsh life in prison is. Yoshiki also stumbles upon a few short fantasy stories the man wrote while in prison, about white giants lifting trains up, and about a clown in a train in Hokkaido who shoots himself in the head in the toilet of a running train, but when the conductor closes the door, but a few seconds later re-opens the door, they find the clown's body disappeared. Yoshiki then learns that the events in these stories actually happened about forty years ago in Hokkaido and he suspects that somewhere in the past, somewhere in these stories lies the reason why this old man killed the shop proprietress.

The Yoshiki series started out as a way for Shimada to combine the puzzle plot mysteries he liked, with the so-called "travel mystery", a subgenre usually associated with writers like Uchida Yasuo. The travel mystery is, obviously, often about travelling, especially by train and has a distinct touristic angle, with the mystery set in popular tourist destinations/regions often outside the capital Tokyo. Travel mysteries are generally seen as a rather "light " sub-genre within the broader mystery genre. Kisou, Ten wo Ugokasu still has elements of the travel mystery, with a story about a disappearing clown body on a running train in 1950s Hokkaido, but overall, Kisou, Ten wo Ugokasu can be best described as an attempt to fuse the puzzle plot mystery (with travel mystery elements) with the social school of mystery fiction as championed by Matsumoto Seichou, with its emphasis on commentary on social problems. I say attempt on purpose, because I have to say I thought the narrative feels a bit disjointed, with neither side feeling fully realized, and with little synergy between both sides. 

The investigation Yoshiki launches into the homeless man's history is the vehicle for the social commentary in this novel. As Yoshiki digs into the man's past, he learns the man has been the victim of great injustice done to him, not only by individuals, but also by the whole system of law and order of Japan itself. A whole lifetime of suffering was forced upon the man at various moments of his life, often without great fault of his own, but simply because people in positions of power at various levels of the Japanese society decided to screw him over.  Yoshiki is apparently completely oblivious to a lot of Japanese history, even "recent" periods like during military rule and the immediate post-war period, which may be Shimada's way for Yoshiki to act as a reader proxy, but this part of the story is obliviously not directly "mystery-plot" related, it just paints the background of why the old man ultimately did what he did. The title A Fantastic Thought Can Move The Heavens in that sense means that certain unforeseen or out-of-the-blue events can ultimately lead to big changes anywhere, and in this novel, the homeless man is shown to have been the plaything of a lot of social injustice which, in a chain reaction, brought him to his final destination. 

When Yoshiki asks his superior for more time to investigate the homeless man's past, he is asked whether he thinks it'll lead to a different murderer. And Yoshiki is of course aware that nothing will change whether he learns more about the man or not. The man was witnessed by countless of people on the streets as he stabbed the woman. So the mystery of the novel lies not here, but in the why, and most of that is found within the old fantasy-esque stories the old man wrote while he was in prison earlier. Several of his stories are set in the 1950s, in Hokkaido and involve trains, and Yoshiki learns that there was indeed some funny business going on on a Hokkaido train at that time, involving not only the body of a clown who committed suicide in a toilet of a running train and disappeared when the conductor closed the doors for a few seconds and opened it again, but there was apparently another disappearing body on the train, of someone who had been overrun by the train earlier that night and that same train eventually had a big crash and people never found out how that train derailed in the first place. Yoshiki is convinced the old man was involved with those mysterious events 40 years ago and that's the reason why he wrote stories about them and is determined to solve these fantastical crimes. And... I think the reader will be able to solve a lot of them too, because most of the events are rather easy to see through. I think what I think is a shame is that most of the mysteries in this novel feel very discrete, like seperate events A, B and C, and each individual event hsa a rather obvious solution to it. Often mystery writers combine "simpler tricks" together to make events look more mysterious, but in the case of Kisou, Ten wo Ugokasu, I don't think there was really an attempt to do this. The fact all these events occured after another feels a bit forced (not coincidence per se, but still artificial) and the motivation for the culprit to do all of this seems rather farfetched, but ignoring that, the seperate mysteries just feel like seperate, simple mysteries, and it's quite easy to guess how the clown disappeared, to guess where the other body went to, to guess how the train derailed. The fantasy stories by the old man present these events as alluring mysteries, but the moment they are examined by Yoshiki as actual events, they become rather predictable surprisingly fast. Had these events been more intertwined, I think these mysteries could have been more impressive at a technical level, but now they just felt like a string of easy to solve problems.

But like I said earlier, I have a feeling that the more fantasical crimes in the past don't really work well together with the more realistic, socially conscious tone of the narrative revolving around the homeless man's past. Kisou, Ten wo Ugokasu feels like a combination of a lot of ideas and concepts that can work perfectly in mystery fiction, but I don't feel like they work really well in this particular novel. Neither side benefits really from the other side of the spectrum, it's not like the fantastical crimes feel "extra" fantastical, nor the realism "even more realistic" by juxtapositioning the two, it just feels like there were two books here that were crushed together. Personally, I think the tone of the series as seen in earlier Yoshiki novels could easily have worked for books that focused on either side, but this particular book just feels a bit disjointed. So nope, this is not my favorite Shimada novel, nor my favorite entry in the Yoshiki series. People seem in general to be fairly positive about, so your mileage may very well vary.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司『奇想、手を動かす』