Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Dead in the Water

Resignedly beneath the sky 
The melancholy waters lie
"The City in the Sea"

Will the next cover be a green one, like in a forest? Or a yellow one, like in a desert? Who knows!

High school students Tadokoro Shinya and Katsuragi Teruyoshi had been suspended for a while after the two had snuck off during the summer trip to meet a famous mystery writer, getting themselves not only trapped on a mountain on fire, but also getting involved in a murder case occuring at the home of the writer. But even after their suspension ended, Katsuragi did not return to school. At first, it was because his grandfather had died and he was given leave, but he's been absent from school longer than he was supposed to be, which worries Tadokoro greatly. Due to his upbringing, Katsuragi is very sensitive to lies, a trait which has made him quite a talented amateur detective. However, the events on the mountain had thorougly shaken Katsuragi's beliefs in what a detective is supposed to be, as he had been confronted with can happen if you just call people out on their lies without thinking about other people's feelings or how they may react. Learning that Katsurugi is currently not staying in the city, but the manor of the Katsuragi clan in the village of Y and that the Buddhist service on the 49th day after Katsuragi's grandfather's death is coming up, Tadokoro and classmate Mitsuya decide to visit Katsuragi to convince him to return to school. 

Tadokoro and Mitsuya make their way to the remote village, where they find the Katsuragi manor standing on a hill, where they are welcomed by Katsuragi's older brother Tadashi, a police detective who thought his little brother how to be a detective. He's glad to that his brother actually has friends who are worried about him and brings the two to his brother. Katsuragi himself is glad to see some familiar faces, but is clearly still coping with his trauma. During their visit, Tadokoro and Mitsuya also meet the other members of the Katsuragi clan who are present for the service, and at first sight, they all seem like nice and impressive people: Katsuragi's own parents are accomplished politicians and scholars, he also has a sister who's a model, and his uncle and aunt are all succesful in their own fields. But it doesn't take long for Tadokoro to realize how Katsuragi became so sensitive to people's lies, as it's clear everyone is just keeping up appearences. Tadokoro and Mitsuya aren't the only uninvited visitors: the sleazy reporter Sakaguchi used to date Katsuragi's sister Michiru is hanging around and seemingly has something regarding the death of Katsuragi's grandfather some weeks ago. Tadokoro is also puzzled by statements by Katsuragi's little cousin who seems to suggest his grandfather didn't die a natural death. Due to a heavy storm, Tadokoro and Mitsuya are offered to stay for the night, and even the reporter is allowed to stay at the manor because with roads flooded, it's honestly too dangerous to go outside. During the night however, everyone is awakened by the disaster alarm on their phones, warning them of the river flood and advising people to evacuate Y Village. When they realize that Tadashi hasn't shown himself, they go looking for him and his body is discovered in the annex. The annex was originally grandfather's quarters and had been offered to Sakaguchi last night, but Tadashi and Sakaguchi had swapped rooms. Tadashi was shot in the face with a shotgun, so it's obviously a murder, but due to the relentless rain, the village below is slowly flooding, making the arrival of the police impossible. But as time passes on and they discuss Tadashi's death, Tadokoro notices something horrible: the whole Katsuragi family is trying to push a narrative that it was an outsider who killed Tadashi, and definitely not someone of the family. Realizing that he and Mitsuya might be in danger with the family seemingly conspiring to push the blame elsewhere, they hope Katsuragi can help him by solving the murder, but his earlier trauma and the death of his brother seemed to have its toll. Meanwhile, the water keeps on rising and rising and slowly, but surely, the water is swallowing the villlage below and creeping up to the manor on the hill. Can Tadokoro escape this predicement in Atsukawa Tatsumi's Aomikan no Satsujin ("The Murder in the Marine Azure Manor", 2021)?

I read Atsukawa's Gurenkan no Satsujin in 2020 and found it an entertaining mystery novel: it was absolutely packed with classic mystery tropes and the way it made use of the mountain fire to create a suspenseful closed circle situation was actually surprising, not being just a "thrilling" plot device but actually intricately connected to the core puzzle plot. It was a bit too packed perhaps, as the novel was definitely not short, and the meta-discussions on what a detective should be and how they ought to act is something your mileage may vary on. Still, when I learned that Aomikan no Satsujin would be a direct sequel to Gurenkan no Satsujin, I knew I wanted to read it, as Atsukawa had shown he could plot a great mystery novel. Oh, and have you seen that cover! The cover also has the English title Murder of Aomikan by the way.

Aomikan no Satsujin will feel very familiar to to those who have read Gurenkan no Satsujin already, as the plot structure is nearly identical. The first half of the book sets up the murder, but also introduces us to the cause behind the closed circle situation: the storm and resulting flood. Last time, it was a fire that trapped our heroes on the mountain, this time it's the rising water that forces the people of Y Village to evacuate, and near the end of the novel, some of the remaining people find themselves forced to evacuate to the Katsuragi manor on the hill, which isn't actually that safe either as in the past, floods have reached inside the manor. Like the previous book Aomikan no Satsujin's second half also takes on a slightly different form: after the initial investigation into Tadashi's death and the proposals of several theories regarding his death, we see Katsuragi once again peeling away the layers of deceit of everyone involved, as everyone inside the Katsuragi manor seems to be hiding something, even if it's not directly related to Tadashi's death. This is the exact same set-up Gurenkan no Satsujin had, so at times, the book will feel a bit too familiar.

For those who like Ellery Queen-type mysteries, Aomikan no Satsujin is once again a book worth checking out. In the first half, we have a few interesting moments where the rest of the Katsuragi clan seem intent on proposing theories that point away from the family and towards any of the outsiders present in the house. The focus on the physical evidence, as well on the actions and knowledge the characters have to create elaborate hypotheses regarding the murder on Tadashi is of course straight out of the Queen school. The initial crime scene may seem simple, as it's basically a man shot in the face in an annex building, but the scene holds many clues that allow for diverse possible theories regarding the murder, but at the same time these clues also function as evidence to disprove incorrect theories. As the reader, you'll be asked to stay focused, as new theories are proposed constantly, making a seemingly simple murder an amusingly complex matter. The focus on physical evidence remains throughout the novel, even when the initial hypotheses have been discarded, so it's interesting to see how some pieces of evidence are considered from multiple angles to support different theories.

Things go into overdrive as the water rises more rapidly in the second half, and Katsuragi's father decides to evacuate the last remaining people in the village and invite them into the Katsuragi manor. Katsuragi meanwhile finally makes up his mind about what a detective ought to do, and he decides to solve all the mysteries that have puzzled him until now, whether they are directly related to the murder of his brother or not, hoping to find who his family members truly are behind their facades. Everyone has something to hide, and this section can be a bit slow: basically everyone is involved in something that is making the murder on Tadashi so mysterious, whether intentionally or not, so Katsuragi has peel away all the layers of lies that are currently covering the truth. It's only by solving all these minor mysteries Katsuragi starts to see the true shape of the crime, which allows him to unveil a rather diabolical truth behind the murder on his brother, but like in Gurenkan no Satsujin, the plot does seem to rely a lot on coincidence. This is a consequence of how Atsukawa plotted these books: if you want everyone (even those innocent) to be involved in some minor mystery, and have all those mysteries ultimately connect together to the main crime directly or indirectly, you're bound to have to rely on coincidence. There are actually quite few parts of the mystery where we learn the murderer was secretly trying to influence things, but it's basically a matter of luck whether they'd be successful and the way so many things just happened the way the murderer planned, seems a bit hard to swallow. Of course, coincidence often plays some role in mystery fiction, but there's a lot of it in this book and some of the machinations of the murderer seem rather farfetched attempts. That said, the core puzzle regarding the murder on Tadashi is surprisingly complex and does feel rewarding after all the fake solutions proposed in the first half of the book. The murderer actually pulls off some quite memorable feats throughout the tale, and while that's also definitely partially because they simply had a lot of luck that everything went as planned, the fundamental scheme is a fun mystery unravel, leading to a great climax scene where Katsuragi slowly pieces the underlying logic together to work his way towards the identity of the murderer. Guessing who the murderer is based on instinct may be easier than the book actually thinks it is, but figuring out how it was actually pulled off and more importantly, figuring out the logic that points towards the murderer is far more difficult, but fun to read for fans of logic-focused mystery fiction.

Aomikan no Satsujin is a book that is very similar to Gurenkan no Satsujin, almost to a fault. While it does not recycle actual plot points/clues, the story structure and themes are basically unchanged, so I think it's best to wait for a while after reading one before starting on the other. But like Gurenkan no Satsujin, Aomikan no Satsujin is an entertaining mystery novel, that is obviously written by a mystery fan, for mystery fans. It builds clearly on familar tropes, but uses them in a confident, capable manner, weaving a plot that, despite its reliance on concidence, is really the kind of complex murder mystery fans of the Queen school will enjoy. I like Aomikan perhaps a little bit better than Gurenkan, though I'd say you'd best read these books in order, as Aomikan is really a direct sequel and answer to the first book. If you liked the first book, you know exactly what you can expect here.

Original Japanese title(s): 阿津川辰海『蒼海館の殺人』

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Dying Game

"This world is brimming with the unknown. No matter how impossible it seems, anything can happen."
""Delicious Death" for Detectives"

Anyone here reading the manga Delicious in Dungeon by the way? I absolutely love it...

It's the very distant year of 2024 and the world has finally started moving forward again after an unparalleled pandemic called COVID-19 basically stopped the lives of everyone on the world. The last few years, many people were forced to stay at home, but there was one industry that profited from everyone barely getting out of their houses: the video game industry. The VR game industry in particular grew immensely, as the technology allowed people to go outside and explore fabulous locations, without actually going outside physically. One of the major companies to benefit from the increased popularity is Megalodon Soft, best known for its hit open-world RPG Battle Without Honor and the unique detective game Mystery Maker. The latter is of course similar to Super Mario Maker, allowing players to solve murder mysteries in a VR environment, but more importantly allowing players to create their own cases to challenge other players. Especially popular is the real-time versus mode, where one player has to plan and commit a murder in real-time, with other players roaming around on the stage. Once, and if the murderer succeeds in killing off one of the other participants, an investigation phase follows where all the players (including the unknown murderer) are allowed to investigate the scene for clues and question each other. The unique gameplay made Mystery Maker an immense hit, and Megalodon Soft is already working on its sequel, which also includes upgraded hardware: besides the usual VR-goggles and gloves, players can now wear a special feedback suit which can also simulate temperatures and a sensation of pain among others. The suit also synchronizes with the hardware module RHAPSODY, a special seat regulating the VR-environment and it has the advantage of making you not look like a fool in the eyes of the other people i the room while playing a VR game.

As part of the marketing campaign of Mystery Maker 2, Kurata Chiaki, the producer of the Mystery Maker series, plans to invite eight amateur detectives to play a session of the upcoming game within RHAPSODY. The idea is that they'll record everything, both inside the VR world and in the real world, to make a kind of web-series/documentary and show how these amateur detectives tackle a case. Freelance journalist Kamo, who has written on miscarriages of justice, is one of the people invited as an amateur detective, but he is asked a special favor by Kurata: she wants Kamo to become the murderer in their session of Mystery Maker 2. She hopes he can come up with a brilliant murder to fool the other seven detectives and stay undetected himself. Kamo agrees, and is given some time in advance to work with the development team to plan his fictional murders and to implement the things he wants for his plan into the special stage the eight detectives will be playing. Three months later and the eight amateur detectives are brought to a small island. The Megaladon House on this island is of course owned by the company, and they'll be playing the game and recording everything in this private building due to security reasons, as the game is still in development. Among the other guests are a famous private detective, a former police detective who still appears regularly on television as a criminal expert and a high school student detective. And then there's Yuuki, a budding mystery writer who also happens to the cousin of Kamo's wife. But they have only just arrived on the island, when everyone is knocked out by their coffee. When they wake up, they find that the only people inside the Megalodon House are the eight detectives. They find instructions that tell them to wear their personal VR gear found in their room and log-in in their ID-locked RHAPSODY units to come to the VR world.

Inside the VR world, they find themselves in the Doll House, the setting of the murder game Kamo had planned. However, someone has taken over as the Game Master, and it's the same person who is keeping them captured inside the Megalodon House in the real world too. They are informed that the smart watches they are wearing have a poisonous injection installed into them and are advised to obey the game master's orders, especially as these injections are also installed in the smart watches "gifted" to the participants earlier on, and which they have all given to their loved ones, meaning people like Kamo's wife and daughter, and Yuuki's girlfriend, are in danger too. The game master's orders are simple though: the eight detectives are to play a game of Mystery Maker 2 as planned. The Murderer (Kamo) has to try to commit his murders undetected in the Doll House, while the Normal Players have to figure out who committed the murders and how. The game is divided in a Murder Phase, where in principle only the Murderer is allowed to move inside the Doll House to commit his crime (the others are to stay in their room, but are allowed to "fight" back against the Murderer), and an Investigation Phase, where the Normal Players can investigate the murder, while the Murderer of course has to remain undetected by pretending to be a Normal Player too. However, the Game Master makes this virtual game of life and death, one of real life and death. One of the eight amateur detectives is actually an accomplice of the Game Master called the Executioner. If the Murderer is found out by the others, or if a Normal Player makes a wrong deduction, the Executioner will kill them in the real world in the Megaladon House as punishment. Kamo is thus forced to commit murders in the VR world, while in the real world, everyone is on their guard for the Executioner, but it doesn't take long for locked room murders to occur both in the VR Doll House and the real Megalodon House. But who is the murderer? The Game Master has dubbed this game "Delicious Death" for Detectives, which is also the English title of Houjou Kie's Meitantei ni Kanbi naru Shi wo (2022).

 My first post of 2020 was about Houjou Kie's fantastic debut novel Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei ("The Hourglass of the Time-Space Traveller", 2019), and last year's first post was about her second, equally impressive novel Kotou no Raihousha ("Visitors on the Remote Island" 2020). I had hoped that 2022's first post could be about her third novel, but while the previous books were released late fall/early winter, Meitantei ni Kanbi naru Shi wo was released in the second week of January 2022, hence it not becoming 2022's first post. But you guess from my intention to make it the first post, that I had been looking forward to this book. Which is of course because I loved her first two novels. Houjou is a former member of the Kyoto University Mystery Club and also wrote whodunnit stories back then, and it shows in her writing style: these books are pure grand-scale puzzlers, plotted incredibly densely with almost any action, and utterence being a valid piece to the puzzle. While at one hand, you can feel Houjou is really trying to play as fair as possible with the crazy amount of clues laid down, these stories have also been deliciously hard to solve, challenging you to do long chains of reasoning in order to solve the impossible murders seen in her books and personally, it's the style of detective fiction I love best. The other interesting part about her writing is that she loves special settings: her debut novel Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei was a much a fair-play classic puzzler as you can get, but also included the brilliant plot device of time travel, while her second book Kotou no Raihousha cleverly had the characters fight against a true mystery, a being of unknown origins, of which they had to deduce its capabilities and intentions based on its actions and inactions. Houjou managed to write brilliant detectives using original, supernatural ideas, so I was really looking forward to the third novel in the so-called Ryuuzen Clan series, as these books all involve family members of the Ryuuzen clan. Meitantei ni Kanbi naru Shi wo features the both protagonists from the two previous books by the way: Kamo being the protagonist of the first book, and Ryuuzen Yuuki of the second.

Going from themes of time travel and unearthly beings to... a VR game might sound a bit... tame in that regard. Because while the VR-system in this book is slightly more advanced than the things we have now, it's not like the setting is really unusual or "special", because consumers have had access to VR games for years. And while the concept of the closed circle death game, where people are locked up in a location and forced to kill each other while others try to figure out who the murderer is, might not be as popular in detective novels, gamers are very, very familiar with them with popular games like Danganronpa, the Zero Escape series and many, many more about this exact theme (Oh, by the way, I started with The Sekimeiya a while back. It's both very fast, and very slow, so no idea when I'll be done with it...).  And the concept of having special phases for the murders is of course not only familiar for digital gamers (Danganronpa again), but also for real-life board game players who play games like Mafia/Werewolf. So on paper, Meitantei ni Kanbi naru Shi wo might feel not as exciting as Houjou's previous books. Especially not after my over-convoluted summary above!

Because in actuality, the plot of this book gets going surprisingly fast and it basically never stops until the very, very end, keeping you hooked all the way through. Because of the Game Master's rules, the story follows a basic "gameplay loop" of a Murder Phase, followed by an Investigation Phase in the VR World, which will lead to an accusation by one of the Normal Players aimed at who they think is the Murderer within "Delicious Death" for Detectives, while the accused is also given a chance to rebute these accusations. This is followed by a Murder Phase in the real world, where the players are forced to stay in their rooms while the Executioner tries to kill the person who failed in their role earlier in the VR game, which then loops back into a new cycle in "Delicious Death" for Detectives. The eight detectives are given two days to solve all the murders that occur in the closed circles in both in the VR world and the real world (with Kamo, as the Murderer in the game, having an advantage of knowing what happened in the game, but he'll be killed if any of the players figure his crimes out without figuring out those of the Executioner). Because all these phases follow each other and this insane death game keeps on going until the end of the book, Meitantei ni Kanbi naru Shi wo ends up being a very, very densely plotted mystery novel, with accusations, false solutions, clues and foreshadowing constantly flying around. There's the inverted angle for example, as we as the reader know Kamo is the Murderer in the game, but we don't see exactly how he manages to pull off his impossible murders there, so there's plenty of mystery there already, even without considering the other murders committed by the Executioner! Then you have the various characters arguing theories about the murders happening in the Doll House in the VR world, investigations in the locked room murders in the real world, people discussing the reason why they're being held by the Game Master in the first place, and so much more.. And with murders occuring both in the VR world and the real world, this book is truly a treat for those who love solving puzzles.

By the way, I love how the game Mystery Maker is portrayed in this novel. You can clearly tell Houjou is from a generation who grew up playing video games, as the way the game is shown feels so natural to gamers, all the way down to the little things. While the idea of RHAPSODY and VR suits feel a bit "near-futuristic", the actual "game grammar" will feel naturalistic to gamers with little details like having item descriptions for in-game items in your inventory, having save points and floating name markers. The Game Master also immediately rules out the cliched "they were using fake in-game names!' trick that is so outdated now, showing that Houjou is definitely a "contemporary" writer who plays games and is familiar with the cliches of how games in (mystery) fiction are sometimes portrayed. But it's not just the description of Mystery Maker that works; a lot of the ideas in this novel work only because half of the murders are committed inside a VR environment, and there are some brilliant tricks pulled off here! People who have played the Danganronpa games might remember a certain episode that made brilliant use of the game-within-a-game plot device and I'd say it's the same type of idea: some of the things the Murderer (Kamo) and the Executioner pull off are so original in mystery fiction, because they could only have been used within a video game context/world, and yet it makes perfect sense. That is why despite "a VR world" not being a theme as "supernatural" as time travel, Meitantei ni Kanbi naru Shi wo does do a great job at presenting murders that could only have been committed in these special circumstances.

People without experience with video games might find this book a bit too dense because of this though: with murders going on in the real world and the VR world, and having to learning the fundamentals of game grammar, one could say the book can feel a bit overwhelming even at times. I myself had to remind myself to really pay attention to what sections happened in the VR world and which in the real world, because even within one chapter people often have to go back and forth between the two worlds, so the book does require you to really pay much attention, more so than the previous two books, and if you already have trouble adapting to the idea of a VR game,  I can imagine Meitantei ni Kanbi naru Shi wo being a rather hard book to follow. I had to think to the Umezz Collection release of the classic manga The Drifting Classroom, which used different kind of paper depending on whether the narrative was in the present world or the place where the school had been zapped to, or to Shimada Souji's Okujou no Doukeshi, which used different fonts for the four different narratives, but such techniques wouldn't work here as good, as the section cuts are less "clean" with people going in and out the VR world within one chapter multiple times.

But still, personally, I think this book is a banger and certainly one of the best novels I'll read this year. The concept of having murders happening in a closed circle situation in both the game world of Mystery Maker and the real world isn't just a story set-up, it's an integral part of the puzzle plot. There are some great inspired ideas, like having the Normal Players who are killed in "Delicious Death" for Detectives reappear in the game (with a halo!) so they can join the investigation in their own deaths, meaning you have "ghosts" testifying about their own "murder." But you also have small occurances happening in one world that are later revealed to have been connected to incidents in the real world and more connections like these that tie the two worlds together, making this not a book consisting of two seperate halves, but a single story of ambitious scale.  The impossible murders happening here use tricks you are not likely to have seen anywhere else (the big reveal two-thirds in is truly memorable!), made only possible because of the special setting. The false solutions are also great, often very convincing and based on hints you thought were cleverly hidden, only to realize there were even more cleverly hidden hints that disprove those false solutions! For fans of the Ellery Queen-style of reasoning, with an emphasis on fair-play and long chains of deductions based on various clues spread throughout the book, Houjou has never disappointed and she doesn't disappoint in this book either.

In the end, I think I only need to mention two caveats for this book. Yes, this book can become insanely complex due to so much happening, and I also have to mention that it is definitely best read after the first two books in this series, because some of the moments work better having seen Kamo and Yuuki in their own adventures first. But besides that, I think Meitantei ni Kanbi naru Shi wo was another incredibly strong mystery novel by Houjou, one that I'd recommend everyone interested in pure puzzlers. This is the kind of mystery novel I personally love: an ambitious puzzle plot that's packed with clues from start to finish, detectives who throw theories at each other and debunk them, original murders that make good use of the unique setting of the book and long chains of reasoning where you see the detective crossing off each suspect one by one by utilizing every piece of information we've seen until that point until all the loose lines come together at one single point. Few novels manage to make solving a puzzle so fun with such a memorable concept. 

Original Japanese title(s): 方丈貴恵『名探偵に甘美なる死を』

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

To Wake the Dead

『invert 城塚翡翠倒叙集』
"For my methods are similar to this Rube Goldberg Machine."
"Invert - A Collection of the Inverted Stories of Jouzuka Hisui"

These covers are gorgeous!

One of my favorite reads of 2020 was Aizawa Sako's Medium - Kourei Tantei Jouzuka Hisui ("Medium - The Medium Detective Jouzuka Hisui" 2019), a brilliant book where the reader was treated to a very unique experience. Jouzuka Hisui is an attractive spirit medium who can channel spirits of the deceased and see flashes of what happened in their last moments. Normally, you'd think that having a medium capable of channeling the victim would be cheating, but Aizawa managed to turn this completely around. For one, Hisui could only see vague fragments of the past, and more importantly, she was quite aware that the police isn't just going to believe her visions, and she knew she'd need to have real evidence to support her supernatural visions. This made Medium an incredibly memorable reading experience: while Hisui's supernatural visions would vaguely in the correct direction, it was still a pure detective novel, meanng that they basically had to reverse-engineer each vision to see how they'd fit the crime scene and still come up with the logical explanation for the vision and find evidence to support whatever Hisui saw. It's like you were only shown a small section of the longer mathematical answer in advance, but you were still required to find all the steps leading up to that part yourself, and you still had to work towards the conclusion to find out who did it and how to prove it. That coupled with a brilliant story structure, made Medium one of the best plotted books I had read in 2020.

So when I learned a sequel had been published, I knew I had to read it. But Medium - Kourei Tantei Jouzuka Hisui had such a unique premise and execution, there was no way Aizawa pull off the same trick again, so I did wonder how this book would work. Though I guess the title gives it away immediately: Invert - Jouzuka Hisui Toujoshuu ("Invert - A Collection of the Inverted Stories of Jouzuka Hisui" 2021) is a short story collection with three inverted mystery stories, where we follow murderers who come up with brilliant plans to hide their crimes, but who suddenly find a mysterious woman in their way claiming to have supernatural powers. At first, they don't believe this woman of course, but when she starts poking around based on her visions and starts coming closer and closer to the truth, these murderers slowly start to realize that even though they may have safeguarded themselves for any earthly obstacle when planning their perfect murders, they may have forgotten to account for the supernatural.

Shifting the focus to the murderers and using an inverted format is actually quite brilliant I thought as I started with this book, as it fits the concepts introduced in the first book perfectly: in inverted mysteries you are also shown large parts of the answer ("how the crime was committed") in advance, but there's still the puzzle left of where the murderer made a mistake and how the detective is going to prove their guilt, so in terms of ideas, this is still very close to what Medium did. And there's the added joy of seeing each new murderer cope with Hisui: of course nobody is going to believe a woman who claims she has supernatural powers and who seems to be 'receiving' signs from the netherside about a crime, but as she starts looking around and voicing her guesses, the murderers realize that while they managed to fool the police, she's actually the only person to come close to the truth. Hisui fits the archetype we know so well from Columbo so well, being a charming, disarming woman who turns out to be much more dangerous than she appears at first. Note that by the time of this second novel, Hisui is already trusted by the police, and with their help, she's able to go undercover each time to approach the person she suspects, and while her visions give her an inital edge, she, like the reader, has to use their powers of observation and reasoning to figure out what the murderer did exactly and how to prove it. This book also takes from the Ellery Queen television show and Furuhata Ninzaburou by the way, for Hisui always addresses the reader directly when she has figured everything out and prepares for the climax of each tale. Also note that this volume does spoil a few of the stories in Medium, so you'll want to read these books in order.

The collection opens with Unjou no Harema which also has the English title Murder on the Cloud. Yoshida Naomasa's legs never quite recovered from the accident partially caused by Komaki Shigehito when they were younger, and Komaki had always felt responsible for that. He always kept at Yoshida's side to help him, but many years later, Komaki finds himself still chained to Yoshida and basically working as a ghost-programmer for Yoshida's software studio. Yoshida definitely has marketing talent, but he is nowhere the programming prodigy he pretends to be. Komaki is, but all the programming work he and his colleagues do is basically put on Yoshida's name, even for projects Komaki himself came up with. Fed up with this, he decides to kill Yoshida for the sake of the company and himself. He creates a fake alibi, pretending to be alone at the office at night working on a server problem during the time of the murder, while in reality, he had killed Yoshida in his apartment and had dressed the scene like Yoshida had slipped and hit his head. The police initially seems to go with this interpretation of the scene, but then a police consultant appears who claims to have supernatural powers, and while as a man of science, Komaki doesn't believe her at first, her visions turn out to point towards the truth.

A very competent, even if slightly unsurprising, inverted mystery story. While the reader isn't shown everything Komaki did and it's slightly technical because Komaki's alibi depends on him working on a server problem that could only be fixed at the office, they can probably make a good guess how Komaki's alibi trickery was done, but Hisui's visions do point out interesting contradictions about the crime scene and it's of course these mistakes that ultimately lead her to the truth. The "final" mistake which ties Komaki to the murder conclusively is clever and something every one will recognize, and yet not think off until Hisui points it out, but it lacks impact. With these kind of stories, you want the murderer making a mistake that seems really big in hindsight, but which they, the detective and the reader missed until that moment. The 'gimmick' at the end in this story would have been perfect as a set-up, but it is at the same time such a small mistake, it makes you feel like "Well, okay, it's pretty normal that someone would miss that."

Houmatsu no Shinpan, or Bubble Judgement, starts with the murder on Tagusa Akio by the elementary school teacher Suezaki Eri at the school. Tagusa, a former employee at the school, had been blackmailing Eri with videos secretly shot inside the restroom stalls at the school, and the man was even selling the videos he had of the children making use of the restrooms. The man was better off dead of course, so she lured him into the school late in the evening, pretending to pay him off. Not suspecting anything, Tagusa was quickly killed by Eri by surprise, who threw him off the building, making it appear like Tagusa had been trying to break into the school by scaling the wall and falling to his death. When a school counselor is appointed to the school to help the children cope with the trauma of the incident, Eri doesn't seem to suspect much, but when the attractive psychologist starts talking about possessing supernatural powers and having friends in the police force, Eri starts becoming suspicious of the woman's movements, and she realizes the woman is slowly, but surely uncovering the truth behind Tagusa's death. The final piece in the chain is nicely hidden in the narrative, so when Hisui points out what mistake Eri made, it's actually quite satisfying despite it being a relatively minor point. In that regard, I think it worked better than the previous story, because the build-up to the reveal was better. The overall story is a bit slower though, as Eri's plan is less complex compared to the one in the first story, and more of the story revolves around Eri slowly seeing through who the mysterious school counselor really is.

It's nearly impossible to not think of Columbo when you think of inverted mystery stories, so most people will quickly recognize the core plot of Shinyou Naranai Mokugekisha, or Unreliable Witness, as it's very similar to the early Columbo episode Dead Weight. Unno Yasunori runs a very succesful detective agency which also has a habit of 'asking for favors' from some of the people they investigate in exchange for silence on the matter, but Sonemoto, one of Unno's employees is about to make everything public, so Unno decides to take matters into his own hands. As a former homicide detective and an experienced private detective, Unno is quite knowledgeable about murders of course, so he kills Sonemoto and dresses the scene to make it seem like Sonemoto committed suicide. For a moment Unno suspects somebody in an opposite building saw him committing the murder through the windows, but figuring there's too much of a distance, he quickly finishes things. And as he had planned, Sonemoto's death is initially investigated as a suicide, but a mysterious woman appears in front of him claiming to have supernatural powers who says Sonemoto's death may not be a suicide. Unno however has contacts with the police and quickly learns that he has to be careful around Hisui and he also learns of the presence of a witness: a female writer living in the building opposite the crime scene had seen someone struggling wth someone else. Realizing that she is the only person who can link him to the crime, he makes contact with her. He's relieved to see she doesn't recognize him at all, but meanwhile Hisui's deductions are getting closer to the truth. Unno realizes that the police investigation can only continue as long as there's a witness who claims to have seen something happening at the crime scene, so he befriends the witness, taking her out for dinner and everything, while also planting seeds of doubt about her testimony, hoping she will withdraw her witness account. Hisui know what Unno's doing, but can she convince a woman who is in love with the murderer?

Definitely the highlight of the volume! Unno is a great adversary for Hisui, as he has inside information about her powers, and is quite knowledgeable about murders. This leads to a cat-and-mouse game that goes back and forth, as both parties try to cover their own mistakes while simultaneously attempting to catch the other on mistakes. This means this story has a lot of threads and little contradictions for Hisui to pounce upon, but Unno always manages to turn things around so he's in the clear again. And there's a "Joker" in this game in the form of the witness who at one hand does want to do the right thing, but who is also in love with Unno and slowly being tempted into doubting her own testimony. As mentioned, this set-up does remind a lot of the Columbo episode Dead Weight, which also had the murderer charm an eyewitness to make her withdraw her testimony, though the conclusion of this story is far more brilliant, with a incredibly clever trap set by Hisui which few people will see coming, least of all Unno. It's a trap that works because it features Hisui and her powers, and someone like Columbo would never be able to pull the same idea off, which makes this a very satisfying end to an amusing read.

On the whole, Invert - Jouzuka Hisui Toujoshuu is never as clever or surprising as our first encounter with Hisui, though that is understandable, as Medium was really an outlier in terms of quality and plotting. Invert is not as clever, but it's still a very good inverted short story collection that makes clever use of the spirit medium plot device by having the murderers first shocked by a claim that they believe can't be true, but then we see Hisui digging deeper into the meaning of her visions, which actually lead her closer to the truth and based on real evidence too, and witnessing this shift from the supernatural to the practical from the side of the murderer is truly suspenseful.  Medium is the better book, but for those who enjoyed that book, I'd recommend Invert too.

Original Japanese title(s): 相沢沙呼『invert 城塚翡翠倒叙集』: 「雲上の晴れ間」,「泡沫の審判」,「信用ならない目撃者」

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

The Mystery at the Crystal Palace

"Hey, where do you think you're going?"
"I'm off to kill Nakamura Seiji."
"The Glass Tower Murder"

I loooove the cover art of this book! Apparently, the book had an exclusive early partial release on digital storefronts, with the first half of the book being offered completely free, and those digital releases had exclusive cover art too with characters (one of them featured below in the review).

Kouzushima Tarou became a hero in the medical world with his invention of a revolutionary drug delivery system called Trident, and the patent also made him wealthy enough to indulge in his true passion: mystery fiction. Mostly retired now, Kouzushima lives with his servants in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture, in a curious building that seems to come straight out of one of those detective novels Kouzushima loves so much. The high cone-shaped tower stands high on the mountain and has glass exterior walls, with each floor above the ground floor having only one single room and a big spiral staircase at the centre of the building. This is where Kouzushima also keeps his valuable mystery collection, which includes rare editions and props from series like Columbo, but also more recent productions like Sherlock and Knives Out. Having something important to announce, the eccentric recluse has invited a few guests to stay in the glass tower. While the precise contents of his announcements are not known, the fact the list of guests include people like the Nagano police detective Kagami, veteran mystery writer Kuruma Koushin, Sakyou Kousuke, editor at one of the most prominent mystery publishers, the spirit medium Yumeyomi Suishou and the great detective Aoi Tsukiyo ("great" is part of her title) is enough to tip off everyone that Kouzushima's announcement is related to his beloved fictional genre. Another name on the list is Ichijou Yuuma, Kouzushima's young physician, who however has a different reason to be here: he's here to kill his boss. In order to save a loved one, Ichijou has no other option left anymore but to kill Kouzushima, but of course in a way that will arouse no suspicion. This little party is the perfect occassion: the plan is to make Kouzushima take some poison and then create a locked room of the study. When Kouzushima doesn't appear for his announcement, they'll go up to Kouzushima's floor, break into the locked study and then Ichijou will declare the man died of a heart attack, and he'll live happily ever after.

Of course, things don't go as planned in the first chapter of Chinen Mikito's Garasu no Tou no Satsujin (2021), which also carries the English title The Glass Tower Murder on the cover, or this would be a very short book. It takes longer for the poison to kill off Kouzushima than Ichijou had expected and the dying victim manages to call downstairs to the staff for help with his dying breath, so Ichijou has to leave the study immediately, leaving him no time to tidy up the scene as he had hoped. Like planned, the rest of the people present in the tower break into the locked study and find Kouzushima's dead body, but Kouzushima had lived long enough to leave what appears to be a dying message, and the great detective Aoi Tsukiyo quickly deduces that there may be foul play at hand. While she wants to investigate the scene more closely, police detective Kagami shoes her away, saying this is a job for the police. A call to the police however tells them a snowslide has blocked the roads off, so it might take them three days to get to the tower. Forced to stay in the tower, everyone retreats for the night, but the following morning, a fire alarm brings everyone downstairs to the dining room, which they find locked from the inside and when they break inside, they find the butler murdered and the table on fire. Everyone is horrified by this second murder in their current closed circle situation, but none are as surprised as Ichijou, who knows he committed the first murder, but is also sure he didn't kill the butler! There's another murderer roaming the tower, and Ichijou realizes this is his chance: if he can find out who the other murderer is, he'll be able to use them as a scapegoat for the Kouzushima murder too. However, it's very likely the other murderer is thinking the exact same opposite, trying to frame Kouzushima's murderer for the second murder, so it's a race for Ichijou to find the real murderer, and the best way to do that is to become the great detective Tsukiyo's Watson.

A cone-shaped tower with glass walls, a closed circle in the snowy mountains, an eccentric collector of mystery-related objects, a curious party consisting of detective writers, mediums, editors and a great detective: Garasu no Tou no Satsujin is written in honor of classic puzzler-type mystery novels and in particular the novels in the shin honkaku (new orthodox) movement and it doesn't even try to hide it. In the earliest pages we are already treated to a song of praise to authors like Ayatsuji Yukito, Arisugawa Alice and Norizuki Rintarou (*disclosure: I have translated work by all three of them) through the mouths of the characters and of course, many comparisons are made between the glass tower they reside in currently and the many curious buildings that function as unique murder locations featured in shin honkaku mystery novels. Kouzushima is presented as a big shin honkaku fan, a man who had great successes in the medical world, but whose dream was to succeed in the mystery world (his own attempts to make a name for himself in the world of mystery fiction were... not really succesful). But other characters are also very genre-savvy, and this is what drives this whole novel.

While Kagami acts like the Stereotypical Police Detective in Mystery Fiction by wanting to keep Tsukiyo and everyone else out and insists on waiting for the proper authorities to arrive, Tsukiyo and Ichijou work together and try to figure out who committed the murders. Well, to be exact, Ichijou is helping Tsukiyo to find out who the other murderer is, while also trying to conceal his own involvement in the first murder. This of course easier said than done, especially as the second murderer keeps on killing people and always in locked rooms. Even measures like keeping the master key in a safe and having two different people keeping the two keys necessary to open it doesn't seem to faze the other murderer. What Tsukiyo, Ichijou and the others can do however, is theorize about the murders and they do this in the context of shin honkaku mystery novels. No work is outright spoiled of course, but they do discuss common tropes, concepts and themes seen in shin honkaku novels and see how they could apply to their current situation. Chinen obviously designed all the murders in this novel to invoke common ideas seen in shin honkaku mystery fiction, especially early shin honkaku novels with grand, over-the-top tricks that are utterly fantastical but oh-so entertaining, and thus the book provides a great vehicle to look back at how themes developed early on in the shin honkaku movement and challenge the reader to guess how these ideas apply to the murders in this book.

The (intended) result is that at times, Garasu no Tou no Satsujin will feel a bit familiar: while it doesn't 'steal' solutions from other novels, the concepts and twists will often remind of other books, but that is an inevitable result of the focus of this book, as it wants to use this to fanboy over the classic shin honkaku novels. Personally, I think people who are fairly familiar with the history of shin honkaku will find a lot more to enjoy about this novel, as a lot of the key points of this novel are written especially to appeal to those people. As a "conventional" mystery novel, there are just too many references to real-life history of shin honkaku and meta-discussions about it, and you'll probably feel like you're missing a lot of the story without that context (which is true). That said, the various locked room murders are, in concept, quite enjoyable, with ideas that make good use of the unique setting.

The secondary whodunnit plot also adds a lot of great tension: we know that the narrator Ichijou's the murderer of Kouzushima, but there's also the presence of the second murderer, who manages to pull off impossible murders in the glass tower despite the presence of the great detective Tsukiyo, and you have the added suspense of Ichijou actually being Tsukiyo's Watson, hoping to find the second murderer first so he can frame them for the first murder too. This plot-thread of Ichijou being both the murderer and detective('s assistant) adds a lot of twist and turns making Garasu no Tou no Satsujin a much more tricky and complex reading experience than the first chapter might make you think it will be. The book kinda spoils itself by the way in that regard, as at one point, the story kinda works towards a conclusion....  but you'll still have about twenty percent of the book left unread, so you know even more twists and turns are coming up. That's one advantage mystery games have over books!

Garasu no Tou no Satsujin is a very densily packed novel, featuring a lot of familiar tropes and concepts of the genre, but that's intentional and it's actually used in a very meaningful manner to present what is basically a love letter to the shin honkaku sub-genre. It presents a romantic view back at the familiar tropes from shin honkaku novels, while also telling a capable mystery itself too, though still firmly set in the context of those novels. This means that you'll be able to get a lot more out of this novel if you're familiar with the novels and authors in question and that the book is probably less fun if you lack that context, because some of the trickery utilized and the character motivations might seem a bit weird in that case, but personally, I found this to be a very entertaining puzzler that presented a surprising deep look at the genre.

Original Japanese title(s): 知念実希人『硝子の塔の殺人』