Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Cross Purposes

"It's human to lie."

Finished the console original arc Kageboushi (the Answer chapter to Someutsushi) of Higurashi: When They Cry, so added my thoughts on how it involves the main mystery to the memo page for my playthrough of Higurashi: When They Cry. The chapters are only getting longer and longer now and I've been reading Higurashi for over a month now, so I'll probably slow down a bit now, because it does take up a lot of time... I do hope I'll be done with the main story by the time Haru Yukite Retrotica (The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story) releases in May...

There are prolific writers, and then there was Nishimura Kyoutarou. He is a household name in Japan when it comes to mystery fiction, which isn't strange onsidering the massive media output that is associated with his name. His Wikipedia page records nearly 650 books (!!!) And that includes short story collections, so that's even more stories, and anyone who's been in a Japanese bookstore, especially the used bookshops, will probably recall those long, long rows of Nishimura books you'll always find there. But that is not all: there have been countless of adaptations of his work for television, ranging from series to television films and there was a time where you'd find his name every week in the television schedule, as there'd always be a rerun of an old Nishimura Kyoutarou television film somewhere in the early afternoon. Even gamers will know the name, as there have been several games based on his work, especially in the Famicom (NES) era. It's simply impossible to not have heard of Nishimura Kyoutarou if you've been into Japanese mystery fiction somewhere in the last 40, 50 years, and even people with no interest in mystery fiction will know the name: so much has his name become part of "normal" Japanese popular culture. 

The unbelievable quantity of his output of course also influenced the quality of his work:  a lot of those nearly 650 books feel very samey and uninspired. There's a reason why everyone associated Nishimura with Stereotypical Nishimura Kyoutarou Story: a story starring Inspector Totsugawa and his team of detectives like Kame investigating a murder which will require Totsugawa's men to travel by train to a faraway destination and/or the victim/culprit used the train and the detectives have to figure out how the use trains is connected to the murder (alibi tricks etc.). If you do the association game with "Nishimura Kyoutarou", nine out of ten times you'll get "Trains" as the response. But while the bulk of Nishimura Kyoutarou's output is often assumed to be uninspired, by-the-numbers stories that just retell the same ideas in a slightly different way, his earlier output can be quite interesting. Koroshi no Soukyokusen was genuinely fun as an And Then There Were None-inspired novel and the crossover series with Ellery Queen, Maigret, Poirot and Akechi Kogorou is always entertaining.

Nishimura Kyoutarou sadly enough passed away earlier this month at age 91, so I decided to pick up one of his earlier, and better received puzzlers: Shichinin no Shounin ("The Seven Witnesses", 1977) is an Inspector Totsugawa novel, though it feels nothing like a Totsugawa story in terms of set-up. The book opens with Totsugawa waking up with an enormous headache, and he finds himself... in a recreation of a street, built in the middle of a small island. The intersection of two streets has been meticulously recreated here, complete with all the stores (with store inventory), parked cars and apartments. Totsugawa finds seven people who had also been knocked out the previous night and brought here: some of the people actually live or work along this intersection and can even show Totsugawa their rooms or shops, while others don't live here, but they do remember this place: one year ago, a murder took place around midnight at this intersection, and all seven people (besides Totsugawa) were witnesses in that case. Their testimonies eventually put young hoodlum Sasaki Nobuo behind bars: some of the witnesses had seen him have a fight with a fellow customer in a bar, others saw him stab the victim outside on the street with his own knife and yet others saw him flee the scene with the knife and the victim's wallet. It is at that point that an elderly man reveals himself to the eight persons on the island: Sasaki Yuuzou is the father of Nobuo. He had left Nobuo and his mother when Nobuo was young and had been working in Brazil, where he had been succesful, but upon return to Japan last year, he learned his son had died in prison, but that Nobuo had always maintained that he did not commit the murder, despite the testimonies of the seven witnesses. That is why Sasaki used his fortune to meticulously recreate the entire intersection on this small island and abducted the seven witnesses: he truly believes his son had been innocent, so there must be a mistake in the testimonies and he wants the witnesses to go over their own testimonies once again, with Totsugawa acting as a referee. The rifle held by Sasaki leaves the seven witnesses little choice, even though each of them swears their testimonies at the trial were accurate, but Sasaki's done his homework and little by little, he manages to point out little contradictions in each testimony. But while the party is going over the old testimonies, one of them is killed, and because they're all alone on this small island, it is clear that the murderer has to be one of them. 

Someone not content with the original verdict abducting witnesses to do a non-official reexamination/retrial? Yep, that reminded me of Settled Out of Court. Which reminds me I should really read more by Henry Cecil...

Shichinin no Shounin feels nothing like what I would expect from a Totsugawa novel: no trains, instead of an urban setting we have a closed circle situation on a small island and ultimately, Totsugawa can't even do much but look on while Sasaki's forcing everyone go over their testimonies again and pointing out contradictions in their stories. In fact, it wouldn't really take that much of an effort to rewrite this story to leave out Totsugawa's presence. It's definitely not the book I'd tell you to read if you wanted to read a Totsugawa novel, but I'd definitely recommend you to read Shichinin no Shounin if you were interested in Nishimura's more interesting mystery novels, as this one defnitely is one.

With Sasaki and his rifle cross-examining each witness' testimony and slowly poking small holes in each of them, I was of course reminded of Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney games while I was reading this book, and I think that is also why I feel the execution of this book doesn't quite match the potential of the premise. The book is set-up in "testimonies", with Sasaki going over each of the seven testionies in turn. So he starts in the bar, where the owner of the bar and another customer saw how Nobuo had been arguing with the later victim and how after the victim left the bar, Nobuo went out too. As Sasaki listens to them, he reveals he had used this year to investigate the witnesses and the exact circumstances of that fateful night, so he then slowly reveals information that contradicts the witnesses' testimonies at specific points, usually not very important on its own, but having consequences for later testimonies. So then he moves on to the next witness (for example, those who saw him leave the bar and go after the victim), rinse and repeat. And the way Sasaki does this is fairly entertaining, pouncing like Columbo on very small points to pull out a bigger revelation. But the problem is: Sasaki is at an advantage here. The reader doesn't learn the new information Sasaki has uncovered, until he reveals it to everyone and confronts the witness with his findings/his suspicions, and Totsugawa too can only listen to whatever theories Sasaki has. Ultimately, Sasaki is proven correct on all his small points, slowly changing the testimonies of each witness, and while seeing this happen is fun, it's a bit frustrating the reader is never allowed to take on the puzzle themselves. You never get a chance to figure out the contradictions yourself because the relevant information isn't given to you beforehand, so all you do is watch Sasaki do all the heavy lifting. The contradictions ultimately are pretty solvable for readers if the relevant information had been presented beforehand in some manner, so it's a shame we never get a chance to solve the thing ourselves, especially as it's quite satisfying to see how all the smaller contradictions add up to something bigger. The type of contradictions and the "difficulty level" is about what you'd expect from one of the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney games, which is exactly why I felt this was a missed opportunity: even with the exact same story and contradictions, the book could have been written in a more interactive way, rather the rather passive mode it now has. This extends to Totsugawa's role in this book, who most of the time is just standing there and listening to Sasaki's theories just like us.

Sasaki is focused on slowly poking holes in the testimonies and trying to find a way to prove his deceased son's innocence, but the witnesses also get a few breaks in between, and it is during one of this breaks, when everybody is somewhere else on the island, one of the witnesses is killed. Obviously, everyone suspects Sasaki did it to get revenge on the witnesses for putting his son behind bars and ultimately "killing" him, but Sasaki denies the crime, and Totsugawa too at least feels there's not nearly enough evidence to implciate Sasaki alone. But they are alone on this island, meaning the murderer must be one of the witnesses then, but why would any of them want to kill another of the witnesses, as the seven people basically don't know each other and only saw each other once, at the trial. It's here Totsugawa finally gets something to do, as he tries to protect Sasaki from the other witnesses, and the other way around. There are some interesting deductions regarding the "current" murderer near the end of the book, like about the motive and the murder weapon used, but there's also a large part of the story that is basically just Totsugawa making wild guesses and the only reason the current murderer is caught in the end is because they decided to react to Totsugawa's baseless accussations rather than just ignoring him, so the ending feels a bit weak/forced, There are some moments where the current murder ties in to the murder one year ago in interesting ways, but the focus is definitely on the past case.

Overall though, I think Shichinin no Shounin is an amusing courtroom drama-style mystery novel in the same vein as 12 Angry Men, Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney or something like Columbo, even if the book is not actually set in the courtroom. Seeing how a lot of smaller contradictions add up to one bigger reveal is always satisfying, and this book is no exception. It's just that I think this book could have been even more fun if the plot had been presented in a more interactive way, allowing the reader some time to contemplate the evidence and figure out the contradictions themselves too, instead of just listening to Sasaki playing the great detective. But still, this was a good early Nishimura novel and one I'd recommend if you'd want to read a detective novel by Nishimura that doesn't feel like just a standard formula.

Original Japanese title(s): 西村京太郎『七人の証人』

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The Adventure of the House of Darkness

Deep into that darkness peering
"The Raven"

Started with the Answer chapters of Higurashi: When They Cry! First one up is Meakashi, and it appears I was on the right track! Added my thoughts/inferences about that episode (and previous episodes) to the memo page for my playthrough of Higurashi: When They Cry. I'll have to do a few console-exclusive chapters first before moving on with the original Answer chapters though...

Man, the covers of these rereleases are really gorgeous!

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

It is a four hour drive from Tokyo to reach Usakino, a location deep within the luscious green mountains that's perfect for recreation... or at least, that's what project developers and investors had hoped for, but things didn't quite go as planned and in the decade or so that has passed since everybody realized this wasn't going to be a hit, nature has not troubled by tourists very much. One of the people who got burned by the project falling through was by the uncle of Yuuki Takuya, who bought a second home here with the expectation that the location would be developed further, but now he just has a house in the middle of nowhere. Takuya, a university student, asks his uncle if he could use the small house during summer, as he has to read and translate a German book for his thesis, and the house would be ideal to force himself to focus on his project. On the day Takuya is driving to the house, his car accidentally lightly hits a boy who came running out of the woods onto the road. The young boy, around ten years old, is soon followed by another boy who is not only about the same age, but looks very similar. Takuya learns that the two handsome boys are Enjouji Mado and Miya, two brothers who are in fact not twins. They live in the Enjouji Manor, basically Takuya's neighbor (even if it's a modest walk from one house to the another through the forest) and are living there with their mother, their aunt and a tutor during summer. Takuya drives the boys back to their home, where he meets their father, a very strict man who seems to have forgotten that boys should enjoy their time as boys, before becoming adults, Takuya also meets with Haruka, the boys' tutor and a nurse-in-training, who takes care of the mother. The following day, Takuya is visited by Haruka, who confides with him that she's actually here with an ulterior reason: her friend had been the previous tutor of the boys here, but she died in some freak accident in the forest, but strangely enough her hair had been cut short. Haruka thinks something's wrong about the Enjouji Manor, which Takuya also feels: the boys, who seem to have grown to like the newcomer, are very secretive, but seem to have been meeting with someone in the forest before they got in the accident. Takuya agrees to support Haruka during his stay here and go poking around himself too, but then new deaths occur in the forest, and it appears that Mado and Miya are found at the center of things in Ayatsuji Yukito's Kurayami no Sasayaki (1989), which also has the English title Whispering in the Dark on the cover.

Kurayami no Sasayaki is the second book in the Whispering series, which Ayatsuji started after writing the first three books in his House series that started with 1987's The Decagon House Murders. The concept behind the series was that Ayatsuji wanted to fan out, so these books are actually more horror than detective, Nowadays, Ayatsuji is known for both his mystery and horror novels, and he has also written a few hybrids, of which Another is undoubtedly the best known worldwide. But his first published steps into the horror genre are found here. Last year, I read the first book in this series, Hiiro no Sasayaki ("The Scarlet Whispering" 1988), a slasher mystery that was greatly influenced by the famous Dario Argento giallo film Suspiria. But while the focus in that novel definitely lay on the gruesome murders and the suspense arising from those murders, there was also an okay whodunnit mystery plot there and while as a detective novel, Hiiro no Sasayaki wasn't going to blow your mind like an axe to your head, I found it an amusing read and I wrote in my review that I enjoyed it as a palate cleanser, and that I'd probably read the other two books in the series too.

I mentioned in the other review that I am not a fan of the horror genre per se: I do read horror manga once in a while, mostly thr work of Umezu Kazuo and Itou Junji (not the most original choices, but they're really good!!), but I don't watch slasher or horror films at all for example. I am of course familiar with horror (film) tropes of course through other media, and many mystery novels do often incorporate horror elements. So even I managed to recognize the "creepy twins" trope in Kurayami no Sasayaki, even if Mado and Miya aren't really twins. But they are described as being rather handsome for their age, and that coupled with their otherwordliness due to their isolated upbringing within the Enjouji clan and the fact they keep mostly to themselves, it's clear that the two brothers aren't quite normal, giving the reader (and Takuya and Haruka) a distinct feeling of uneasiness. And the fact creepy, often gruesome murders around these boys probably doesn't help either. For the faint of heart: the murders in Kurayami no Sasayaki are on the whole not as bloody as in Hiiro no Sasayaki, but the plot device of the murders in this book is definitely not to function as a focal point in an investigation, but to function as suspenseful plot devices, so the descriptions are written in a way to get some visceral reactions.

Oh, and about gorey murders, the books in the Whispering series aren't really connected save for the theme (so no characters carrying over, or at least, not in the first two books), but apparently, this book is connected to another horror novel by Ayatsuji, Satsujinki. I haven't read that one, and I also don't know exactly how "tight" the connection is, but apparently events described in the prologue of Kurayami no Sasayaki are worked out in more detail in Satsujinki. So if you have read that book already, it might be worth it to take a look at this book too.

But the most important thing to write about on this blog is of course: can Kurayami no Sasayaki also be read as a detective novel? Just like Hiiro no Sasayaki, the book does take on the format of a mystery story most of the time despite the focus on the horror elements: we learn early on in the book that Haruka is investigating the death of her friend, and the reader also learns that other mysterious deaths have occured in this region, all with a common, yet unexplicable link: for some reason all the bodies had some part of them removed, like their hair. Takuya too knows there's something the boys are hiding from the adults, but breaking their defenses is rather hard, as Mado and Miya do seem very intent on keeping their secret a secret. Ultimately though, you won't find a detective character summing up all the clues and logically proving who the murderer was by combining fact A, B and C and overturning that one perfect alibi. Like Hiiro no Sasayaki however, there is a twist somewhere in the book that makes you realize you had been looking at the facts in the wrong way and that the truth had been staring you in the face all that time, but I'd argue that the twist, seen solely as a "mystery plot twist" was better in Hiiro no Sasayaki, compared to its sequel. Kurayami no Sasayaki, when read as a mystery novel, feels not as fair as the first novel, nor is the clewing as good. There's no way you're going to figure out why the bodily parts have been removed for example, you just have to accept the explanation because it's basically impossible to deduce the truth based on the clues you get. The "big" twist is better, but still feels not as fair in set-up as the one in Hiiro no Sasayaki.

Overall though, I think that if you liked Hiiro no Sasayaki, you'll like Kurayami no Sasayaki too. Like the first entry, a lot of the horror touches of this second novel will feel familiar, purposely so, invoking familiar tropes from horror films. The plot is designed as a mix of these horror films, with some of the plotting and twists we know from Ayatsuji's work and in that sense, I'd say Kurayami no Sasayaki is definitely recognizable as one of his creations. I do think the first one was better if read with a mystery cap on, but I'm still interested enough to also want to pick up the last volume in the series in due time.

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人『暗闇の囁き』

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Secret Seven Mystery

Seven little Soldier Boys chopping up sticks;  
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six
"And Then There Were None"

A series about a number of buildings built by the same architect that were designed to be used in murders? Well that sounds familiar...

Xeno is a young man who was once found lying passed out on the street, but when he woke up in the hospital, the doctors learned two things. First was that Xeno had lost all memories of his past and nobody knows where he came from or why he's now suffering from amnesia. The second thing they learned was that Xeno was a brilliant detective: the moment he woke up, he managed to solve a case involving one of the doctors present in the room just by looking at him. With the help of some sponsors, Xeno has now managed to set himself up as a detective, and a succesful one at that too, because there are few people in Imperial Japan who can claim to have never heard of the detective with amnesia. During the investigation in a baseball stadium into an impossible murder on a pitcher during a game, Xeno learns that the criminal mastermind who had been acting as a crime consultant he had been hearing rumors about is in fact the famous architect Kai Shichirou, Kai reveals to Xeno that he has secretly prepared seven of his creations in such a way they can be used to commit inexplicable, impossible murders like locked room murders and he challenges Xeno to solve all seven of his locked murder rooms. With the help of his newly recruited assistant D-Zaka Eira, a former assassin, Xeno travels across Japan to solve Kai's devious death traps in the manga Tantei Xeno to Nanatsu no Satsujin Misshitsu or Detective Xeno And The Seven Locked Murder Rooms, written by Nanatsuki Kyouichi and illustrated by Sugiyama Teppei,

Detective Xeno And The Seven Locked Murder Rooms is a manga series which was originally serialized in Shonen Sunday (alongside Detective Conan) between 2018 and 2019, and ultimately collected in 8 volumes. I first learned of its existence through those publisher's pamphlets you always get with new manga releases (in my case, the most recent Conan volume at the time) and while the premise sounded interesting, I never really got around to it, and when I heard it had ended at 8 volumes, I also assumed its run wasn't anything exceptional, because... well, the title says The Seven Locked Murder Rooms, so either you'd have about one murder room per volume/10~11 chapters and very little room to do anything else (like the Kindaichi Shounen series), or each murder room story would have to be relatively short, which worried me in a different way because then it seemed the locked murder rooms wouldn't be as important as the title would suggest! At 8 volumes, I doubted Detective Xeno And The Seven Locked Murder Rooms would be a mind-blowing series, and going in with those expectations... Detective Xeno And The Seven Locked Murder Rooms was on the whole entertaining, even if not without its flaws.

Considering the series ran next to Conan in Shonen Sunday, it's more than tempting to compare the two series, especially as storytelling-wise, the two do feel similar. Unlike Kindaichi Shounen's long stories, Detective Xeno And The Seven Locked Murder Rooms in general did seem structured closer to Conan, with short stories about four chapters long, though Detective Xeno has more direct connections between each story, with events in one story often being directly used as the set-up for the next story.  When it comes to mystery plot however, there's an obvious difference in style of plotting, and it's one of the weaker points of Detective Xeno And The Seven Locked Murder Rooms: a lot of the individual stories revolve around one single idea, which makes them feel very empty. The first of the Seven Locked Murder Rooms Xeno and Eira encounter for example is the Tombstone Manor, where a man is seen to be stabbed with the murder weapon, but no attacker is seen, suggesting the presence of a ghost, a ghost who later in the story is even able to throw policemen out of the windows! But the story is really short, and ultimately, it's all made by possible by the secret death trap-like idea Kai Shichirou has installed inside the Tombstone Manor and once you figure out what that is, you have solved everything, as there are basically no other mysteries in the plot. Clewing is also fairly sparse in these stories, so you don't even feel really rewarded for figuring these stories out: you either happen to think of the death trap, or not, as the clues are so little and uninspired, they don't really work as a guide for those who try to piece the things together based on the presented clues. And that's how the stories mostly are in this series: a mystery (often impossible) that is just one trick that's being played, and once you solve that, you know everything. In Conan, even the shortest stories often consist of multiple minor tricks strung together, not relying on one single idea but stringing a few together to make what could've been a minor story into something much more rewarding, but Detective Xeno And The Seven Locked Murder Rooms very, very seldom does that, making a lot of the stories feel like one-trick ponies.

But I did say I did ultimately enjoy the series. The atmosphere, while often comedic, is at times also darker than Conan and I think that most of the Seven Locked Murder Rooms, even if they are all built around one gimmick, are pretty fun, in the "okay, that's just silly and in the real world that'd be impractical, but guys, this is fiction and man, that' s fun!!" sense of the word. The murder gimmicks Kai has built in his seven buildings are like the ideas you'd expect from early Shimada, so like the ideas seen in Murder in the Crooked House. Things moving around, gigantic mechanisms, the kind of ideas that are absolutely grand, over-the-top, but oh-so-memorable and the kind of things that remind you detective fiction doesn't need to be realistic to be entertaining. The ideas behind the first two Locked Murder Rooms we see, the Tombstone Manor and a music university campus, are really silly but deliciously entertaining as mystery fiction for example. I do have to say some of the Seven Locked Murder Rooms don't actually... create locked room murders. Only about half of them have tricks that create locked room/impossible murders, while others are just elaborate death traps that make it very obvious what happened to the victims: the traps would not leave the scene in a way that'd seem "impossible" to the police, only as "implausible" that something like that would've happened... So that's a bit disappointing. Luckily. the series doesn't revolve solely around the main Seven Locked Murder Rooms: there are a few shorter stories in between, and some of time are interesting mystery stories, even if they too are often written around one single idea. One involves a mercenary of a PMC who wants Xeno to explain how how his unit got annihilated in Kabul: this style of a person talking about a past incident that Xeno explains by reinterpreting the events reminds of the type of storytelling found in Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou and C.M.B. and while very simple, the story is quite enterrtaining. Another story involves a female fashion designer and her stalker, and this short, but memorable inverted story feels like it could've been in Sherdock or a similar series. Detective Xeno And The Seven Locked Murder Rooms will seldom truly astonish the reader, but the presentation is fine and the ideas, even if they could've been developed more, can be fun.

I do think the series is at its best from the start up to the mid-way point. At first the series seems like it will focus on the Seven Locked Murder Rooms, but it introduces a lot more diversity with the shorter stories (like the two I mentioned above), with different kind of mysteries for Xeno to solve, and more characters appear too. This builds up to a major case about half-way the series, which involves Xeno and Eira travelling to Kai Shichirou's paternal island, where his wealthy family (his father Kuga Ichizou and his half-brothers of the Kuga family) still reside. While technically, the series divides all the events that occur here as seperate stories, they all happen one after another and are interlinked, so basically form one large story in the style of Kindaichi Shounen. For example the story opens with a person being stabbed by a knife in the waiting room of the ferry that's going to bring Xeno and Eira to the island, and it's here where they first meet with Kai Shichirou's niece Kuga Manami. On the island, Xeno and Eira get involved in a case involving the disappearance of Kuga Ichizou from his personal retreat, a series of (attempted) murders on Kuga family members and a secret tied to the island's past, and on the whole, the story is pretty amusing, even if the individual mysteries do feel very "isolated" from another (i.e. it's really a series of seperate events strung together, even if they do form one narrative together).

However, while the series had been dropping hints about links between Kai Shichirou's Seven Locked Murder Rooms and Xeno's own forgotten past from the start, it appears that after the mid-way point the writer got a note from his editors to start wrapping things up, and suddenly we get info dumps and reveals out of nowhere, and the story starts sprinting towards the finale from that point on. This is when the Seven Locked Murder Rooms become less interesting, though the murder gimmick in the fortress in the bay of the imperial capital was one of the better ideas in the series. But the story has to wrap up too many things in too little time, so the concept of Eira, a former assassin who's acting as Xeno's assistant (and voice of reason, and source of comedy) feels a bit underdeveloped, like she should have been given one or two more stories focusing on her to really wrap her story up, and some characters suddenly make a surprise apperance near the end, as if they were established, beloved characters when in fact they had appeared only once before: they probably would've been developed as more interesting recurring characters had the series been longer, but now their later appearances feel like cameos rather than triumphant returns. The mysteries do feel a lot less interesting in the final half of the series in general, which is a shame, as I do think the first half showed a rising line in terms of mystery, with the series slowly introducing more diversity (inverted stories, psychological mysteries, "situational" mysteries) and a grander world with each subsequent volume and then it suddenly becomes very narrow again.

For me, Detective Xeno And The Seven Locked Murder Rooms is perhaps a perfect example of "Yes, but...". If you ask me whether I enjoyed reading it, it's a definite yes, because I read it in just four or five days, so that definitely means I felt the series brought me more entertainment than frustration and there are some fun, memorable murder tricks shown off in this series, but... yeah, it's undeniable a lot of the cool ideas feel like they could've been developed even further into something much more, and because of the relatively short run of eight volumes, the story has to start preparing for the finale soon and a lot of characters and storylines come out rather rushed because of that. There are plenty of series that feel complete and completely developed within a very limited number of volumes, but you can definitely feel that Detective Xeno And The Seven Locked Murder Rooms has a set-up for a series that was supposed to be longer, and that's why a lot of ideas don't go anywhere ultimately. I'd try to read until the long story halfway the series, and if you like it up to that point, you might as well read the remaining two volumes for the hasty closure it brings. I'd be interested in seeing more of the world (but not focusing solely on a story-related gimmick like the Seven Locked Murder Rooms), but I doubt this series will ever see a sequel.

Original Japanese title(s): 七月鏡一(原) 杉山鉄兵(画)『探偵ゼノと7つの殺人密室』

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

The Emerald-Eyed Cat Mystery

"Then it doesn't matter which way you go,” said the Cat"
"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"

Finished the Himatsubushi arc from Higurashi: When They Cry and added my thoughts/inferences about that episode (and previous episodes) to the memo page for my playthrough of Higurashi: When They Cry. Himatsubushi was the last of the original Question arc chapters, so what follows now should be chapters that will give answers to the happenings that occured in the previous iterations of the Hinamizawa disappearance & murder cases. I don't know however if this is like Umineko: When They Cry, where the second half of the story still requires you to put some of the pieces together yourself, or whether Higurashi will just show you what actually happened, so at this point, I don't know whether I'll be updating the memo page with my thoughts while reading the Answer chapters (and the other Advanced Story chapters) or that everything will be so obvious I don't really need to comment anymore. At this point, I seem to have settled on a vague idea of what's happening in Hinamizawa, but I guess I'll find out soon how correct, or incorrect, I am.

I don't really get this cover. The protagonist of today's book is often described as cat-like, but this is a bunny, so it's...  not him?

I very much enjoyed the two books I read by Kurachi Jun I read last year, so naturally, I was also very interested in reading more of his work. Interestingly, he only appears to have worked on only one series, with all of his other works standalone works, so I decided to take a look at his Nekomaru-sempai series and for a change, I actually decided to do things in order and start with the first book. Nichiyou no Yoru wa Detakunai ("I Don't Want To Go Out on Sunday Evenings" 1994) is not only the first book in this series though, but is also Kurachi's debut book, a short story collection featuring seven (+ two) stories featuring Nekomaru, a man in his thirties, but who looks a lot younger despite his stoop and occasionally grouchy attitude. Nekomaru has been going from job to job ever since he graduated from university, and has a knack for being incredibly nosy and has no problems making a lot of use of the hospitality of his juniors from university (who do have fixed jobs, and therefore money to treat Nekomaru), but his friends have to admit: Nekomaru has a mysterious aura that attracts people, and perhaps more importantly, Nekomaru is actually really smart, capable of solving the most mysterious of cases within seconds (if you treat him on a drink, of course). In this short story collection, we follow different people, from friends of Nekomaru to complete strangers, who come across seemingly inexplicable crimes or impossible murders, but Nekomaru always manages to bring light to the matter.

Kuchuu Sanposha no Saigo ("The Death of the Mid-Air Stroller") revolves around the mystery of a man having falling twenty meters down to his death in the middle of town. Which on itself wouldn't be much of a mystery, save for the fact that the buildings surrounding the spot where the man fell aren't anywhere near twenty meters high. The closest would be a building of ten meters high, so where did the man came falling down from? While rumors of the "Bird Man" are roaming around, Nekomaru is told by a friend about a dream he's been having, about being to fly and that one day, he dreamt he was flying around town when he flew into a bird and crashed down... As a mystery story and as the opening story of this collection, I have to admit this was a bit disappointing. It's pretty easy to vaguely guess the general direction of the true solution for any reader I think and even then, the logistics and details of the solution Nekomaru proposes wouldn't actually work that way, so the solution, while predictable, doesn't even feel satisfying. The saving grace is that at the end of this book, this story is touched upon again, but even so, I was a bit disappointed with this start.

Yakusoku ("Promise") is a short, but sweet story about the young girl Mayu who usually stays at the park until late because she doesn't want to go home. One day, she sees an middle-aged man in the park, and she strikes up a conversation with him, and he confides to Mayu  he too doesn't want to go home. They meet up every day in the afternoon in the park, and the man shows the girl magic tricks, which she loves. He promises her one day to bring a prop the following day to show another magic trick, but the ollowing morning, the man is found frozen to death in the park, having stayed out drinking there in the wintery night. The girl, barely able to read the newspapers, tries to learn more about the man's death and one day, she ends up the park again, where she meets with Nekomaru, who after reading the newspapers, came to have a look himself too. After learning from Mayu the man had promised her he'd return with a magic trick the following day however, Nekomaru realizes there are deeper depths to his death. While this is a very short story, I really like the initial step that eventually leads Nekomaru to the conclusion it was a murder. While the overall plot has Christie-like qualities, hiding a more complex plot than you'd expect from the page count and also revolving around looking at a certain situation from the other way round, the way Nekomaru first focuses on a physical clue he gains from Mayu's story and then starts to build his deductions based on that, comes straight out of Ellery Queen's playbook. While the clue is small, Nekomaru manages to present very convincing inferences based on that one clue, and it's quite impressive how it manages to connect to murder so simply, even though the story itself is very short and minimalistic in set-up.

Umi ni Sumu Kappa ("The Kappa in the Sea") has two young students travelling to the beach hoping to find women... only to find it's off-season. Having nothing better to do, they decide to take a rowing boat tour. Turns out that Nekomaru's only just started with this job and has no experience with the boat: he overturns the boat and the three of them end up on the little island just off the coast. While they can see the mainland from the island, it's just too far for unexperienced people to swim back, so they decide to wait until the owner of the shop notices his part-timer and a boat have disappeared. In order to kill time, one of the students decides to tell a ghost story he had heard from his grandfather, a famous tale in the region where the old man came from. Set centuries ago, it tells about two young friends Takichi and Shigehiko, hailing from the mountains, who travel to the coast to sell and buy goods there. One day they end up on a boat, overturn out and wash up on an island, just like Nekomaru and the two students. And while the mainland isn't that far off, both mountain-bred men can't swim that far. They are then suddenly assaulted by a kappa (a river imp from Japanese folklore) who forces the friends to fight each other: the loser will be ripped into pieces by the kappa, while the winner shall be saved. Takichi throws the fight, and several days later, Shigehiko finds himself washed up on the mainland again, where he tells the story of his friend who sacrificed himself to save him. After hearing this story though, Nekomaru comes up with a rather horrifying interpretation of this folklore story. It's a brilliantly set-up folklore mystery story, that analyzes plot elements from the "supernatural" story and then interprets them in a more realistic way: assuming there was no kappa, how did Shigehiko actually make it back to the mainland, and what happened to Takichi? A great story, that's bound to linger for a while on your mind.

The title 163-nin no Mokugekisha ("163 Witnesses") refers to the number of people in the audience that saw how a stage actor fell down after drinking a glass of wine on stage, during a play. It turns out the bottle of wine (a prop) had been poisoned, but nobody could have poisoned that bottle. The bottle actually had real wine in it, and someone had taken a sip of the bottle before the play started, and from that moment on, the bottle had been on the stage, in view of all the audience. Nekomaru, who was cast in one of the minor roles in the play, however quickly realizes how the poison had been administered into the bottle despite all those witnesses. This story does some good things in terms of misdirection, and the way it uses the timing of when the bottle was poisoned to prove who the murderer is, is pretty good, but the actual method of how the bottle was poisoned isn't that memorable and is basically a variant on a trope often seen in mystery fiction.

The title of The Parasite Museum Murder is based on the Japanese title of Carr's He wouldn't kill Patience, but it's not snakes we find in this museum, but parasites. A freelance writer has been given a very tight deadline to write something about the Parasite Museum, so he decides to quickly visit the free museum, which he finds mostly empty. After receiving the pamphlet from the receptionist, he goes upstairs, where he finds Nekomaru as an early visitor. While they're talking on the second floor, the writer notices a man taking the stairs to go up to the third floor. Later, when they arrive on the third floor themselves however, they find the receptionist lying dead there. But the writer is absolutely baffled, for the woman couldn't be here: the elevator was in repair, and the only person he noticed coming upstairs after he had arrived at the second floor, was another museum employee, so when and how did the receptionist arrive on the third floor? Again a very simple story, that makes use of misdirection that might have worked better in 1994, in Japan, but it might not ring any bells if you're reading it now outside of Japan/Asia. It fell a bit flat for me because of that, because it reads differently in a "modern" context (1994 is not thaaat long ago, but still). The trick is worked out pretty well though with some well-placed clues that support the trick, and I think the misdirection *does* work if you are very, very aware in what time/context this story takes place.

Namakubi Yuurei follows the story of an NHK licensing fee collector, who one day is assaulted by a woman with an ash tray while trying to collect fees at an apartment building. After going to the hospital and complaining about the woman to his friends at a bar, he becomes drunk enough to decide to visit the woman, a certain Akemi, at night to give her a scare. He sneaks back into the apartment building in the middle of the night, making his way to her room, but to his great surprise he finds the door unlocked. He takes a look inside, and finds the woman's severed head lying on the floor. The man is running for his life down the street before he even knew it. Obviously, he's also highly disturbed when he learns that the following day, the torso of a woman is found on the riverbank of the Edo River, and he's convinced it must be the body of Akemi. He doesn't tell the police about his experiences because it'd put him on the scene, but then he remembers he lost his hat that night, and he fears it must be lying in Akemi's room. Later in the day, more parts of the woman are found, and eventually the head is found and identified as Akemi, and the police of course go investigate her room... which they find completely clean and not a single hint of a crime of any kind having happened there, not even a report on a hat being found. The man is utterly baffled, for he is sure he saw Akemi's cut-off head in her apartment that night. Nekomaru, who happens to overhear the discussion the man has with his friends, barges in however, and can easily explain how the man could've seen Akemi's severed head that night in her room even though she hadn't been killed in her room. Again I think it's the clewing that make these stories really good: while the explanation of how the man could've seen Akemi's head in her room that night is simple on paper, it's the way Kurachi manages to move the story in that direction that's done well, with proper hinting that expect the reader to deduce a whole story based on a minor clue, but that give just enough of a hint to lead you to the next hint, which again is just subtle enough to point you to the next clue, etc. In Kurachi's story's, you never have to guess the whole solution based on one clue, but it's always a clue that works in conjuction with other clues, which tell you part of the story and also point you towards another clue, allowing you to fill in the gaps. The plotting is always very deliberate, and can make seemingly simple stories feel very satisfying from a "problem-solving" point of view because it shows a genuine attempt by the author to lead the reader to the solution.

Nichiyou no Yoru wa Detakunai ("I Don't Want To Go Out on Sunday Evenings") reads like a thriller and has the narrator, a young woman, telling about the man she's dating. The man is sweet and she enjoys his company, and they go out every Sunday. Lately however, there has been a series of attacks on women in the neighborhood where the woman's living, so her boyfriend always tries to make sure she's gotten back home safely, and they also call after he's arrived home. But slowly the woman starts to realize that her boyfriend might not always be telling the truth, and she starts to suspect the man's been staying in her neighborhood after their dates... for what reason? The woman confides in her ex-boyfriend and Nekomaru, who seems to interpret her story in a very different way. A Father Brown-esque experience, where a seemingly straightforward, but odd situation can be flipped around to mean something completely different, and where clues that seem to point one way, turn out to be pointing in the opposite direction. It's by no means difficult to guess where this story wants to go, but there are surprisingly many clues supporting the final solution, making it a fairly satisfying read.

The book ends with two short epilogues titled Dare ni mo Bunseki dekinai Message ("A Message Nobody Will Decipher") and Dasoku - Arui wa Mayonaka no Denwa ("Adddendum, Or: A Midnight Call"), which take a look back at the seven stories in this collection, and point towards another, hidden story that's occuring within those stories. It's nearly impossible to notice it until it's pointed out to you because there are barely any hints, so as a mystery story, it's not always really convincing and satisfying, but it's a fun way to connect these stories together. It's definitely worth it to read these epilogues though, as it does show off a technique I had seen in other Kurachi stories too, with stories featuring both an "overt" and "covert" plotline developing simultaneously, with the latter only revealed later and it's interesting to see he already used it in his first book.

So on the whole, I enjoyed Nichiyou no Yoru wa Detakunai. Not all stories are as strong as others, but you can easily recgonize Kurachi's plotting and clewing skills in these tales and some stories, like Umi ni Sumu Kappa and Yakusoku really show off how even a relatively simple plot can be turned into a very satisfying read by clever clewing. The way the book in the ends presents connections between all the included stories, making it feel more like a novel rather than just a collection of random stories, also shows off the plotting skills of Kurachi and I can see how someone who'd start off with this as their debut, would end up writing a great novel like Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin. I'll definitely read more of Nekomaru in the future!

Original Japanese title(s): 倉知淳『日曜の夜は出たくない』:「空中散歩者の最期」/「約束」/「海に棲む河童」/「一六三人の目撃者」/「寄生虫館の殺人」/「生首幽霊」/「日曜の夜は出たくない」/「誰にも解析できないであろうメッセージ」/「蛇足―あるいは真夜中の電話」

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Terror at High Tide

"And then I threw a rock at him!"
"Almost Got 'Im" ("Batman the Animated Series")

Finished the Higurashi: When They Cry console-exclusive arcs Someutsushi and Tsukiotoshi and added my thoughts/inferences based on them to the memo page for my playthrough of Higurashi: When They Cry. This means I'm done with the first set/flowchart of "case files" as found in the console release of Higurashi no Naku koro ni Hou, so now on to the second set of files/stories. I suppose that after Himatsubushi (the first story in the second set), the answers will start coming...

It's simply a style thing, but I usually don't like to spend more than one paragraph summarizing the plot of a novel in my reviews here. I never manage to do that with the Toujou Genya novels though...

Toujou Genya series
1) Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono ("Those Who Bewitch Like The Evil Spirits", 2006)
2) Magatori no Gotoki Imu Mono ("Those Who Are A Taboo Like The Malicious Bird", 2006)
3) Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono ("Those Who Cast A Curse Like The Headless", 2007) 
4) Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono ("Those Who Sneer Like The Mountain Fiend", 2008)
5) Himemuro no Gotoki Komoru Mono ("Those Who Stay Inside Like A Sealed Room", 2009)
6) Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono ("Those Who Submerge Like The Water Spirit" 2009). 
7) Ikidama no Gotoki Daburu Mono ("Those Who Turn Double Like The Eidola", 2011)
8) Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono ("Those Who Resent Like The Ghostly Courtesan", 2012)
9) Haedama no Gotoki Matsuru Mono ("Those Who Are Deified Like The Haedama", 2018)
10) Maguu no Gotoki Motarasu Mono (2019) 
11) Ina no Gotoki Nieru Mono (2021)

Horror mystery novelist and amateur folklorist Toujou Genya and his editor Shino form a strong team, at least, that's what Shino likes to think, even though Genya has learned by now that the strongheaded woman isn't the best person to bring along on his travels to remote villages when doing research. Lately Genya has also been in contact with publisher Eimeikan for work, and his assigned editor is Ootani Hidetsugu, who hails from the remote Goura region. The Goura region consists of the villages Tokuyuu, Shiaku, Ishinori, Isomi and Yuriage located on a very small strip of land wedged between thickly forested, rocky mountains on one side, and a very treacherous sea with many dangerous underwater reefs and rocks on the other. The five villages are mostly seperated from each other too due to the steep cliffs between them, and life has been very harsh here for centuries: the little level ground available was used for homes, meaning there was no space for crops or cattle. The dangerous sea meant that the villagers couldn't go out fishing either, as larger boats would get stuck in the reefs. And the thickly grown bamboo forests in the mountains meant they could do litttle there too. The worst of was Tokuyuu, which lies deepest in the strip of land, while Yuriage at the end of the strip still managed to have contact with the bigger Heibei City nearby, even if it's not really near either. Goura's isolated location means the people here didn't have much contact with the outside world, resulting in local beliefs and customs unique to the region. The local kami being deified here for example is Haedama, a large rock in the bay of Tokyu Village that is believed to govern the sea and there's an annual festival to appease Haedama. But there are also many ghostly stories unique to this region, from a creepy figure roaming the bottom of the sea to a monster that devours people hiding in the bamboo forests. As a collector of folklore and ghost stories, Genya is of course interested in his new editor's home region, especially when he hears that there's been a ghostly occurence relatively recently. Lately, more people have been moving into Yuriage Village because of the flourishing spinning mill in Heibei City, and living in Yuriage is cheap and there are even rumors of a merger between all Goura villages to form a new city, but some employees have seen a ghostly figure appear several times on the automobile road connecting Yuriage Village to the city.

Having heard about a mountain route in one of the Goura region ghost stories, Genya decides to take that long forgotten route to Tokuyuu Village, with Hidetsugu and Shino accompanying him on this two-day trip through the mountains. While Hidetsugu acts as a well-prepared guide for Genya, Shino of course soon ends up the weakest link on the harsh mountain climb. When after some delay they finally arrive in Tokuyuu Village, Hidetsugu has arranged for Genya and Shino to stay at the local Shinto shrine Sasame Shrine, which is run by Ganki, grandfather of Hidetsugu's childhood friend/secret love interest Suzukage. Genya hopes to learn more about the history of the Goura Village from Ganki, but he also learns Nozoki Renya, another folklore researcher is staying in the region at the moment, and he doesn't have a good reputation. He has been around for a while, but nobody has seen him these two days. The following day, Ganki guides Genya, Shino and Hidetsugu to the "bamboo maze" which appears in one of the ghost stories Genya heard about: there's a small shrine hidden in a clearing surrounded by a maze of bamboo trees. When they arrive at the clearing however, they find the starved body of Nozoki Renya lying near the shrine. The police is called in of course, but the death is rather odd. Nozoki Renya essentially starved to death, but there is no indication as to why, as there are no indications whatsoever on his body that he had been held at the center of the maze against his will. When he was found in the clearing, he was just lying there on the ground, no signs of him having been tied up and there are even traces to indicate he had attempted to enter the maze in order to leave, but for some reason he didn't. Was he afraid of something lurking in the bamboo maze, preventing his escape to find food and water? While the police are investigating the curious death however, more mysterious events occur, like Ganki suddenly gone missing. What is happening in the Goura region and how are the incidents connected to the ghost stories that had lured Genya here? Find out in Mitsuda Shinzou's Haedama no Gotoki Matsuru Mono ("Those Who Are Deified Like The Haedama", 2018).

Three months ago, I reviewed Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono ("Those Who Resent Like The Ghostly Courtesan"), the sixth full-length novel in the Toujou Genya series, and while you may remember that I did like the book, it was definitely not the kind of novel you'd usually expect from the series, and while I enjoyed it as a book that tackled a unique topic and did things a bit differently, I also mentioned I wouldn't want the series to be like that book all the time. Fortunately, Haedama no Gotoki Matsuru Mono, as the seventh novel in the series, is a return to the familiar format of the series, with a series of mysterious deaths (sometimes of the impossible kind) set in a rural, isolated location with unique folklore. Even the slow opening chapter is back! It always takes me ages to get through the first part of these books, because the stories do use a lot of pages to set-up the new locale/the folklore, though I have to admit this was one of the easiest to get through. The opening chapter introduces the reader (and Genya) to four ghost stories from the Goura region, set in different times and places. As always, the local folklore is actually also very deeply connected to the core mystery plot, so while the stories do feel a bit disconnected at first, it's quite fun to see when at the end, Genya proposes a certain interpretation of these stories and their relation to the series of deaths in this novel and see how everything is connected. I do appreciate that the set-up is relatively short this time, compared to earlier novels.

Unlike some of the other novels though, the core mysteries of Haedama no Gotoki Matsuru Mono are less tightly defined. The first mystery presented to the reader is the curious death of Nozoki Renya, who starved to death at the center of a bamboo maze even though it appears he could have easily just left the center, gone through the maze and escape to find food, as there are no signs he had been physically held agains this own will there. The problem of course reminds of Knox' short story Solved by Inspection, but the 'problem' here is of course that for a long time, this death can't be treated as a murder, as it can't be proven Renya was being starved here by someone else. The problem shifts for a while to the question of who of the people with a motive to kill the man had an alibi, as it would have taken quite some time for Renya to starve to death, and that combined with the last known time Renya was seen by others, means only a few people could have captured the man if this was a murder, but even then the story hesitates with calling this an actual crime. Of course, the reader knows they're reading a detective story, so of course the starvation of Renya was schemed, and the solution to how a man could be forced to starve to death even though they could literally just walk out of the maze, is simple in concept, but executed very admirable here. The hint to the solution in particular is very cleverly done, with a chance utterance making so much sense in hindsight, basically telling you what must have happened right in the face, but it's so easy to miss it.

In the second half of the novel, Ganki disappears and later a witness appears who states they saw Ganki mediating on the lookout tower at the end of the cliff overlooking the sea during the night: Ganki often did this, sitting on a plank sticking out of the lookout tower, basically suspended above the sea. According to the witness, Ganki fell off the plank into the sea, though she can't say whether the man fell on his own, or whether someone pushed him. This again presents a mystery that for a long time feels a bit too open: some of the investigation focuses on the question who could have pushed Ganki at the time stated by the witness and how someone could've reached the lookout tower without being seen by the same witness, but until the end, the explanation that Ganki just fell into the sea by accident can't be discarded. The actual answer to the mystery makes use of an idea that most mystery reader will know probably, but it really fits the situation created in this novel, masking what is actually a well-known idea in a very elegant manner. A more clearly-defined impossible murder occurs later in the novel, with someone being killed in a shrine inside a cave only accessible through the sea. Witnesses state only Suzukage entered the cave where the body was found, but even she couldn't have killed the witness, as the only footsteps in the pebble path near the shrine, were of the victim himself, meaning nobody approached the victim even though his wounds make it clear he had been in close proximity of his killer. The solution might not come as a total surprise, as the core idea is similar to another happening mentioned in the novel, but 'mirroring themes' is a plot device often utilized in the Genya novels, so I guess it fits.

Another sign that we have returned to 'normal' Genya novels after Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono are the lists of questions Genya asks himself, and the many hypotheses he proposes only to discard them himself! Like always, Genya makes a list of questions and mysteries he thinks form the core problem, and by answering all of them, it's possible for him, and the reader, to solve the murders. It functions somewhat like a guided Challenge to the Reader, pointing you to the fundamental problems that need answers. The thing is: these lists are always very, very long, almost hilariously so. I think that in Haedama no Gotoki Matsuru Mono, Genya has about seventy questions he thinks need answering first in order to solve the mystery (many of them are of course related). These questions also lead to the parade of hypotheses (false solutions) that's also a staple of this series. Unlike other novels, which may make use of foil detective character types or just use the Brand/Berkeley tradition of having everyone pose hypotheses/theories, Genya does everything himself: he is the one proposing theories based on his questions, but he's also the one to reject his own theories. Unlike Ellery Queen, his method involves thinking out loud, which annoys the people around him a lot,  as all the clearly wrong theories just seem like a waste of time, but for fans of Ellery Queen, Christianna Brand and Anthony Berkeley, these segments are always a joy to read, showing off how deep false solutions can go. And as always, a lot of the theories I had while reading Haedama no Gotoki Matsuru Mono, turned out to be false solutions... Some of them are really ingenious and wouldn't have disappointed anyone if they had been the actual solution, but Mitsuda always tries to go beyond that.

People who read my first few reviews of this series, may remember I absolutely loved those books and praised them as among the best novels I had read the last few years, and you probably also notice that I am not heaping as much praise on this novel right now. Mind you, Haedama no Gotoki Matsuru Mono, is by no means a bad mystery novel, but entries like Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono were just so insanely good, it's hard for any work to reach those standards. I think my 'greatest' disappointment with this book is that the link between the local (fictional) folklore of Goura and the core mysteries do not result in the same synergy we saw in other novels. In Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono, understanding the true meaning of the religious rituals shown there or the underlying truth/origins behind certain local myths/ghost stories would instantly also give you insight in how the (often impossible) murders were committed. Everything was interconnected, with the book presenting multiple puzzles, but most puzzle pieces could be used in multiple puzzles instead of just one. Haedama no Gotoki Matsuru Mono is not as strong in that regard: Genya does arrive at a fantastic interpretation of the local kami Haedama and the various ghost stories of the Goura villages and while this ultimately does tie back to the motive behind the series of mysteries death, the insights into the local folklore do not also explain how the murders were committed. They feel like seperate components, background story/motive, and the actual manner in which the murders are committed. Which isn't a bad thing per se, but  the synergy some of the prevous novels had, was exactly what elevated them high above many other mystery novels, so Haedama no Gotoki Matsuru Mono ends up as a perfectly fine and engaging mystery novel I can recommend to everyone, but it misses just that little bit of extra to make a book I really want to rave about. I do think Haedama no Gotoki Matsuru Mono is perhaps the easiest Genya novel to get into, as the writing is much more inviting than some of the slower older entries and Mitsuda is still an absolute master when it comes to creating convincing local folklore and horrifying truths behind local customs and religion, and use those ideas to create captivatng mystery stories. Ultimately, I think Haedama no Gotoki Matsuru Mono's plot might depend a bit too much on coincidence at times and the synergy between the various plot elements isn't always as strong, but it's still a great book to read.

Haedama no Gotoki Matsuru Mono might not be the high point of this series, but after the very different Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono, it's reassuring to read a "straightforward" entry in this series. The way in which this series mixes horror, detective puzzlers and semi-academic writing in folklore is absolutely unique and always a joy to read, and this entry is not an exception. It has a wonderfully deep setting in the (fictional) Goura region, with very captivating folklore that serve as a great hook into the core mystery plot. The individual murders will often utilize ideas that seem a bit familiar, but it's only someone like Mitsuda, who has been playing this game for a long time now, who is able to weave all those elements together to present a very consistent, neatly written mystery novel that is engaging to read from start to finish.

Original Japanese title(s): 三津田信三『碆霊の如き祀るもの』

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

The Castle Conundrum

"Scars are proof of courage! Medals of manhood!"
"Saint Seiya"

Added my thoughts on the Tatarigoroshi chapter of Higurashi: When They Cry, as well as for the first of the console-exclusive arcs (Taraimawashi), so those interested can check the memo page for my playthrough of Higurashi: When They Cry.

After many military victories, warlord Oda Nobunaga is close to becoming the first to unify the whole of Japan under the rule of one single person, but there are still factions that resist him. Araki Murashige, who was once part of the Oda forces, however rebels against his former master, returning to his home base of Arioka Castle (Itami Castle) and siding with the Mouri forces and Honganji in their resistance against the Oda forces. This results in the Siege of Arioka Castle in 1578. The location of Arioka Castle, which includes the town itself within its walls, makes it a defensive stronghold and they manage to ward off an initial siege by the Oda forces, but as times passes by, nearby allied strongholds fall or switch sides to Oda, while reinforcements from the Mouri and Honganji forces barely make their way to Arioka, slowly isolating the castle from its allies. It's a stressful period for everyone within the castle grounds, from the warriors in the castle to the villagers in the castle town, so it is internal turmoil within the castle grounds that is worrying Murashige, as he fears that will demoralize the people. When several inexplicable events occur within the castle, like an impossible murder or a decapitated head suddenly contorting its face, Murashige realizes he has to find an explanation for this happenings quickly or it might eventually lead to the fall of Arioka Castle. While Murashige himself can't figure this out on his own, he knows a particularly clever person who probably can. For some months earlier, Murashige had Kuroda Kanbei imprisoned in his castle. Kanbei, an old acquaintance of Murashige, had come to Murashige to convince him to surrender to Oda, knowing very well that this disrespectful act would probably mean his own death, but to everyone's surprise Murashige did not order Kanbei's death, but had him put in the dungeon, a sentence more humiliating to Kanbei than a warrior's death. But now Murashige needs Kanbei's help, as his prisoner is also the smartest person he knows, and indeed, his prisoner can always eventually solve Murashige's impossible mysteries for him, but what good will that do as Oda's forces slowly creep closer to Arioka Castle in Yonezawa Honobu's 2021 novel Kokuroujou ("The Castle with the Dark Prison") which also has the English title The Arioka Citadel Case. 

Released in 2021, Yonezawa's historical mystery novel received incredible critical acclaim not only among mystery readers, but beyond that too. The Arioka Citadel Case not only managed to rank in first place in all of the major annual mystery rankings organized by various publishers, but also managed to rank high in several rankings for historical novels, it won the 12th Yamada Fuutarou Award and in 2022, it was announced that The Arioka Citadel Case was the 166th winner of the Naoki Prize, easily one of the most important literature awards in Japan. With all the praise it got, I knew I had to read this book eventually, though I have to admit I thought I'd be reading this much later. For one, it's a historical mystery, and I'm not that strong in Japan's Sengoku period. Did I ever write here about how we did all of Japan's history, from the earliest times until the post-war period in the first year of Japanese Studies at the university here, but that we did prehistoric Japan until the modern time in only one semester (13 weeks of class)? Suffice to say we only handled most pre-modern time periods only very, very briefly, so I really only remember the major events. When a commentator on the blog asked me whether I was going to read this book, I honestly thought no, not in the forseeable future, because I figured I might as well pick up the book a few years later, when the cheaper pocket paperback version is released. But then there's was a nice promotion sale going on because of the book winning the Naoki Prize, and moments later, I found myself reading the book.

And I have no regrets going in earlier than I had expected, because The Arioka Citadel Case was a fantastic read, I also understand completely why the book managed to garnish widespread acclaim, as it's definitely more than "only" a mystery novel. The historical aspects of the book are at least as important as the mystery plot, probably even more important, and the story paints a great portrait of Araki Murashige, lord of Arioka Castle who sees that his castle is slowly being isolated as allies fall or betray him and he tries to find a way to turn the situation again. People who know Japanese history of coruse already know what will happen with Murashige and Arioka Castle, as the book isn't trying to rewrite history, but The Arioka Citadel Case is absolutely brilliant at using this very specific, and unique historical setting to also present very captivating mystery plots. The idea alone that Murashige is trying to solve these mysteries because they're all surrounded by enemies and he feels compelled to keep the spirit of the people up and erasing any sources of fear by clearing up all these seemingly supernatural happenings that occur within the confined space of the castle grounds works just so well and just one example of the historical setting really being employed in fullest to also bring neat concepts to the mysteries. The book itself doesn't really explain much about the "bigger historical picture" save for some brief segments early on in the story, so initially I was also confused about how all the names that were dropped like Honganji were exactly connected, but after the prologue, the story focuses much more on the internal dynamics of Arioka Castle, so at that point, it becomes a lot easier to follow even for those without much knowledge of Japanese history.

The Arioka Citadel Case takes on the form of a interconnected short story collection, with Murashige facing several inexplicable events during the one-year siege of Arioka Castle which require the mind of his prisoner Kanbei to solve. I won't be explaining all of the four major mysteries in this review, but to give an idea of what's in this book: in the winter Murashige learns of the betrayal of Abe Niemon, who opened up his fort to the Oda forces. As was custom in those times, Murashige had actually been in charge of Niemon's very young son Jinen, keeping him as a hostage: these high-ranking hostages were generally treated well as longwith all the proper etiquette that came with their social status as their family remained the loyal allies they were supposed to be, but death was inevitable if there'd be betrayal. To young Jinen's surprise however, Murashige doesn't order for his execution upon learning of Niemon's betrayal, but orders him imprisoned. Because there's no suitable prison for him yet, he orders one to be built immediately, with Jinen locked up on a storage room for the night. The storage room looks out on an unfinished garden, but a guard is placed on the other side of the garden, while there are also guards placed around the corner of the corridor of the storage room, meaning all entrances to the room are watched. Yet the boy cries out in the night, and when the guards run to the room, they find Jinen on the floor in front of the room, bleeding from his chest. The warriors immediately recognize the wound as an arrow wound, though the arrow can't be found. And more puzzling is that nobody could've shot him: Jinen was supposed to be inside the room, but even then, all three places where any assailant could stand were watched, and the unfinished garden was covered by a carpet of fresh snow, and no footprints can be found there. Even the guard outside in the garden, the only one seemingly capable of firing an arrow at Jinen, is incapable of doing so, as he's not actually an educated warrior and has never mastered the art of bow and arrow, meaning he could never make the shot across the garden. 

This is of course in essence just an impossible murder scenario, with a no-footprints-in-the-snow trope, a missing weapon and a crime scene that was observed from all possible angles of entry. But the mystery makes good use of the historical setting and the mindset of the people. For example, one of the more interesting parts is that everyone is surprised that Murashige didn't just execute Jinen, and even Jinen himself pleads with Murashige, wanting a honorable death rather than being imprisoned. Of course, this also means the mystery looks at the possibility whether Jinen didn't kill himself to make up for his father's betrayal, but it's an idea that is unique to this time peeriod and these warriors of course. Even Murashige's guards can't be trusted completely as they too thought Jinen, an underage boy, should be executed, but there are neat little historical ideas woven into the mystery too, like the guard outside the garden hailing from a lower social status who thus never mastered archery, while some of Murashige's warriors who do know archery seemingly couldn't have found position without being noticed (and also being incapable of removing the arrow afterwards). The solution is probably not incredibly surprising for the experienced detective reader, but I like how Yonezawa used the historical setting to sell the impossibility to the reader. 

I think my favorite idea in this book came from the second mystery. An enemy camp has set-up camp in nearby swamp grounds, hoping to go unnoticed, but Murashige leads two allied troops, the Takatsuki and the Saga troops, placed at Arioka Castle in a nightly surprise attack to catch two birds with one stone: the camp is dangerously nearby near their flanks, but these two troops didn't have much chance to earn glory for themselves on the battleground yet, and both the Takatsuki and Saga men were getting frustrated at just being stationed inside the castle doing nothing. The surprise assault is a success, with many enemies slain and the rest fleeing. As per custom, the warriors decapitate all the defeated enemies and present the heads to Murashige, who will award those who managed to kill high-ranking enemy officers, marked by their helmets, During the party after the attack however, Murashige is informed by a soldier who only managed to get away from the enemy camp late due to an injury that he overheard some of the surviving enemy soldiers say that their commander, Ootsu Denjurou was slain too. However, nobody in Arioka Castle knows what Ootsu Denjurou looks like. The Saga and Takatsuki commanders each brought back the heads of two high ranking officers, all with ornate helments, but which of these four heads is that of Ootsu Denjurou, and which faction, the Saga or the Takatsuki, will gain more glory for their part in the assault? Things become even more mysterious when one of the four decapitated heads suddenly grimaces, striking fear in the soldiers.

Now this is a mystery that really makes use of the historical setting! In a time where we all have internet, social media and Wikipedia, it's almost unimaginable people wouldn't know how an enemy commander would look like, but of course, it makes absolutely sense in the Sengoku period. Because the attack was a nightly assault, the commander wasn't be able to get fully suited up in armor, so now Murashige is left with a handful of decapitated heads, but no way to look up the face of Ootsu Denjurou!  You can't google his face, so you'd have to find (a trustworthy) person who could positively identify them, but in this case, the enemy has already retreated, and with Arioka Castle mostly isolated, it'd be nuts to go around sending for people in the hopes they find someone who happens to have seen Denjurou before. I think readers can fairly easily guess what's going on here, but I love the logic applied in this mystery to prove which of the slain men was Denjurou, as it's so simple, but makes so much sense, and only in this particular time and place.

There are about two more core mysteries that occur in The Arioka Citadel Case, but I'll not be discussing them in detail here as these mysteries are closely related and lead directly into the finale of the novel. What I can say is that like the previous mysteries, the book manages to combine the mystery with the historical setting perfectly, providing not only means of murders unique to the time, but also motives behind the crimes. The motives for the mysterious that occur in Arioka Castle during the one-year siege make only sense in this specific setting: not only just in the Sengoku period, but precisely because they are all inside a castle that is under threat of the Oda forces for such a long time. The Arioka Citadel Case is a historical mystery not only because of the use of props, but because it uses characters that are clearly rooted in this specific time and situation and I can't even think of other mystery novels that have similar ideas. 

Yonezawa Honobu's Kokuroujou or The Arioka Citadel Case is therefore really a must-read. While the historical setting might take some time to get used to, depending on your own historical knowledge, the book soon becomes a memorable experience, that is as much a mystery novel as a historical novel. Yet these two sides of the book have fantastic synergy, each strengthening the other part, resulting in a work full of mysteries that you can only find here, because every event, even character and every action is so tightly tied to the one-year siege of Arioka Castle. It's one of the books I at one hand can see being translated in English due to the critical acclaim it got in Japan, but at the other hand, the book is definitely made better due to the historical context and I have no idea how well historical novels set in Japan do outside Japan. Probably not really. I think an anime would be feasible though, especially as it's work by the creator of Hyouka...

Original Japanese title(s): 米澤穂信『黒牢城』