Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Death Casts a Spell

"It's midnight."
"Cinderella"

I watched a lot of the classic Disney feature-length animated films when I was little, but Cinderella is one of the few I never saw...

The Thompson family was once a prominent family in the Kingdom of Illusion, but those days are a thing of the past now. Mother Catherine is still hoping that one day, the family will return to its former glory and her hopes are settled on her two daughters Giovanna and Layla. Cinderella, the child of her second husband who died a few years ago, is of course not part of Catherine's plans, and Cinderella is mostly just doing the odd jobs around the house. While Catherine, Giovanna and Layla are not as mean to Cinderella as you might have heard from certain fairly tales, it's still no surprise that Catherina plans to only take Giovanna and Layla to the 18th birthday party of Prince Olivier, hoping that the future king of the kingdom will fall in love with one of her daughters. Cinderella is to stay alone at the house, but is suddenly visited by a wizard, who conjures up a nice dress for Cinderella, as well as a pumpkin coach and a mouse-turned-human-coachman. The wizard also gives Cinderella a pair of specially made glass slippers that surprisingly aren't the product of magic. Cinderella really doesnt want to go to the castle party, because it was the perfect night to do some reading, but the wizard sends the stunningly-looking, but grumbling woman off, and a few moments later, Cinderella finds herself wandering at the ball under an alias, hoping Catherine and her step-sisters won't notice her. 

Prince Olivier does notice Cinderella though, and while she tries to decline a dance with the prince pointing to her glass slippers, the prince offers to lend Cinderella a proper pair of shoes from his collection and brings Cinderella to his private room. At first, Cinderella fears the prince might try some funny business, but it's really just a pair of shoes he offers her. They return to the ball, but after a while Cinderella decides it's time to return home, so she and the prince return to his room again to retrieve her glass slippers. Cinderella waits inside the room near the entrance while the prince goes behind a corner to get the slippers, but he takes an awfully long time to get them, and when Cinderella goes deeper inside the room to see what's keeping the prince, she stumbles upon the dead body of Prince Oliver lying on the floor. The guard standing outside the prince's room barges inside upon Cinderella's cry, and Cinderella is immediately arrested. Cinderella of course denies the accusation, even though on the surface, she's the only viable suspect: a guard was standing outside the prince's quarters all this time, and the only persons to go inside were the prince and Cinderella, and only one of these two is alive now. While Cinderella is given a minute to confide with Layla about her presence here, Cinderella is immediately put on trial for the murder on the beloved prince. While Cinderella is a fast talker and manages to stall a seemingly inevitable guilty sentence, time is ticking in Konno Tenryuu's Cinderella-jou no Satsujin ("The Cinderella Castle Murder" 2021), as the magic will fade at midnight revealing her true identity as Cinderella, child of the Thompson family and if she's found guilty, it will probably mean the death of Catherine, Giovanna and Layla too.

The last three, four years, I've been enjoying a lot of these mystery stories that are basically parodies of well-known children's stories, fables or other folk tales. These stories are patterned after these well-known tales, but transform them into magical locked room murders, devious murders where the murderer has a perfect alibi or a surprising whodunnit. Examples would be Kobayashi Yasumi's Märchen Murder series for example, which is based on well-known children's literature like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, or Aoyagi Aito's Once Upon A Time series, where he re-tells well known fairy tales from both Japan and the West as puzzle plot mystery stories. I absolutely love how these stories use tales we all know up to some degree, but transform them into detective stories that are both recognizable and new, and they also often utilize supernatural elements (magic) in clever ways. We all grew up on these stories and "know" the magic used in these tales, so it's really fun to see these elements most of us have known most of our lives used in mystery stories. Cinderella-jou no Satsujin was published last year and written by Konno Tenryuu, of which I have also read his Alchemist series, (it's basically Fullmetal Alchemist as a detective series), so I knew I could at least something decent from this book.

Making a comparison with a different work when discussing a certain book isn't the most elegant way of writing a review. In a way, it's pretty lazy, stating that A is similar to B, hoping the reader knows enough about "B" to understand what you are meaning. It's also something I do a lot in my reviews, because I am not really a really good reviewer. But honestly, I can't help but say this out loud: Cinderella-jou no Satsujin is exactly like a Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney story. There really is no other way to describe this book. And I don't even mean it in a negative way! In fact, I quite enjoyed reading Cinderella-jou no Satsujin, but if you have ever played any of the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney games, you can almost perfectly predict how the plot will unfold, because this book really follows the story pattern seen in those video games exactly. After the murder is discovered, Cinderella is immediately put on trial because the implications of the murder on Prince Oliver are just so big, even though the investigation at the crime scene hasn't even really ended yet! Almost everyone is already convinced Cinderella killed the prince as the trial commences, and even the judge doesn't sound really impartial as he makes the opening speech, but fortunately, if there's one thing Cinderella can do, it's think fast, and talk even faster, and it doesn't take long for Cinderella to pick up on little contradictions in the statements of the witnesses and attack those weak points, slowly proving that she was not the only one who could have murdered the prince even though initially it seems like an open-and-shut case.

And it's from this point on, Cinderella-jou no Satsujin unfolds almost as if it had originally been written as an episode in one of the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney games. Witnesses with quirky character traits appear at the witness stand with testimonies that initially seem to prove Cinderella's guilt, but Cinderella points out little contradictions each time, exposing these witnesses as either liars, or at least as someone who is under an misapprehension, and when pushed, it turns out their testimonies don't point unilaterally at Cinderella at all, and even open up opportunities for Cinderella to point at other suspects or prove how the apparent locked room murder of the prince is in fact not a locked room murder. The cycle of testimony -> contradictions -> new testimony or new witness -> contradictions is the bread and butter of the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney games, which in turn took inspiration from Columbo, but the whole courtroom setting combined with the way all the witnesses have some weird quirks or how they "transform" (drastically change mood/tone) when contradictions are pointed come straight out of the famous video game series. The book even has an extra investigation segment between two trial parts, where Cinderella is allowed to do some extra investigations at the crime scene, follows the story flow of any given Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney episode. 

The reader is therefore also kept entertained from start to finish, as Cinderella constantly solves little mysteries throughout the tale by pointing out the contradictions in the testimonies. The reader is also given a fair chance at noticing these contradictions themselves too, making this an engaging read because each time, you really want to notice the contradictions before Cinderella does. And whether you manage to point out these contradictions yourself first or not, there's always the extra question of why a certain contradiction exists. Did that witness just intentionally lie to hide something that would reveal Cinderella's innocence? Or were they deceived into assuming something, and why would that be the case? As the story continues, Cinderella of course also points out the possibility of magic having been used to kill Prince Oliver in the locked room. With Cinderella being given a magic dress and a pumpkin coach and more at the start of the tale, the reader is already mentally prepared for the implications of magic on the mystery plot, and Kanno does a good job at setting out the limitations of magic for this plot, similar to how alchemy plays an important role in his Alchemist series, but where it's not just a magic answer to everything. Magic perpaps plays not as prominently a role in Cinderella-jou no Satsujin as alchemy in the Alchemist series, but it's quite satisfying to see all the magic with a Cinderella motif put to good use in this mystery novel. Ultimately, I think the solution to the locked room murder on Prince Oliver is not really complex or surprising when examined as a singular plot idea (so if you'd only look at how the locked room murder came to be), but the journey to the solution is really entertaining and I enjoyed the ride to midnight.

I don't know if there are more mystery stories that are patterned after Cinderella, I assume there are, but Cinderella-jou no Satsujin at least is a fun one! While the basics of the fairy tale are still intact, the wise-cracking Cinderella and the other figures are funny original takes and additions to the tale, and as a mystery story, Cinderella-jou no Satsujin is a well-plotted mystery story that is especially fun if the reader tries to identify the contradictions themselves too, trying to solve the mystery before Cinderella does. I wouldn't mind if Konno would turn this into a series!

Original Japanese title(s):  紺野天龍『シンデレラ城の殺人』

3 comments :

  1. Honestly from the sounds of it, I wouldn't be surprised if this book was explicitly inspired by Ace Attorney. The venn diagram of "people who write shin-honkaku mysteries" and "people who have at some point experienced the cultural phenomena of Ace Attorney/Danganronpa/Detective Conan/Kindaichi Shounen" has to be nearly a circle, right? Like, Danganronpa V3 was literally co-written by a detective novelist, I can't imagine there's some kind of huge divide? Obviously you know better than I do, though, so correct me if I'm wrong.

    Anyway, this book sounds great. I am already sitting on 錬金術師の密室. I'm looking into easy books to read, so where would you place the difficulty level in this one?

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    1. Both are not very complex in terms of reading, but this one is probably easier than 錬金術師の密室, with more dialogues and of course a basic story setting you're likely to be familiar with.

      I know of multiple (shin) honkaku writers who mention they have played the games, but this was the first time I read a book that followed the actual story structure of Ace Attorney this closely (besides the Ace Attorney novels, obviously).

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    2. Awesome! I read the Kindle preview of シンデレラ城の殺人 and it seems really doable! Thanks for the recommendation! Definitely shout out some more Gyakuten Saiban-inspired novels you bump into!

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