Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Dead Man's Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

It Runs in the Family

"The path of logic is connected"
 "The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story"

Is there like a rule that when Square-Enix makes a mystery game, it needs to take place across time and needs to have game mechanics revolving around generating hypotheses?

One of the earliest games I discussed on this blog, and one that I still think fondly of, is Trick X Logic on the PSP. The manner in which it translates the reading experience of a puzzle plot whodunnit story to a video game is absolutely fantastic, and shows very well how a properly written mystery story should allow a reader to gather clues, build hypotheses and lead them to the one and only answer. Of course, this was not surprising, considering the stories found in Trick X Logic were written by authors like Ayatsuji Yukito, Arisugawa Alice, Maya Yutaka, Ooyama Seiichirou and more! (Disclosure: I have translated the works of some of these authors!) Each of the stories in this game was presented in a novel game style, so simply a prose story you read like any other book. As you read the story, you pick up key words and phrases. Once you're done with the "Problem" part of the story, the interactive element start: as the player, you now have to answer the question of whodunnit. How? By using all those key words and phrases from the story in question, and combining them to generate questions, insights and hypotheses. For example, if the story mentions both "X is left-handed" "X caught the ball with his right hand", you could combine these two phrases to generate questions and hypotheses like: "X is ambidextrous," "Is X actually right-handed?" "Is X not able to use his left hand?" These new phrases could also be used, for example, "Is X not able to use his left hand?" and "X fell earlier from his horse" might generate the theory "X hurt his left hand." Trick X Logic thus was a game that really showed how you are supposed to read a detective story, focus on key phrases and combining them to create all kinds of hypotheses, even if they might be wrong. And as you create more and more hypotheses and combine these with each other again, you eventually arrive at the truth. Trick X Logic is in my opinion still one of the few games that really shows how a prose puzzle plot detective story should be tackled and I have always lamented the fact it never got a sequel or never inspired other games in the same spirit.

When earlier this year Square-Enix announced they'd release the FMV (Full Motion Video) detective adventure game Haru Yukite, Retrotica ("As Spring Passes By,  Retrotica") in May 2022, I was absolutely thrilled, for it was made by the director of Trick X Logic and was clearly inspired by that game. Released in English with the less poetic title The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story and available on Switch/Steam/PS4/PS5, the game tells an epic story that takes place across a whole century, and is told through live-action drama (interestingly, the director of this game also worked on 428, which also used live-action heavily). The titular Shijima family is a clan with history, sordid history even as recently, a skeleton was found under a tree at Shijima manor. Shijima Eiji, a medical scientist, asks the mystery writer Kagami Haruka to look into the case of the skeleton found at his parental home: Eiji is a medical consultant for Haruka's mystery novels, and thinks she can find out more about the mysterious skeleton. Haruka and her editor Akari go to Shijima manor, where they are welcomed by Eiji's father and they are allowed to witness an ancient ceremony which is held once a century by the Shijima family. After the ceremony, they are to have tea, but Eiji's father is poisoned. Haruka soon learns the Shijima family not only has skeletons in their garden, but also in the closet: for the last century, members of the Shijima family have been involved in various murder cases, and each time these murders were connected to the "Tokijiku" or Fruit of Youth, a mythological fruit that is supposed to give eternal youth to those who eat the coveted food. Realizing that the poisoning in 2022 and the skeleton have to do with the past murder cases, which also all involved a scarlet camellia left at the various scenes, Haruka decides to read up on the old cases and see if she can solve those, as they are the only clues she has to solve the current poisoning case. And thus Haruka's investigation into a series of murder cases taking place across the twentieth and twenty-first century starts...

The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story is not a perfect game. It is not a perfect mystery game. But I really, really want to recommend this game to people who like puzzle plot mystery fiction, because it is basically the best next thing after Trick X Logic, and that game is hard to recommend because, well, it was only released in Japan and only on the PSP.  But while The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story has its hick-ups here and there, like its spiritual predecessor, it does really show well how a proper mystery story should lay its clues, how it should invite the reader (player) to use these clues to come up with properly built-up theories and how to combine theories to ultimately arrive at the truth. Few mystery games really show and teach you "reasoning techniques" that are also applicable to mystery in for example prose form, but The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story definitely does. Sorry for the self-promotion here, but if you liked mystery stories like The Moai Island Puzzle, Death Among the Undead, Death of the Living Dead and other puzzle-focused shin honkaku novels: this is a proper shin honkaku mystery game and you owe it to yourself to at least check it out. 

Once you're done with the game, you feel like you have watched a full season of a detective drama. The story starts in 2022 and many chapters ("episodes") are also set there, but Haruka also looks into prior cases involving members of the Shijima family, the Tokijiku and the Scarlet Camellia, some even taking place as early as in 1922!  In terms of terms of structure and gameplay, The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story is very similar to Trick X Logic as mentioned earlier. Each chapter/episode starts with a lengthy live-action drama part that unfolds like a proper mystery detective story, from the building up drama to the discovery of the crime and subsequent investigation. Once the first "Problem" part of the episode is over, Haruka starts theorizing about the case in the Reasoning part.  Here the player has to answer a few crucial questions by using the clues and observations made during the first part. You can also rewatch all the relevant scenes of the drama part, or check other important information like floorplans and character relation charts here. As you consider the case using the leading questions as a guide, you combine these questions with the gathered clue fragments to generate hypotheses (many of them actually incorrect). Once you have generated enough hypotheses and new insights, you can move on to the Solution part of the story, where you get the classic "Everyone is gathered in the parlor and the detective reveals who did it" scene: this too is presented as a live-action drama, but the player now has to use the various hypotheses they generated earlier to answer all the important questions and eventually point out who the murderer is. 


The process of "observation" -> "creating hypotheses" -> "combining hypotheses" -> "point out whodunnit" is really satisfying, and the game mechanic itself is an excellent translation of how one should tackle a prose detective story too. I do have to say that the controls for the Reasoning part are pretty bad, at least on a console (I played the game on Switch). You have to constantly drag clue fragments to the corresponding question, but not only is dragging these fragments across the screen very time-consuming with a controller, for some reason, you are required to move each clue fragment to a specific place (suppose a question requires three clues: you can't place clue A to the right side of the question because it has to be to the left side). And strangely enough, the touch screen of the Switch is not supported, even though that would make dragging a lot more convenient... 

Generating hypotheses is definitely one of my favorite parts of the game. The mechanic is very simple (the game is made to appeal to non-gamers) and of course, the hypotheses are automatically generated once you combine the correct clues together, but the game does a great job at showing the player how each hypothesis, correct and wrong, are properly based on the clues. Often mystery games just offer you a list of optional answers, one of them good and the rest wrong, but there is no true explanation how each of those options actually came to be. In The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story, you are shown how every hypothesis (= possible answer in the Solution part) is built, from which hints they derive and how they all make sense (up to a degree). Sometimes, you have a fairly good idea of the case already when you start in the Reasoning part, but occasionally the game really manages to throw a screwball at you because when you combine clue A and B, you not only get hypothesis D you were expecting, but the same clues A and B also generate hypotheses E and F, which on second thought actually seem pretty convincing too (because you are shown that they derive logically from clues A & B). Of course, sometimes the hypothesis you create is obviously fake, in a funny way, but that's okay too: the game always shows that a theory in mystery fiction is based on actual clues shown in the story, and not just a gut feeling of "that person looks suspicious".

As for the cases themselves, most of them are not really complex, but I found most of them quite enjoyable. This is partially because of the grand scale of the story: Haruka is not only dealing with what happens at Shijima manor in 2022, but she also reads a few records of the cases that occured in the past. These parts are of course also presented as live-action drama, and it results in quite some variety on screen: one episode you are investigating a case that occurs in the modern world, the next episode you are transported to a suspicious underground auction in 1922. The period drama parts definitely manage to convey the atmosphere of those periods despite each episode not being very long (most chapters are about an hour long in total). What is also funny is how these period drama parts actually use the same actors as in the 2022 parts: the in-game explanation is that Haruka has to visually imagine the past cases while she reads the old records, and in her mind, she "casts" every character with the faces of people she knows, meaning that her editor Akari can be "cast" as one character in 1922, and "cast" as another in another case. It kinda reminds of the Nero Wolfe television show, which also reused a fixed cast who'd play different characters in different stories. I think these historical episodes are also the most memorable, as the plots of those episodes often make good use of their historical setting, utilizing props and ideas that belong to those periods. 


Oh, by the way, for some reason this game doesn't actually automatically move on to the final chapter on its own after playing the preceding chapter. There are no unlock criteria or anything, save for completing the previous episode but you have to especially choose to start with the final chapter in the main menu, even though the game doesn't actually tell you it added the new option for the final chapter, so it's quite possible you think you finished the game, but haven't actually started the final chapter. It's so weird, for it really should have just moved on to the final chapter on its own after finishing the previous one, but it doesn't... The final chapter answers a lot of important lingering questions too, and really helps make this a memorable mystery game by the way, so be sure not to miss it, because without it the story of The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story is incomplete. 

And some minor trivia: voice actor Kaji Yuuki has a minor role in this game, but also the shogi player Kagawa Manao. The latter is interesting, because she also has a role in the shogi-themed mystery adventure game Senri no Keifu as herself. Is she actually a big mystery fan and that's why she has all these guest roles in mystery games???

The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story has plenty of minor faults, from its short run-time, the somewhat clumsy controls to the game being mostly a fairly passive experience. But it does present a very interesting and attractive mystery story dealing with a mysterious family, a mythological fruit and a series of murders that take place across time, and more importantly: it translates the experience of "solving a mystery story" perfectly. Like Trick X Logic before it, The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story shows how a proper detective story should be structured and how it should lay out a trail of clues for the reader to follow, and how readers are supposed to build theories based on these clues. The game mechanics of The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story are exactly how I read mystery fiction, and for example how I tackled my earlier playthroughs of Umineko: When They Cry and Higurashi: When They Cry. That is why I think that fans of puzzle plot mystery fiction really owe it to themselves to play The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story sooner or later. I think that at least for me, this will be one game that'll end up in my list of favorite mysteries at the end of this year.

Original Japanese title(s): 『春ゆきてレトロチカ』

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Locked in Time

“Time was something that largely happened to other people; he viewed it in the same way that people on the shore viewed the sea. It was big and it was out there, and sometimes it was an invigorating thing to dip a toe into, but you couldn't live in it all the time. Besides, it always made his skin wrinkle.”
"Thief of Time"

Okay, it's almost summer now so a snow cover might seem a bit weird, but was still winter when I read this book...

Three years ago, Japan saw its first trial of a locked room murder case. The police and prosecution knew they had the right person: every piece of evidence they could find pointed towards the defendant, the only person near the crime scene who had anything remotely like a motive. However, there was one problem: they could never figure out how the locked room murder had been executed. They tried and tried, but could not explain how the defendant could've murdered the victim, and then left the room, as it was found locked tightly from inside. The prosecution argued this was a moot point: every thing else pointed at the defendant, and the locked room itself was a just a parlor trick and not relevant to the case at hand. The judge, naturally, did not agree with this argument. The prosecution failing to explain how the locked room was created, basically provided the defendant, and everyone else for that matter, with an alibi. How could the defendant have committed the murder if by all accounts, they couldn't have left the room afterwards? The defendant was found not guilty and with that, the Golden Age of Locked Rooms started in Japan. For all would-be murderers realized that if they managed to pull off a locked room murder the police couldn't solve, they'd always get away, even if they managed to find other evidence implicating them. After the first locked room murder, Japan saw a rise in the number of locked room murders in the country, which also urged society to adapt: locked room specialists appeared, ranging from architects to detctives and the Ministry of Justice even compiled an official list of all existing types of locked room tricks. On the other side, cults appeared that started to worship locked room murders as a way to mourn the dead.

Kuzushiro Kasumi is roped in by childhood friend to Yozuki to visit the House of Snow, a hotel somewhere in the mountains that used to be the private residence of a famous mystery writer. Yozuki is here because of a local Yeti-sighting, but Kasumi's interest lie within the hotel's history: Ten years ago, the mystery novelist who lived here held a party, and during the party he enacted a locked room murder: a "murdered" doll was found inside a locked room of which the key was found inside a bottle next to the victim. Nobody managed to solve the mystery, but it soon became a legend among fans of detective fiction, and even after the house got a new owner who turned it into a hotel, the "crime scene" was preserved and mystery fans still visit the hotel to try to solve the puzzle themselves. The hotel is also extremely popular due to the cooking skills of the owner and basically always booked full. Arriving at the hotel, Kasumi and Yozuki meet some of the other colorful guests, like the 15-year old Riria, an actress who everybody knows. Kasumi's interest is initially only focused on the murder game of 10 years ago, but then a real locked room murder occurs in the hotel, and of course, the usual happens: a snow storm arrives, the phone lines are cut and the one connecting bridge to the other side of the cliffs back to the main road also collapses. Everyone is now trapped inside the Hosue of Snow, and the killer is likely one of them. In the three years since The Golden Age of Locked Rooms started, most people have become somewhat familiar with locked room murders, so some guests try to solve the mystery themselves, but more and more murders follow, and always under impossible circumstances. Teaming up with a somewhat reluctant Mitsumura Shitsuri, a former classmate and fellow club member who happens to be staying at the hotel too, Kasumi too tries to solve the many murders that occur in Kamosaki Danro's 2022 debut novel Misshitsu Ougon Jidai no Satsujin  - Yuki no Yakata to Muttsu no Trick, or like the cover also says: The Murder in the Golden Age of Locked Rooms - The House of Snow and the Six Tricks.

I'll be the first to admit that it was the title, and a quick glance at the summary, that immediately convinced me I wanted to read this book. The premise of a new age in society, where so many murderers commit locked room murders even the government has to compile its own "locked room lecture", just sounded so incredibly fun, with so much potential to get incredibly meta. Which is perhaps I was a bit disappointed once this book got going. For while the concept of The Golden Age of Locked Rooms is relevant to the story's main plot in several ways, it does feel like this book doesn't quite make full use of the potential of the premise. This is for a large part due to the setting of the book: The Murder in the Golden Age of Locked Rooms - The House of Snow and the Six Tricks is a classic closed circle situation mystery, with the characters stuck in the House of Snow due to a heavy snow storm/collapsed bridge, so ultimately, you don't really get to see much of modern day society that is now experiencing The Golden Age of Locked Rooms. Sure, the characters mentions locked room murders, and among the other hotel guests, you have a locked room murder detective and even someone from the Tower of Dawn, a cult worshipping locked room murders, but it's such a shame we don't really get to see how The Golden Age has really changed society at large, we only get to see very limited snippets of these changes. Would the book have felt very different if it were just set in "normal" times, but with characters who all happen to be locked room murder mystery fans? Probably not very much, and that's where I think the concept of The Golden Age of Locked Rooms has a lot of unexplored potential.

The title reveals of course that this book is about six different locked room murders, with six different tricks utilized to create those situations. Some of these happened in the past (like the murder game organized by the mystery writer ten years ago), some are the current murders. The book is not very long, so you can imagine that the story does kinda rush through all of these murders. I think I can definitely feel the love of the author for mechanical trickery behind locked room murders though. None of the locked rooms featured here are pulled off based on some kind of psychological trickery, like fooling people into thinking a door was locked when in fact it was not: all the doors in this book are properly locked through some kind of mechanical trickery of the needle and string variety. I do have to say that even though mechanical tricks can be kinda tricky to understand because usually there are a lot of moving parts (strings being pulled and moved, for example), I'd say that for a debut novel, Kamosaki does a good job at explaining each trick rather clearly and easy to follow. I've definitely read work by authors who don't write as clear when it comes down to these kind of tricks. The book in general is very easy to read through, though some might not be very much into little techniques to make the reading so smooth, like using simple, "obvious" naming conventions for the characters, basically in the spirit of a manager being named M. Anager. Not surprisingly, the book has a distinct, often light-hearted tone like you'd expect from a light novel.

As for the six locked rooms, I'd say they're... okay? The various locked room murders aren't really connected to each other, as in, it's not like elements in one locked room situation will help you solve another locked room or anything like that, so you basically have six discrete situations. Some are more interesting than others, though I have to say that due to the short runtime of the book, most situations don't really get much time to settle: usually something happens, Mitsumura and Kasumi have a look around and by then they've already solved much of the how of the mystery, because of course the next locked room murder is already waiting around the corner. As mentioned above, the individual locked rooms are very much focused on mechanical trickery and a lot of them do feel like (combinations of) variations of ideas you'll probably have seen elsewhere before, but for the most part, I found this an entertaining book. I do also like the fact that the whodunnit is also given proper attention, implementing classic Queen-style deductions chains that look at things the murderer must have done to create said murder situation and then examining those actions to determine who couldn't or wouldn't have done those things in order to cross off names of the suspect list until you arrive at the murderer. Some of the deductions feel a bit forced (especially the premise that allowed for the final step in identifying the murderer at the very end), but in general, it'd sayt that despite its focus on the how of the murders in terms of premise (and title), the whodunnit aspects feel a bit more impressive: the focus on the mechanical trickery behind six locked rooms do make some parts feel a bit samey, which is less so in the whodunnit parts of the book.

The Murder in the Golden Age of Locked Rooms - The House of Snow and the Six Tricks is obviously written by someone who loves locked room murder mysteries and for a debut novel, it certainly has a lot of interesting ideas. While the full potential of the concept isn't explored in this book, I do like the idea of the Golden Age of Locked Rooms, and having six servicable locked room situations in any debut novel would be quite a feat. This book might not be a true classic of the genre, but I did enjoy reading the book and I'm definitely interested to see what Kamosaki will release in the future.

Original Japanese title(s): 鴨崎暖炉『密室黄金時代の殺人 雪の館と六つのトリック』

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Snow White, Blood Red

So when in tears
The love of years 
Is wasted like the snow,
"The Forest Reverie" (Edgar Allan Poe)

I did read this book in the winter, fitting the theme, but by the time this review is posted here, it's probably almost summer...

Iwanaga Kotoko returns once again as the Deity of Wisdom for youkai (all kinds of supernatural beings, spirits, etc.) in Shirodaira Kyou's 2021 short story collection Kyokou Suiri Tanpenshuu - Iwanaga Kotoko no Junshin which also has the English title Invented Inference Short Stories - Innocence of Iwanaga Kotoko! When she was a child, she was abducted by youkai and made their Deity of Wisdom, helping these supernatural beings whenever they were in trouble involving the human world, acting as arbitrator and detective. Because Kotoko's cases are always connected with humans, she has become quite capable at the act of inventing inferences: while the truth is simply that some supernatural being is involved with the problem, Kotoko always presents the humans with completely false, but convincing explanations that incorporate all the known facts, without having to reveal that in fact youkai were involved. The series is thus not about finding out a truth, but fabricating a truth that humans will believe. Innocence of Iwanaga Kotoko is the fourth book in the series, and the second short story collection following 2018's Invented Inference Short Stories - Appearance of Iwanaga Kotoko, and the two books are quite similar in structure. Innocence of Iwanaga Kotoko too features five stories, some of which are very short and closer in style to short intermezzos/character vignettes, but all of them present rather unique mystery stories because they involve the supernatural. Interestingly, some of these stories were first published in manga format: the manga based on the series runs simultaneously with the books nowadays, but due to different publication schedules, some stories will be featured in the manga before the books.

The very short stories however are once again the less memorable parts of the book. Yoku kangaeru to Kowakunai demo nai Hanashi ("A Story That Could Be Creepy If You Think About It") tells the story of Kotoko's boyfriend Kurou, who has a part-time job as a mover. This time, he's moving stuff out of a house which is said to be haunted, but to his co-workers' surprise, nothing happens at all that day. It's more a story that works towards a punchline about the supernatural, but it's easy to predict where this is going if you know who Kurou is (and his history was already explained in the first book). Similarly, Mato wo enaide Mato wo iyou ("Hit the target without hitting the target") is a very short story where Kotoko is asked to arbitrate between two monkey spirits who are arguing about a bow and arrow they stole. This leads to a Judge Ooka/Judgement of Solomon-esque situation, but the story is over before you know it. These stories are not bad per se, but just so short you'll barely remember them once you're done with the book.

Shisha no Futashika na Dengon ("An Unclear Dying Message") starts with the visit of Reina to her grandparents in the countryside. On her way back to the station, she runs into a mysterious woman, who reminds her of her old high school classmate Kotoko. It turns out this woman is Rikka, cousin of Kotoko's boyfriend Kurou. Reina tells Rikka about Kotoko's life at high school and how everyone thought she was so mysterious, with rumors flying around that she had ties with the supernatural, and that she'd sometimes help people out, though often not in the way most expected. For example, one day, a classmate wanted Kotoko's help due to a problem her uncle had. Her uncle had been rivals with a co-worker at the office, vying for the same positions, but one day, the man was hit on the head with a hammer and died. But before he died, he wrote down the name Takehiko, which was the uncle's name. He became a suspect of course, but soon after the police arrested another man, who had confessed to the death, caused by a freak accident, This seemed to clear the uncle's name at first, but nobody knows why he wrote the name "Takehiko" before dying, and that combined with rumors of a bloody ghost still appearing at the scene of the death, and rumors of the uncle being the real murderer who somehow got away, the man is more-or-less ostricized at the office, unable to get a promotion. Kotoko's classmate has to listen to her uncle's story every time the family meets, so she hopes Kotoko can clear things up so her uncle will finally shut up. While initially, you might be inclined to think this is a classic dying message story, it certainly isn't, and that's made clear rather early on through a discussion about the dying message trope in mystery fiction and how it's so unbelievable and unpracticable. And that fits this series perfectly, because of course Kotoko's answer to the dying message is probably made-up, but it's convincing enough, and what's more, Kotoko's clever enough to recognize the true problem her classmate has, and the solution she provides is just a whole pack of convincing conjecture, but which does allow her classmate to solve the underlying issue. It's a fun story because it turns the idea around of a detective needing to find the truth, instead of focusing on the idea of a detective who only needs to find a workable solution for everyone involved.

The first and final story in this book are the main dish, and form a set together. Yukionna no Dilemma ("The Dilemma of the Snow Woman") features an interesting problem that, at first sight, could only occur in this series. Kotoko is this time approached by Yuki Onna (a female snow spirit) who seeks help for a dear human friend. Masayuki had once been saved by this Yuki Onna in the past already, but he had retreated to the countryside once again his wife cheated on him: he left his company and went back to the place where long ago, Yuki Onna had saved him from an icy death. Sheer coincidence has the two meet once again, and they slowly develop a friendship, with the Yuki Onna often staying at his home to drink and eat. A year after his divorce however, he's visited by the police, as his ex-wife has been murdered, and there are clues, like a partial dying message that point to Masayuki as the killer, as well as a letter written by his ex-wife sent after her death, where she accuses Masayuki of the murder if she dies an unnatural death. When asked for his alibi for the night of the murder however, Masayuki finds himself in a bind: he technically has an alibi, as he was eating and drinking with the Yuki Onna at his home, but how are you going to explain to the police you were spending the night with a spirit!? Masayuki and the Yuki Onna therefore ask Kotoko for help to resolve this problem. The idea of someone having a perfectly fine alibi save for the fact it's a supernatural alibi is pretty fun, though most of the problem is solved by Kotoko in a surprisingly "conventional" manner: she doesn't really need to twist facts for the police to solve this case without revealing the existence of the supernatural, for at the core, the murder itself is a completely human affair, and it's only the problem of Masayuki's alibi that depends on the supernatural. In that respect the story might be a bit disappointing, because the existence of the Yuki Onna is used in this story more effectvely for dramatic effect rather than for the mystery, even if it's an enjoyable story on its own.

The final story, Yuki Onna wo Kiru ("Slaying the Snow Woman") involves the Yuki Onna once again, but for a different problem. Long ago, in the Edo Period, there was a swordfighter who managed to defeat a Yuki Onna who had been challenging swordfighters and killed many of them. This man, Shirakura Hanbei, perfected his swordstyle, opening his own dojo and while he had no child of his own, he adopted a mysterious child who was at least as talented. At age 40 however, the unbeatable swordfighter Hanbei was found with his neck slashed open in the garden of his dojo and with his dying breath, he seemed to accuse the Yuki Onna. Many generations later, and Shirakura Shizuya finds himself consulting Kotoko. He is a direct descendent of the adopted son of Shirakura Hanbei, and he wants Kotoko to find out what happened to Hanbei, because he fears he's actually the offspring of the Yuki Onna, and thus a terrible murdering beast himself. Kotoko consults with the Yuki Onna from the first story, who reveals that Shizuya is actually her nephew, and that the Yuki Onna from the old story was in fact her older sister. So Shizuya is indeed half-youkai and while she explains everything to Kotoko, Kotoko is burdened with a different task: she has to come up with an explanation that will give Shizuya hope, an answer that won't lead to him cursing his own blood forever or even worse, actually turn himself into an evil spirit. This is not a conventional mystery story, as once again a lot of the "truth" is explained by spirits, and Kotoko's main concern lies not with the truth, but focuses on an acceptable lie. Personally, I do think the historical setting of (large parts of) the story undermines the "power" of this series. Kotoko's elaborate lies work best in the context of her abusing existing hard evidence to dance around the supernatural explanation, and such evidence are more clear in modern-day, real-time cases. But here, we're talking about a murder case that happened centuries ago, with only hearsay as "evidence" so Kotoko's interpretations just feel less... convincing in general.

I'd say Kyokou Suiri Tanpenshuu - Iwanaga Kotoko no Junshin (Invented Inference Short Stories - Innocence of Iwanaga Kotoko) is on the whole a fairly entertaining volume, though I do feel the first short story collection was better, with the individual stories being more memorable. This book does offer something interesting with two very different cases involving a Yuki Onna and those two stories are definitely the better ones in this volume, but their best moments simply don't match the best moments from the first short story collection. I'd still say the first book in this series is the best, and if you like the concepts and characters found there, this volume is also worth reading, The next one is a full novel again, and I have already purchased it, so let's see how that one will turn out!

Original Japanese title(s): 城平京『虚構推理短編集 岩永琴子の純真』:「雪女のジレンマ」/「よく考えると怖くないでもない話」/「死者の不確かな伝言」/「的を得ないで的を射よう」/「雪女を斬る」

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Deadline for Murder

“They always gives me bath salts," complained Nobby. "And bath soap and bubble bath and herbal bath lumps and tons of bath stuff and I can't think why, 'cos it's not as if I hardly ever has a bath. You'd think they'd take the hint, wouldn't you?”

Matsumoto Seichou is best known as the main figure of the shakai-ha (social school) movement, a post-war school of Japanese mystery fiction that places emphasis on the social backgrounds of crimes, which is usually often juxtaposed against honkaku orthodox puzzle plot mysteries. It is commonly said that Matsumoto's success was what led to the decline in popularity of the puzzle plot mystery in Japan starting the fifties, which would only be turned around in the second half of the eighties with The Decagon House Murders and other novels that explicitly markes a return to the puzzle plot. There are Matsumoto works I enjoy a lot, like Ten to Sen (Points & Lines) and its sequel Jikan no Shuuzoku, which are books that focus much more on the puzzle plot, but in general, I don't really have much fun with the books where Matsumoto zooms in on some person who's getting involved with all kinds of company politics and eventually finds themselves, often due to circumstances beyond their control, forced to commit some kind of crime. This is just a personal preference, and the reason why you don't see Matsumoto often on this blog here, even if by all standards, he's an important figure in Japanese mystery fiction: he just doesn't write the type of crime novels I like to read.

Baiu to Seiyouburo ("The Rain Season and A Western Bath Tub" 1971) is a somewhat minor work in Matsumoto's long list of books, and I think it's perhaps the best example of a book that, thematically, might be interesting to a lot of readers, but I personally didn't really like the book very much because it has an interesting mystery idea deep, deep within the book, but it's nearly undetectable due to the focus on the set-up, characterization and focus on social issues. It is a work which in a way, symbolizes how I have experienced Matsumoto's stories until now, all within one single novel. This book starts with an introduction of Kanezaki Gisuke, owner of a sake brewery with political aspirations. He also owns a local newspaper, where he voices very harsh criticisms on the achievements of the current people in power in Mizuo City, though he is willing to drop hot stories if these people agree to contribute "advertisement money" to his newspaper. Eventually, Gisuke manages to get himself elected into the city council, as part of the same political party as those in charge now, but he belongs to the minority faction within the party, so he is currently trying to turn things around within his own party and get "his" people elected and chosen into the major positions in Mizuo City. Because of his current political responsibilities, he has decided to hire a new man to help run his newspaper. Doi Genzou was initially a slow-witted man who could barely write two sentences worth reading, but under the guidance of Gisuke, he's become a well-known figure in Mizuo City now as the "face" of the newspaper, focusing on stories that are of course critical of the people running Mizuo City now, while praising the exploits of that brave city council member Gisuke. With Genzou as his new editor-in-chief, Gisuke also has more time to persue an affair with a woman in a different town in the prefecture, which is a popular tourist destination. But as the months pass by, Gisuke slowly sees things slipping out of his control, from his aspirations within the party to the political alignment of his own newspaper and the agenda of his once-loyal pawn Genzou, and this culminates a murder that only seems to benefit Gisuke, but he has an alibi for the time of the murder...

And a few moments later, the book ends.

This book is twenty-two chapters long. The first nineteen chapters, focus on Gisuke's life, how he starts his newspaper, how he decides to hire Genzou and train him, Gisuke getting elected in the city council, starting an affair, trying to play the political game, things going not the way he wants.... and then a dead body is discovered lying somewhere in an alley by the police at the start of chapter 20, an unnatural death for which only Gisuke seems to have a motive, but he also has an alibi for the time of the murder. As you can guess, the book rushes towards the end as there are only twenty-two chapters. It's not hard to guess that it was indeed Gisuke who did it, and that he somehow provided himself with a perfect alibi, but any clever notions the trick has don't really manage to impress because the story moves too fast here. The whole murder and Gisuke's perfect alibi all feel like an afterthought, an epilogue to the nineteen chapter long story of Gisuke's fall and him arriving at the intention to commit a murder. The concept behind how Gisuke managed to create a perfect alibi for himself is actually pretty good, and silly: there are some good clues hidden in the long nineteen chapter-long set-up, but an attentive reader can put the clues together and figure out how Gisuke managed to fabricate that alibi for himself, and it's both memorable (especially if you visualize it) and plotted cleverly. But it all feels underwhelming because this part of the story is dumped on the reader in the last few chapters. The mystery has been presented to the reader for one second when the solution arrives, giving the concept no time to settle or develop in any way. A waste, because the core idea is fun, and could have supported a story as the main focus easily.

So the first nineteen chapters, you are just reading about why Gisuke decided to commit the murder eventually (emphasis on eventually), showing how he first built his political power in Mizuo City by exposing corruption and pointing at the people in power, only to become one of them himself (while still using his own newspaper to leverage his own position). Providing a criminal with a motive is of course not a bad thing by any means, and some might like the detail with which we are shown Gisuke's life, but for me, this is overkill. Nineteen chapters of set-up is just too much, and even though there are hints and clues pertaining to the murder/Gisuke's trick hidden in this first section, hiding one or two (good) clues in a section nineteen chapters long is not very difficult of course. Readers who like chracterization more than the puzzle aspect of crime fiction, will probably love this book though as it certainly does a very thorough job of "preparing" Gisuke's mental state for the murder, but it doesn't work for me at all. The reverse (three chapters for set-up, nineteen about solving the crime) would have been my personal preference.

I won't say Baiu to Seiyouburo is a bad novel: but I can safely say it is not the type of mystery novel I enjoy. It focuses more on the aspects I don't care much about, and far less on the aspects I do care about, resulting in the type of novel that seems to me to symbolize Matsumoto Seichou's work. Which, if you like Matsumoto Seichou's work in general, is probably a sign you should read this book, because it does what Matsumoto does pretty well, really delving into Gisuke's state of mind, but I think it comes at the cost of elements that I personally enjoy more.

Original Japanese title(s): 松本清張『梅雨と西洋風呂』