Wednesday, May 25, 2022

We're Off to Kill the Wizard

"People who have died will never return, no matter what you try."
"Fullmetal Alchemist"

I don't always read series in order. At least, not with novel series. I usually assume books in a detective series won't spoil previous ones, and most of the time, I'd be right. Reading out of order is something I especially tend to do with older series with many entries, as I often decide to read the most interesting sounding story first and then just make my way through what's available, while with more recent series.. I just happen to start with the first book because it's the only one out at that moment. So it's not really a choice then. I do think it's interesting at times to start somewhere midway, and then slowly learning what the "patterns" of a certain series and writer are as you make your way back into the series, it usually feels more surprising than just reading the books in order. However, occassionally, I do regret reading certain series out of order. Today's book is one of them.

2000 years ago, Hermes, offspring of God, descended upon the planet to convey upon people the Seven Divine Secrets: the day humans would solve all seven of them, step by step, they would be able to reach the realm of God. It would take nearly two thousand years before humans would finally solve the first secret, teaching them the secret of transmutation, or alchemy, giving mankind the power to transmutate mattter at an elemental level. Since then, there have always been no more, no less than seven alchemists on the planet, always one dying before a new one arises. These alchemists are the only ones to have mastered the lowest level of the Divine Secrets, so they are also the only ones capable of figuring out the next step on the pyramid of the Seven Divine Secrets. Decades have passed since Magnus, the first alchemist, lived and it's in recent years that the alchemist Ferdinand III managed to solve the secret of Aether materalization and the creation of Aether-batteries has led to an energy revolution and the manufacturing of Aether-powered vehicles and other machines. Alchemists are seen as the most powerful people on the world, and therefore also considered a political and military force. Many of them are employed by states like Astarte or Bahl, but Ferdinand III is one of the exceptions: he is employed as a private consultant by the Mercury Company, a private enterprise from Astarte that has made a fortune thanks to Ferdinand III's materialization of Aether, His research has made the Mercury Company a force to be reckoned with, even by the government of the Kingdom of Astarte. Mercury Company has grown so powerful, they have their own city: Trismegistos is a Aether-powered city that floats above a lake and is a full-blown city, with at its center Mercury Company's HQ and deep within the basement of that building lies Ferdinand III's laboratory.

Emilia Schwartzdelphine was once a promising (male) cadet of the Academy, but circumstances had made him an outcast upon graduation, and he was posted far away from the capital. His direct superior wants to have him back however because he knows Emilia's capabilities, and he arranges for a task for Emilia, that upon completion, will allow him to return to the capital for good. Emilia is act as an observer to Theresa Paracelsus, head of the special military unit Alkahest: the foul-mouthed, and somewhat lazy Theresa is the sole State Alchemist of Astarte, but a lot of the other divisions in the army don't like the idea of alchemy, so Emilia's boss wants to see if he can find any excuse to get Theresa fired and Alkahest disbanded. Theresa has been invited by the Mercury Company to come to Trismegistos for a few days for a history-making event: Ferdinand III has succeeded in solving the next Divine Secret, the secret of the soul, and will demonstrate this in Trismegistos, with the State Alchemist Theresa as a special guest. Emilia will accompany Theresa to Trismesgistos, keeping an eye on her during their visit. Theresa and Emilia arrive one day before the event in Trismegistos, and meet Ferdinand III in his highly secured basement lab, where he exchanges the usual compliments with Theresa and explains he has indeed succeeded in solving the secret behind the transmutation and creation of souls. His assistant Alraune is actually a homunculus, Ferdinand III's first success, and tomorrow, he will breathe life into a brand new dummy made especially for the presentation in front of everyone. They all retreat that evening to prepare for the event tomorrow, but an alarm wakes up everyone in the night: something is going on in the Ferdinand III's lab. But getting inside isn't easy: three steel doors block the corridor leading to the basement, the first two requiring the hand palms of key persons in Mercury Company, the final door the hand of Ferdinand III himself (meaning it always requires a combination of both Ferdinand and a Mercury Company executive to get inside the lab). When they finally manage to get inside, they find a horrible scene in the lab: Ferdinand III has been impaled on the wall with a zweihander sword made of gold, and Alraune too has been killed. They soon realize this is utterly impossible: not only is there no way for any outside to get in or outside the highly secured lab, but who could ever beat an alchemist in a fight, a person who could change anything around them into a weapon to fight their assailant? Only...  an alchemist could. Theresa is quickly fingered as the culprit, as she's the only one who could just transmutate her way through all the security measures, but Emilia doesn't believe she's the killer, and he buys the two of them some time to solve the impossible murder on Ferdinand III before they'll be executed as the killers in Konno Tenryuu's Renkinjutsushi no Misshitsu (2020), which also has the English title Alchemist in Locked Room on the cover.

I read the second book in this series, Renkinjutsushi no Shoushitsu or Alchemist in Mercury Tower last year, which I enjoyed a lot as a fantasy mystery story with a unique locked room mystery, even if the depiction of alchemy in this series was a bit odd as it came straight out of Fullmetal Alchemist. Which is of course a great series, but the way alchemy is depicted there is very specific and not in any way like a classic depiction of alchemy, while Renkinjutsushi no Misshitsu seems to pretend like it's the default way to show alchemy, assuming every reader will think it's natural to think alchemy is conducted by placing hands on the object you want to transmutate and light effects and everything appearing. Renkinjutsushi no Misshitsu and its sequel are obviously written in a post-Fullmetal Alchemist world and if you don't know FMA, I suppose the alchemy shown here is utterly baffling, but on the other hand, even knowing FMA I think it's really weird to assume this is a normal way to show alchemy. Anyway, I did mention in my review of the sequel that " I have a feeling that wasn't really the best way now, as this second book does spoil a few details of the first book I think, and in other regards it seems to skip over things that are probably explained in more detail in the first book." I wasn't completely right in that regard, as some things that seemed to be skipped over weren't explained in this first book, but just explained a bit too swiftly in the second, but I was certainly right in saying that the second book did spoil enough about the first book to make me realize what had happened in the locked lab murder right away, so I do recommend other people to read these books in order.

Unlike Renkinjutsushi no Shoushitsu, the first book focuses on one single crime scene, making this a fairly small story. Ferdinand III (and Alraune) were found killed inside the triple-locked underground lab: three steel doors seperate the lab from the rest of Mercury Company's HQ and not one single person can open all three doors by themselves, as while only MC executives can open the first two doors (and there are guards there too!), the last door can only be opened by Ferdinand III himself. Yet the logs show nobody else entered these doors from the moment he was last seen alive until the murder and the alarms inside the lab suddenly went off. The lab itself has no other exits large enough for a person to pass through. Meanwhile, Ferdinand III himself was impaled on the wall by a gigantic zweihander made of gold, which adds to the mystery: who could defeat an alchemist, who can just transmutate anything in his environment into a weapon to fight off any attackers, and why was he killed with a weapon made of gold? It's no wonder the police (with some pressure of the military) suspect Thereasa is the murderer: there are only seven alchemists on the world, and she is the only one near the scene of the crime that night. She would be the only one who could just use alchemy to transmutate holes in the walls to break into the lab (and put them back up), and transmutate a weapon of gold: while transformers are capable of doing low-level alchemy by transforming the shape of objects, only alchemists can conduct elemental transmutation, like creating a weapon of gold. Of course, Emilia doesn't believe Theresa did it, so Theresa and he  (and the reader) have to figure out how anyone could've penetrated the triple-locked room and killed Ferdinand without the use of alchemy, despite the existence of alchemy.

In a way, that last line is exactly what makes this book a familiar locked room scenario, one even people who aren't used to seeing fantasy elements in fair play mystery can get used to. For how often have you not read a locked room mystery, which is actually not really a locked room mystery, because there is one suspect who could've done it, but for plot-reasons we are told they are not the killer, for example, because they're the protagonist? One of Carter Dickson (John Dickson Carr)'s most beloved locked room mysteries is exactly like that and Renkinjutsushi no Misshitsu follows the same pattern: it's only really a locked room mystery if you believe one character isn't the killer, even though theoretically only they had the opportunity. 

Of course, it would be a bit disappointing to have a mystery novel set in a world with alchemy, transmutation and transformation and not have the solution involve any of that, so yes, the solution to the grand mystery does feature those elements, but alchemy is definitely not used as a cheat here: both transmutation and transformation have specific limitations which are explained and explored in this novel, with both Theresa and Emilia theorizing about what could, and what could not have been archieved with either of those techniques. I do like the idea that the solution is actually lying in a completely different direction than you are probably likely to think off first, and while the answer does utilize alchemy, it is used in a way that isn't just "they made an opening into the lab and then sealed it again," requiring much more creativity from the reader if they want to solve the mystery themselves. I think the misdirection here works, up to an extent: it didn't help that the sequel did spoil a lot of the solution already, but I also think that that ultimately, the book shows off too little of the characters who appear in the story, so quite early on, you already have an idea of who'll be important and not, and because of the limited number of focused puzzle pieces, it becomes fairly simple to arrive at the solution. I like the solution to how the murderer managed to penetrate the locked room, kill the alchemist, and get away a lot in concept, and I do think there are really clever clues and ideas in terms of motive too, but it's told a bit too swiftly, meaning some elements feel a bit underutilized.

And having read the sequel, I did feel the latter was superior in basically all aspects, as it managed to show more interesting aspects of the outside world, while also presenting a trickeier mystery plot, with more false solutions and things like that. Renkinjutsushi no Misshitsu is a promosing first book in the series, introducing the concept of alchemy and using that concept in a fairly interesting way for the locked room mystery in that novel, but it's noticable that the sequel really builds on every aspect of the first novel and manages to improve on them, sometimes in very minor ways, sometimes in more significant ways. So in that sense, reading them in order is perhaps also more fair to Renkinjutsushi no Misshitsu, because it does show growth in the series.

Like the second novel, Renkinjutsushi no Misshitsu is an entertaining locked room mystery that manages to present a fair play mystery in a world where alchemy exists, and it uses the concept of alchemy to challenge the reader with a puzzle that wouldn't be possible otherwise. It's not as cleverly plotted as the sequel, and here and there you might feel the scope of the book is a bit too limited, but overall I think it's a fun read, though I have to repeat myself and say you should read them in order. I for one hope a third novel will be released to see how things will develop even further!

Original Japanese title(s): 紺野天龍『錬金術師の密室』

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

For Whom the Ball Tolls

Tempus fugit

Authors of mystery fiction often have certain tropes that are often found in their work. Many of them are about plotting techniques. John Dickson Carr is often associated with locked room murders and other impossible murders, while you're likely to find Queenian reasonings in the stories written by writers like Alice Arisugawa. It's often such tropes that actually attract readers to certain writers, as they know what they can expect from a certain book or writer. Another type of recurring tropes are not the actually plotting techniques, but story-related themes. Some might like to involve romantic subplots for example, or have their stories set in a certain place and time. Ashibe Taku is one of those writers who has a very distinct set of such story themes that you're likely to find in any randomly selected story by him and vice-versa, once you have read a few of his stories you'll immediately know the themes he likes to write about in his mystery stories. The easiest themes to identify are the literary and historical references in his stories. As far as I know, Murder in the Red Chamber is the only full-length novel by Ashibe available in English at the moment, but that too is an excellent example of his themes, as the book is based on the Chinese 18th century classic Dream of the Red Chamber, and naturally full of references to both the literary work itself, as well as historical references and research. The historical and literary references are naturally also found in his pastiche series The Exhibition of Great Detectives (1 and 2), which features crossovers between famous fictional detective, but even a book like Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin ("The Japanese Clock Mansion Murders", 2000), set in modern times, will show off the literary and historical research does for his books. A third common trope in Ashibe's work is the city of Osaka, to be exact, the old Osaka, not the metropolis it has become now, but the old commercial modern city it became after the industrial revolution and that is now slowly disappearing as the current Osaka is becoming more like a gigantic metropolis like Tokyo. In works like Satsujin Kigeki no Modern City ("A Murder Comedy In The Modern City", 1994) he explores a bustling 1920s Osaka, while in Toki no Misshitsu ("A Locked Space in Time", 2001). he explores the change of Osaka by having his series detective Morie Shunsaku tackle two case, one set in the Osaka of 2001 and one set in the Osaka of the nineteenth century. One can easily sense Ashibe's love for the old Osaka in all of his works.

Of the works by Ashibe I have read, Oomarike Satsujin Jiken ("The Oomari Family Murder Case", 2021) is in a way his best effort in combining all the three themes mentioned above with a classic mystery plot and I am not the only one: the book recently won this year's Mystery Writers of Japan Award, and a few days after I finished reading the book, it was announced that Ashibe also won this year's Honkaku Mystery Award with Oomarike Satsujin Jiken (the latter together with Yonezawa Honobu's 2021 novel Kokuroujou ("The Castle with the Dark Prison") AKA The Arioka Citadel Case). So at least critically, Oomarike Satsujin Jiken has been received very well, and I myself can see why. Ashibe's works are featured on this blog relatively often, so I have read my share of his work and while I myself do like literary references, I can't deny that at times, the deep literary and historical references featured in his works are a bit too deep. Sometimes, parts of his work feel like they're screaming "Look, this is a really obscure reference only very few people will understand" at you, so his novels feel a bit too "for fans only" at times. This is not the case with Oomarike Satsujin Jiken, where the references to literature, the historical setting and Osaka do have synergy and really elevate the mystery plot, making the complete package a greater whole than the sum of its parts. It is one of Ashibe's best mystery books that makes good use of his favorite tropes, making it, at this moment, the go-to-book if you want try out his work and get a good idea of his writing, I think.

Oomarike Satsujin Jiken starts with a short prologue set in 1906, when young Oomari Sentarou disappears mysteriously during a visit to the Panorama near Osaka's Namba Station. The disappearance of Sentarou, the heir of Oomari Pharmacy, was perhaps a sign to the immenent decay of the once well-known family of merchants. Decades ago, Oomari Pharmacy was a household name in Osaka when it came to medicine, but recently, they had moved to selling make-up too, which was a brilliant business move. The Oomari family lived in Semba, the commercial centre of Osaka, brimming with other merchants and their apprentices. Sentarou was never found, and years later, his sister Kiyoe and her husband Shigezou became the new heads of the family, leading the Oomaris during dangerous times. For over thirty years after Sentarou's disappearance, World War II would begin and eventually, Japan would involve themselves in the war too. It's during this time the decline of Oomari Pharmacy starts: importing make-up had slowly become impossible and the act of selling make-up itself was deemed a very anti-nationalistic deed, so it didn't take long for Oomari Pharmacy to get into financial problems. Once a name known throughout the city, by the time the war was in full swing, Oomari Pharmacy had only one real apprentice (a so-called "Decchi") left in the shop, where all they could do was sell amenity kits for soldiers. What was even more worrying was that the future of the Oomari family itself was uncertain. Second son Shigehiko, who was suppose to take the company over, had been drafted and sent away to the battlefield already, while oldest son Taiichirou, a doctor, had been drafted too as an army doctor. Taichirou's wife Mineko decides to move to the Oomari home during the war while awaiting her husband, where she gets badly along with sister-in-law Tsukiko, and very well along with her young sister-in-law Fumiko. All they can do is hold the fort until the war is over and Taichirou and Shigehiko return, but it is in 1945, in the last months of the war, that disaster strikes at the Oomari home. After an attack on Tsukiko, the body of patriarch Shigezou is found in his room, hanging from the ceiling. While it doesn't seem like anyone would have a reason to kill him, there are clear signs that indicate this wasn't a suicide or accident, but as times passes by, more members of the family are killed in gruesome manners. Meanwhile, Mineko, as the wife of the oldest son, finds herself being pushed into the role of the one carrying the family, but luckily she finds that her old classmate, Nishi Natsuko, is a training as a doctor at the local doctor, and she turns out to be a powerful ally as they both try to figure out who is killing the members of the Oomari family and why.

While the book opens with a very Rampo-esque trope (the visit to the Panorama), who was a very Tokyo-focused writer, Oomarike Satsujin Jiken quickly becomes a tale that focuses truly on the old Osaka that doesn't exist anymore: the traditional commercial district of Semba really comes alive in the pages of this book, with most characters speaking in the old Semba-dialect, utilizing a lot of local culture like the decchi apprenticeships in the plot, highlighting a lot of the cultural, social and economic changes as World War II starts to near its conclusion. Literary references are also plenty abound, though most of them are specially about mystery literature, as both Shigehiko and his young sister Fumiko are fans of mystery fiction and we see a lot of works of mystery mentioned, often with their old translation titles that aren't in use anymore nowadays. The tone the book takes betrays Ashibe's deep anti-war sentiments and makes the tale of the slow, but certain fall of the Oomari family even more tragic. Oomarike Satsujin Jiken is a mystery novel foremost, but it does a great job at presenting a "historical, war-time Osaka" novel, a theme Ashibe loves, and at least for me, the book had enough themes and topics I had never heard about that really made this an educational, and interesting read. Whereas historical or literary references in other Ashibe stories sometimes feel too much like references "by a fan, for fans", making them not as accessible to the general public, I think the focus on the fall of the Oomaris during the war and using the old Osaka as its backdrop works great, giving the book a much wider appeal (which might explain why it won the earlier mentioned awards).

And as I mentioned before, there's great synergy between these themes and the core mystery plot, which makes Oomarike Satsujin Jiken a memorable read. The book feels very much like a Yokomizo Seishi-novel when it comes to the structure of the mystery, and there's one murder that even invokes the grotesque murder scenes seen in the Kindaichi Kousuke series, with a body found inside a barrel with sake halfway through the book. But most deaths are not as "visually memorable" and to be honest, the actual murders themselves are often quite simple and you will likely have seen variants of them elsewhere. The first murder for example, where the victim is found hanging from a high ceiling, utilizes an idea that's quite common when it comes to these kinds of murders in mystery fiction. But Ashibe still makes this a very memorable scene, because the "props" used to create this murder are brilliantly grounded in the specific time and location of this book. The objects and ideas used for the murder in this particular book, are absolutely unique to this book, and make an otherwise familar idea still seem fresh, especially as they truly make the best of the historical setting. That is what happens throughout the book, and really helps elevate familiar ideas into something much better.

You don't really have "fancy" murders here, no locked room murders or mysteries that are solved through lengthy Queenian chains of deduction, but Ashibe manages to make each of the murders really feel like they could only have been executed as such in the time and place showcased in the book. And while this does mean some historical knowledge is required to really solve the mysteries yourself, all the clues are brilliantly hidden within the narrative, which is what makes Oomarike Satsujin Jiken a very satisfying read. What really makes this a memorable mystery story though is the motive of the murderer both in the broad and narrow sense of the word. By which I mean, the murderer's motive is only understandable considering the historical time/location of this book, but also the reason why the murderer chose to commit each murder in a particular way, is only understandable given that historical context. All the murders might seem a bit underwhelming taken seperately, and might even seen nonsensical at times if you just take them as is, but they make so much more sense and convincing when explained through the historical background, resulting in a motive that is truly unique to the Oomari family in Semba in the 1940, and murders that are commited in a way that is also unique to the 1940s Semba setting. I’d say the balance between the mystery plot and the common Ashibe tropes is done better than in a lot of Ashibe's other works (not going too far into a specific field), and it's this balance, and the synergy between these themes that make this book the best "Ashibe-esque" mystery novel he has written.

Oh, and just a little bit of trivia, but a somewhat curious amateur detective called Houjou Koushirou appears early on in Oomarike Satsujin Jiken, who will make a lot of readers think of Kindaichi Kousuke: this character is actually named after mystery author Houjou Kie! The book also has a lot of little references to other characters (series) by Ashibe. though I only caught a few of them (like Osaka-bred Tsuruko from the Modern City series), so in that perspective, there's still a lot in this book only long-time Ashibe readers will notice.

So as someone who has read quite a few books written by Ashibe Taku and enjoyed most of them too, I think Oomarike Satsujin Jiken might be the book where he managed to combine all his personal tropes and the mystery plot the best. It is undoubtedly a work that could only have written by him, addressing all the specific themes he likes, and he uses those themes to tell a gripping mystery story set during World War II that really comes alive because of the historical setting. I think a lot of people who like the Yokomizo novels for their historical context, but aren't too big a fan of the grotesque, will probably like this novel a lot too, as it does address similar themes like the decline of a family along generations and the effects of the war on society.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓『大鞠家殺人事件』

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Murder in F Sharp

"How do you go about writing a detective story?"
- ""Well, you forget detection and concentrate on crime. Crime's the thing. And then you imagine you're going to steal something or murder somebody."
"Dial M for Murder"

When it comes down to it, I do really like reading series though, not because of recurring characters per se, but because it gives me a framework (settings/themes) of what I can reasonably expect. Which is why I often stick with series and seldom seem to try "new" things.

The Box of Genesis is a coffin-like box created in medieval times, of which it is believed it can make objects appear out of nowhere. While most believe it is an urban legend, its powers were proven to be true in 1982, when a German scientist who managed to obtain the Box of Genesis held a reception to show the Box off. Early in the party, a reporter asked to take a look inside, and everyone saw the Box was empty. The Box was left in the middle of the room, with the party going on around it, until near the end of the reception the reporter asked to have have another look inside. To the shock of everyone present however, they found a cut-up corpse inside the Box of Genesis, even though the Box had been right in the middle of the reception all that time and nobody could've just walked up to the box to put a bloody body inside without anyone noticing. While for some time, the police suspected its new owner of foul play, they never managed to figure out how where the body had come from, cementing the legend of the Box of Genesis. 

Eventually, the Box of Genesis found a new owner in Japan. The art collector Iwakura is also the owner of the Alphabet House, a mansion in the mountains that used to house missionaries. Long ago, these missionaries placed sculptures of some letters of the alphabet in the courtyard, and subsequent owners all added similar sculptures, and by now, all 26 letters of the alphabet are found in the mansion's main building, its annex and the courtyard that connects the two buildings. Iwakura often has house parties, and it's in 1998 that he invites a rather curious bunch, from a private detective to a doctor to Mikutsuki Miyuki, an actress in the theatre troupe Polka, who is accompanied by felllow actress/roommate Miiko and "De", a friend with a mysterious past. "De" has lost all memories of his past, but is a brilliant detective specializing in impossible crimes, hence his name "De" (from "Detective"). Once they arrive at the Alphabet House, the guests learn that their host isn't present yet, though the two part-time servants he has hired have all the instructions they need to entertain his guests. But Miiko hears from one of the guests that their host Iwakura might actually have been murdered some months ago already, leading to the question who actually invited them here. The guests also find the Box of Genesis in the large hall in the annex, and one of the people present happens to know about this out-of-place artifact (OOPart), telling them about the legend and the 1982 murder. The following morning, one of the guests staying in the annex can't be found anywhere there, despite the lack of footsteps in the snow in the courtyard, meaning they must still be in the annex. The Box of Genesis is missing. When the guests move to the main building, they find the Box of Genesis in the large hall on the second floor of the main building... with the murdered missing guest inside! But how did the victim, and the Box of Genesis go to the main building without leaving any footprints in the snow in the courtyard? The people are still wondering about what has really happened when another murder happens and a decapitated head appears inside a locked Box of Genesis. Can De figure these murders out in Kitayama Takekuni's Alphabet-sou Jiken (2002), which also has the English title The Case of Alphabet

I have read more than a few mysteries by Kitayama, but in a way, my reading of him is also very limited, as everything I have read of him fall into just two series: either it's his own four-novel Castle series, or it's the work he has provided for the Danganronpa franchise, like the Danganronpa: Kirigiri novels. Kitayama's best known for his technically-constructed locked room mysteries, with ingenious (and slightly over-the-top, ridiculous) mechanisms that create these impossible situations, and this aspect of his work is very clearly visible in the above-mentioned two series. Alphabet-sou Jiken was originally published in 2002, being a revised version of a novel he had written before his professional debut. The book had been published in a label of publisher Hakusensha, which was surprising to me, as it was not a publisher I immediately associate with mystery novels, even though they have mystery manga (like the classic Puzzle Game ☆ High Schooi). The book had been out of print for a long time, but saw a re-release by a different publisher in 2021 with a brand-new cover, and I figured it'd be an interesting way to read something beyond the two series I already knew.

Which is why it surprised me that thematically, Alphabet-sou Jiken is basically a side-story to the Castle series. There's a brief mention of a legend of the "Six Daggers of the Headless Knights" in this book, which is a recurring motif in the four books in the Castle series: while the settings/characters of those books are all completely unrelated, they do all refer to legends concerning cursed daggers and headless knights. But besides the cheeky reference, I'd say Alphabet-sou Jiken also feels very close to the Castle books in terms of atmosphere, with somewhat stange, almost cartooney characters and a distinct, fantasy-like vibe that delves into themes of fate and destiny, as well as a focus on legends. Had this been touted as a "full" spin-off of the Castle series, I would have believed it, and as this book was written before Kitayama's professional debut, I can't help wonder whether this book served as a prototype in terms of characterization and world-building for the Castle books, or whether he added these elements later when he revised it for the publication. One of the more obvious parts is early in the story, when one of the characters remarks the setting they are in is basically a detective story, and the character proceeds to destroy/damage the landline phone and the mobiles of the people present to intentoinally create a closed circle situation, to intentionally tempt fate so a murder will happen. This is also why, together with the harsh weather conditions the following day, the people inside the Alphabet House are not able to send for help immediately after the discovery of the murder. This is the type of meta-action we've seen in the Castle series before (especially 'Alice Mirror Jou' Satsujin Jiken), which have a distinct, fantasy-mystery-like atmosphere, but the first time you come across it in Alphabet-sou Jiken, it is rather surprising. Some may not like these kind of characters/actions, but it's another reason why I thought this book was basically a stealth entry in the Castle series.

As for the mysteries in this book, I felt the book does feel less refined than other works by Kitayama, probably because it was based on an older story. Most importantly, the two plot elements of the Box of Genesis and the alphabet structures in the Alphabet House feel completely unrelated, and you keep wondering why the book is about these two things: a box which can conjure objects out of nowhere, and a house with letters of the alphabet spread across the two wings and the courtyard. These are two completely different themes, so it just feels weird this book is about these two curious themes. I would've liked it if there was some kind of stronger backstory linking the two parts, rather than just "the current owner of the Box of Genesis also happens to be living in the Alphabet House." This book is fairly short, but I think it would have benefitted from more pages, allowing to build a stronger link between these elements and flesh out some of the events more.

As for the mysteries, I think the solutions are a bit simply, and perhaps undeveloped at times. For example, eventually, De also decides to tackle the 1982 case and he proves the cut-up body appearing in the Box of Genesis during a reception wasn't magic, but foul play, but the trick used there is in concept perfectly fine, even if simple, but doesn't quite practical, as it'd be easy for anything to go wrong with that method, (especially timing!), resulting in a botched plan rather easily. I do like how the fundamental concept of this trick is used in a very different, but related way in one of the 1998 murders, even if the method used there also seemed rather risky and prone to early discovery. The biggest mystery in this novel is of course the first 1998 murder, where the Box of Genesis and the first victim manage to disappear from the annex and reappear in the main building in one night, without anyone leaving any footprints in the snow in the courtyard. This part of the mystery is probably fairly easy to solve if you've already read a few Kitayama novels: it's the kind of trick he likes to use, and especially once a certain prop is introduced in the story, it's rather easy to guess how the murderer managed to pull the thing off. I think the misdirection that's pullled off here is interesting though: while I do honestly think it's easy to guess what happened even now, I think it is hidden in a way that can works best in its current form, in prose, in the letters on the page. If you'd visualize everything, I think the trick would have been even more obvious, so I did like that, because I only realized how really easy it'd be to guess the trick if you actually saw everuthing. That happens quite often with Kitayama's work I suppose, because of his love for more mechanical tricks, utilizing space and making use of moving object in general.

The ending has a nice bitter-sweet taste to it, like we often have in the Castle series (another similarity!). I like how the ending, almost surprisingly, does address some of the lingering questions I still had, specifically why these people had been invited to this party, and the themes of romance, fate and destiny touched upon in this ending are also themes we see developed more further in the Castle books, cementing Alphabet-sou Jiken as a proto-entry in the series. If you like the tone of those books, you'll definitely like this book too.

So in the end, I did not manage to move away from my familiar corner of Kitayama Takekuni's work by reading Alphabet-sou Jiken. It fits perfectly in the model of the Castle novels I already knew, but I do think I enjoyed the book more exactly because of it. As a mystery novel, Alphabet-sou Jiken does feel a bit lacking compared to the other Kitayama novels I've read: the tricks used are a bit simple and practical problems are ignored a bit too easily. Had it been a longer novel, some of these problems could've been helped I think, though I guess that ultimately, the four Castle novels are exactly that: more developed versions of the story found within the pages of this book. I wouldn't consider this book a must-read, but definitely interesting for those who have already read a few Kitayama works, to see what they can recognize in this work.

Original Japanese title(s): 北山猛邦『アルファベット荘事件』

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

The Cyclone

" Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don't you think?"
"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"

Bill the Lizard has done it again! Last time we saw our not very bright lizard from Wonderland, he got lost and somehow arrived in the Hoffman Universe (a literary universe featuring the creations of German author E. T. A. Hoffman) and got involved in a murder case there. That case got wrapped up and Bill was ready to travel again back to Wonderland, but this time, he finds himself wandering through a desert. Exhausted, he collapses near the end of the desert, where he is found by... a girl called Dorothy, a lion, a scarecrow and a Tin Man. Bill is rescued by these four, and he's brought to Ozma, Queen of the land of Oz, who as one of the few people capable of using magic in this world, might be able to help Bill find a way back to Wonderland. This is a great relief for Imori, a Japanese student in the "real" world. Bill and Imori are two sides of the same coin: both "dream" they are the other whenever they sleep, and while the two have completely different personalities, the two do share memories. Imori has been aware of this two-way avatar system for a long time now and previously, he also met other people at his university who too have avatars in the dream world. After Bill's arrival on the land of Oz, Imori runs into the human avatars of Dorothy and Jellia Jamb at his university, Dorothy, and Juria, with whom Imori argues about the way Queen Ozma rules the kingdom.

While Dorothy and the others suggest to Bill he might as well stay in the Land of Oz, Imori is determined to have Bill return to Wonderland, so the people in Oz try to figure out where Bill came from and look for a way to send him back.  It also happens to be the birthday of Queen Ozma, and a great party is prepared at the castle, but then tragedy strikes! Dorothy is found murdered in her room in the castle, and Jinjur, who was guarding the castle entrance, was also brutally killed.  Bill's adventures in the Hoffman Universe however taught Imori that if a person dies in the dream world, whether it's Wonderland or the Hoffman Universe, their counterpart avatar in the real world also dies. Imori learns that the real-world Dorothy has also died in a freak accident at college, as well as a person who was likely Jinjur in the Land of Oz. Jellia Jamb is tasked by Queen Ozma with the investigation into the death of Dorothy and Jinjur, but she soon realizes that only a select few people, specifically Dorothy's friends, would have been let into the castle, because there were strict security measures set in place due to Queen Ozma's birthday party and the many guests invited from all the corners of the world. Meanwhile, Imori and Juria try to investigate the death of Dorothy in the real life, which brings them in contact with other human avatars of people from the Land of Oz, but to their great surprise to also run into a person who claims they killed Dorothy, but who are they in the Land of Oz? That's the great mystery Imori and Bill have to face in Kobayashi Yasumi's Dorothy Goroshi (2018), also known as The Murder of Dorothy

Dorothy Goroshi is the third book in Kobayashi's Märchen Murder series which started with Alice Goroshi (which I absolutely loved), followed by Clara Goroshi. Kobayashi sadly enough passed away in 2020, which makes the next book, with Tinkerbell, also the last one in the series. Alice Goroshi introduced the concepts of dual worlds, shared dreams and the avatar system, though both Clara Goroshi and Dorothy Goroshi are set before the events of the first novel. I'd recommend strongly to read these books in publication order however, as while these stories don't straight-out spoil the events of the previous book(s), they do build on the mechanics of the avatar system, and revelations that were considered shocking in Alice Goroshi, are taken for granted in subsequent novels, meaning that the first novel is a lot easier to solve because a lot of the clever trickery employed there are used as "common knowledge" in the following books. If you'd read Clara Goroshi before Alice Goroshi, you'll find out a lot of the "reveals" in Alice are mentioned casually in Clara, taking away a lot of the surprise and that's also true up to an extent for Dorothy and Alice.

I didn't really know the works of E.T.A. Hoffman before I read Clara Goroshi, and still enjoyed it a lot, so I wasn't too worried when I started with Dorothy Goroshi, despite me not really knowing the Oz series. Which might be a bit odd? While I guess the Wizard of Oz and all the novels are probably a corneerstone of American culture, I have fairly little history with The Wizard of Oz, and I haven't even seen the groundbreaking film. In fact, I basically only know the 1986 anime Oz no Mahoutsukai (known in English as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), and it's not like I even saw very much of that, though I guess a lot of people my age would recognize the Dutch theme song (which is really catchy!). But even as an Oz-novice, basically only aware of Dorothy and her posse and some other references like Kansas, yellow brick roads and things like that, I did enjoy the world and characters portrayed in this novel, which is also thanks to the funny dialogues Kobayashi writes. These books are very dialogue-heavy with little narration, and often have the screwball characters going on and on with nonsensical conversations (often with the clues to the mystery cleverly hidden there). I suppose some readers might find the repeating jokes and constant misunderstandings a bit tiring, but it really sells the crazy setting of this series and the writing makes this novel a really light read. It's quite effective at quickly drawing the various characters and the specific fictional world of the novel, so even if you don't know Wonderland, E.T.A. Hoffman or Oz at all, you'll be right at home.

With the murders in Wonderland, Alice Goroshi served as a great vehicle to lay out the rules of the avatar system and the dual worlds, and like I mentioned before Clara Goroshi was succesful in taking those basic rules, and build further on that to present a mystery plot that brought a new twist to those rules. I have to say that Dorothy Goroshi felt a bit disappointing in that regard, as this third novel doesn't feel like yet another step forward, but it basically runs parallel to Clara Goroshi. The mystery is also very focused on the question of who could've entered the palace, but this limits the number of suspects a lot, and I think that whole a certain piece of misdirection regarding the murderer is clever in theory, it's rather undeveloped in this novel: it's not brought up very often, so the attempt kinda falls flat, as the surprise really hinges on the fact whether the misdirection had been conveyed to the reader succesfully within those sparse moments, or not. In my case, the misdirection never managed to settle firmly in my mind, so I was constantly wondering why something wasn't mentioned, until I realized at the end that the book had tried to sell me on an idea early on without success. I imagine that if this misdirection had succeeded on me, I'd have found this book more surprising/enjoyable, That said, I did enjoy how the analysis of the Land of Oz and its characters through the eyes of Bill/Imori a lot and the book does succeed in portraying the Land of Oz as a place that seems perfect for a good bloody murder to happen!

I still think the first novel was the best at selling the dual world set-up though. In Alice Goroshi, you first had the hard split between the Wonderland characters and the real world characters, but as the story continued, the counterparts would slowly grow to resemble each other more, making for a (purposely) confusing cast. Both in Clara Goroshi and Dorothy Goroshi though, there's never that hard split between the real world characters and their dream world counterparts, with everyone already being aware of how the dual world system works etc., and a lot of the investigation/discussions seen in the real world just feel like an extension of what happens in Oz, rather than really looking at events from a different (more grounded) angle.

Overall though, Dorothy Goroshi is still an enjoyable mystery novel though, even if it is not as surprising anymore as the two novels preceding it. If you liked the previous two novels, or just like the idea of reading a murder mystery set in the Land of Oz (who doesn't!), this will provide some hours of good entertainment, but if you were never a fan of the nonsensical conversations of the earlier books, you'll definitely not find anything to change your mind. As metioned, the fourth book in the series is also the last, and I'll definitely will read Tinkerbell Goroshi once the pocket release is out!

Original Japanese title(s): 小林泰三『ドロシイ殺し』