Saturday, October 29, 2022

A Murder of Crows

"People once believed that when someone dies, a crow carries their soul to the land of the dead."
"The Crow"

Another mystery manga post in the same week!?

Thirty years ago, in 1992, comic readers were first introduced to 17-year old Kindaichi Hajime, a seemingly not-so-bright high school student who'd rather sleep than study, and his childhood friend Miyuki. However, we soon learned there is more than meets the eye. For Hajime was in fact the grandson of Kindachi Kousuke, the famous detective created by Yokomizo Seishi, and while not apparent as first, the moment Hajime found himself trapped on an island with a mysterious murder who could commit crimes under impossible circumstances, we saw how he definitely inherited his grandfather's mind for tackling mysteries. Ever 1992, Hajime, Miyuki and detective Kenmochi have been part of Japanese popular culture, with many adaptations based on the manga ranging from live-action and animation on both the small and silver screen, video games, audio dramas, net dramas and more. Unlike Detective Conan however, the manga series has not been running (more or less) consecutively or at a regular schedule. After two initial series, there was a hiatus between 2000 and 2004, after which the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo franchise has continued in the form of several irregular short series, sometimes only running for three months a year, sometimes in a regular weekly schedule and sometimes in a monthly. In 2018, a new series started titled Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo ("The Case Files of Kindaichi, Age 37"), set twenty years in the future and focusing on a 37-year old Hajime, who has grown very tired of solving mysteries, but who finds himself tackling more mysterious murders again. However, fans of the series of course that sooner or later, we would see the familiar 17-year old Hajime again, and what better occassion than the 30th anniversary of the series?

Earlier this year, the first volume of the new anniversary series titled Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo 30th, or The Case File of Kindaichi 30th was released, which seems to be replacing Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo for the moment.The second volume followed in October, and the two volumes together contain all the chapters to the story The Yatagarasu Vllage Murder Case, which is clearly intended to be a "classic" Kindaichi Shounen story, with Hajime, Miyuki and Kenmochi as the main characters, a story about a series of murders in an isolated setting that involves a creepy local legend and of course impossible crimes and locked room murders. Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo occasionally had stories with a more urban setting, which you don't see as often in the older series, but having this new series start with a story set in a creepy old village in a place that is about to be disappear off the charts feels kinda like returning home. Due to a nearby dam project finally finishing, the tiny village of Yatagarasu will be erased from the maps next week. Almost all villagers have moved out to their new homes already, and the few remaining villagers are those who help coordinate the final days of the old village, like the proprieter of the last inn, the shrine maiden of Yatagarasu Shrine and some former council members. Inspector Kenmochi has brought Hajime and Miyuki along to this village as a favor for a recently deceased friend: even on his dying bed, this fellow police inspector regretted he never managed to solve a strange disappearance case in Yatagarasu Village six years ago, where the man had been threatened and given police protection, and yet the man disappeared from his inn. Arriving at the same inn, which had been actually been quite busy with tourists wanting to have one look at the village before it would disappear. 

Kenmochi, Hajime and Miyuki are also invited to attend the last ritual visit to Yatagarasu Shrine. The Yatagarasu, the mythological three-legged crow, is worshipped in this village, and for centuries, there's been a monthly ceremony at night, which involves a visit to the deepest quarters of the shrine. The participants all have to walk in procession as they go deeper and deeper in the shrine, which consists of five chambers. The doors to the first four chambers are locked by two different keys, carried by two different important figures of the village, while the last door is sealed with special ceremonial paper by the shrine maiden. But when they arrive in the inner chamber after unlocking the previous five doors, they find a decapitated head on the altar for the Yatagarasu. The victim is the secretary of a former village council member, but how could the killer have placed this head here despite the five locked doors? Kenmochi calls for police reinforcements, but the road is blocked. During this wait, Hajime and Miyuki decide to help the villagers clean the village before it'll be flooded, collecting everything in garbage bags,but then another decapitated head is discovered, despite everyone in the closed-off village having an alibi. It is then they realize that according to legend, the Yatagarasu eats humans, but always leaves the head...

A rather busy story, like we are used to from old Kindaichi Shounen stories: there's a disappearance in the past, and as things develop in the present, we are presented to three different locked room or impossible crimes: the decapitated head in the inner chamber of the shrine, another decapitated head inside a room (with paper doors!) of the inn and a decapitated head found in a place despite everyone having an alibi for the period the head was placed at that location. The latter is of course also a staple of the series: the "impossible crime" due to every suspect having an iron-clad alibi for the period the crime must have occured. In form, The Yatagarsu Village Murder Case is everything you would expect of a classic Kindaichi Shounen story and vibe-wise, it's a welcome return to these kinds of stories, as you simply didn't get them as often in the series with the older Hajime. While you don't get to see too much of the village itself, the idea of the whole village (and all the evidence!) disappearing in just a week is pretty depressing, and seeing the remaining villagers doing mundane things like gathering all the remaining garbage to ensure the village is "clean" when the time comes and to leave a good "imprint" on nature is touching.

But I have to admit, overall I was a bit disappointed with the story, though perhaps this story was just a bit unlucky in that regard. The first murder, where the decapitated head is found behind five different doors inside a long shrine, four of them locked with two different keys, and the final door sealed with ceremonial paper used signed by the shrine maiden. I like the idea behind the trick... but I already know the same trick from a different mystery manga, and it even uses a very, very similar setting (temple/shrine), so it came to me rather quickly. I have read that one, well, not "recently" as in these last two years, but still recent enough to recognize it almost immediately, and that did disappoint me, as both the idea and execution here are very close to the first instance I read of the same trick. The two other impossibilities in this story in comparison are far simpler, and obviously just there as "side-dishes" to the main that should have been the shrine mystery.  They are not really memorable on their own, and especially the last one is hint-wise quite disappointing, as a lot of the physical clues Hajime points to at the end aren't visible on the pages despite him saying so. Yes, it would have given the trick away too easily perhaps, but now I feel like this story is cheating a bit, something this series doesn't really do often. The second impossible crime, where everybody has an alibi for the time the decapitated head was placed at where it was found, is good in concept and execution: I just really don't like the clewing applied here. It reminds of a similar instance of bad clewing in one story in Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo, where "an important hint" is introduced very late by having someone mention something out of the blue about a topic completely irrelvant to the rest of the story, but that somehow applies to crime. Of course, an "unrelated remark" functioning as a clue for the detective is very normal in mystery fiction, so it's not the action that bothers me, it's just how awful this "unrelated remark" is introduced in the story. Like, if the "unrelated remark" is about the stars or something like that, have a character be interested in stars from the start and mention things like that throughout the story. Here it just feels like Amagi couldn't think of any way to "naturally" introduce a clue, so the whole section feels very artificial.

So I wasn't too big of a fan of the first two volumes of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo 30th, or The Case File of Kindaichi 30th  that tell The Yatagarasu Village Murder Case: I think that in terms of dynamics and atmosphere, it's a fine return to the old, classic set-up of Hajime, Miyuki and Kenmochi tackling the type of cases we have learned to expect from this series, and in terms of scale/length, it's also the type of story we haven't really seen for some years now. But the main mystery of this story is just too similar to a different mystery manga I read relatively recently, so despite the cool setting, it just felt a bit disappointing, especially as the other murders in this story just feel like "extras" to what should have been an impressive main act. Nonetheless, it's not a bad story, and I for one am glad to see 17-year old Hajime again. The next volume is scheduled for next year, though I assume it will only have part of the next story, so it's very likely my next review of this series will only be once the fourth, or perhaps even fifth volume is released.

Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸(原)、さとうふみや(画)『金田一少年の事件簿30th』第1, 2巻

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Murder, She Spoke

"Follow me to a place where incredible feats are routine every hour or so"
"Arabian Nights" (Return of Jafar ver.)

Before the television, and before comic books were widely available, one of the major sources of entertainment for children in Japan was kamishibai, or "paper theatre". As the name implies, kamishibai artists were storytellers, who used big illustration boards to accompany the tales of adventure and mystery to told to children on the street. Often, these storytellers would sell candy to these children to make a living, and their stories were often basically serialized stories with many chapters. By ending each session with a cliffhanger, they could entice the children to come back the next time to listen to the continuation of the story. Kamishibai is an important, and direct predecessor of manga and anime, as you basically had these storytellers "live-dubbing" scenes of a story using those big illustration boards. Many of the manga artists post World War II also had a history as a kamishibai illustrator, with manga legend Mizuki Shigeru being one of the best known nowadays. Kamishibai were still around after World War II during the time the allied powers occupied the country, but with the rise of the comic industry, and later televisions (and anime), kamishibai eventually became a just interesting oddity of the past you might come across somewhere by chance now.

In 1947, Japan is of course still under the control of the allied powers, commonly referred to in Japan as GHQ (General Headquarters). Date Hoshirou is a kamishibai storyteller who is always welcomed by his young audience, who have given him the nickname Powarou (which incidentally sounds almost like "Poirot"). The children are always waiting to hear what happens next to Sherlock Holmes and the other detectives he tells about, but quite often, Date ends up being picked up by the Military Police. Not because performing on the street is illegal though: Date taught Colonel Wayne of the GHQ the Japanese language, and he also happens to be a former Pinkerton detective. Colonel Wayne often hires Date as a private detective when the military police get involved with mysterious cases that require specifically a Japanese person, for example when the case involves local beliefs or legends. To people who meet him for the first time, Date might not look particularly smart, but more often than not, he manages to solve the cases no other person can in the manga Powarou - Yakeato Tanteichou ("Powarou - Tales of Detection In the Ashes of War").

Powarou - Yakeato Tanteichou was a short-lived mystery manga by artist Endou Taiga and writer Kaneda Shoutarou, originally serialized in Big Comic Spirits between 1996 and 1997. There are only two volumes collecting the individual chapters, but the second volume ends with an announcement of the release window of the third volume, which was never actually released. Considering this third volume was properly announced, I suspect there are a few chapters of this series that were serialized in the magazine already, but never collected. Anyway. I first heard about.... no, the only place I ever heard about this series was in 2018's Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar, the fantastic resource on the history of puzzle plot manga. The reason it attracted my attention was the mention this manga featured a Challenge to the Reader: each tale would end with a Challenge to the Reader in the penultimate chapter, daring the reader to figure out whodunnit. While I was very interested in this series right from the start, the manga had been out of print for decades and the series itself is not available as an e-book unlike The Case Notes of Father Sakura for example (also a manga I found via Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar with a Challenge to the Reader), so for some years, the title had been in my "Oh, one day, I'll try to locate the books... Oops I forgot about it for some months. Again." mental shelf. But I finally got around to obtaining the two volumes, and I have to say, it might not be actual gold, but it was a fun series that really could, and I truly feel should have grown into a longer series because the potential was there.

Being set immediately after World War II and featuring cases that often involve local beliefs and legends, the series is definitely going to appeal to people who like the adventures of Kindaichi Kousuke, and if there's one thing to praise Powarou - Yakeato Tanteichou about, it's definitely the atmosphere. The opening story for example has a man killed in a storehouse which was locked from the inside, and the man is found with the decapitated head of a statue of Shuuten Douji on his stomach, a mythical demon who was defeated by Minamoto Raikou and his retainers, the statue being in the possession of one of the descendents of those retainers. The visual of a man lying beneath the head of Shuuten Douji is pretty gruesome, and considering the relative short length of these stories (two or three chapters), most of them do a fairly good job at fleshing out the local legends, ghost stories and beliefs that often play in the background of these stories. One of the better stories is collected in the second volume, and involves a series of deaths that follow the lyrics of centuries old song, which definitely invokes a Kindaichi Kousuke vibe, right?  Most of the stories also make use of the historical setting, with some focusing on Americans living in Japan or with motives being based on notions/habits/mores of those times. 

After reading the first volume, you'll be tempted to assume this is a series focusing on impossible crimes, as the first story is about the aforementioned man lying beneath the head of a decapitated statue in a storehouse locked from the inside, the second about a girl student whose throat has been sliced open while she was alone in a car of a ropeway and the final one not exactly "impossible", but if the obvious suspect isn't the killer, the other suspects all have an iron-clad alibi for the murder of a priest in a temple far away from the location the others were. The second volume however has three more stories that aren't as focused on any impossibilities, though the murder of a noh-actor in his room stabbed by the horns of a hannya-mask and a blood trail leading to a painting of a hannya-mask comes close. As mentioned, one important characteristic of this series that each story features a genuine Challenge to the Reader by Date. And I have to say, these stories are quite fair, perhaps to a fault. While sometimes aspects like motive aren't properly hinted at, it's usually more than possible for the attentive reader to solve whodunnit and how, as most of the time, the stories are very fairly-clewed. To a fault, I said, as most of the stories are also pretty easy to solve too: often the mystery plots are just variations of familiar tropes and other 'twists' in mystery fiction, and while I do have to say the execution is always more than passable, they do sometimes lack a real surprise factor. Though I guess that is because these stories were written with those Challenge to the Readers in mind, and in that regard, it is fair to say those Challenges are done really well: most of the stories are properly clewed, some through clever visual clues, others with simply well mystery writing and you never feel cheated. If you'd compare to the earliest Detective Conan stories for example, I'd say that quality-wise, Powarou - Yakeato Tanteichou is never worse, and often better than those stories, so it's a shame the series stopped after two volumes already. The two or three chapter structure of the stories are also a shame, as some of the stories feel like they could've been worked out into much bigger and deeper, as the base idea and the atmosphere are good. That coupled with the Challenges really makes this a series that feels like it lived far too short.

I mentioned how the second volume ends with an announcement for the third volume which was never released earlier, but as a bonus, these collected volumes also included a short five page prose story, which of course also featured a Challenge to the Reader. The first volume had the first part of a bonus story, which ended with a Challenge, and the solution to the story was included in the second volume. The second volume also included the first part of a new bonus prose story and a Challenge, and the solution was scheduled to appear in the third volume... but that one never came, so they never printed the solution. These stories are pretty easy to solve though, so even without the third volume, I am fairly certain I managed to solve the second story too.

Powarou - Yakeato Tanteichou is a series that really should have gone on for a few more volume, as there was the potential to become something much more memorable, even if it's worth a look even now if you happen to across the volumes. It is rare for a mystery manga to have a proper Challenge to the Reader each time, and the very atmospheric stories are well-clewed and fun to read. The biggest "fault" the stories have now is that they tend to be on the simple side, obviously building on familiar twists and solutions of the genre, and that coupled with the generous clewing means the stories sometimes undersell the "surprise element" of mystery fiction. Had the series gone on for more volumes, I can imagine the writer trying to go beyond these safe zone: truly a shame this series stopped at two volumes. The two volumes can be found for very little in the used manga market though, so if you happen to be interested, I think it can be worth it to take a look at this series.

Original Japanese title(s): 円堂たいが (画), 金田正太郎(作)『ポワ郎 焼け跡探偵帖』第1~2巻

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

The Voice in the Dark

I can open your eyes 
Take you wonder by wonder
"A Whole New World" (Brad Kane, Lea Salonga)

I think I have mentioned it before when discussing historical mysteries here, but I am not particularly strong in the subject of history. And I am even worse when it comes to details in history. However, ever since I was young, I was always interested in myths like the mythology of the ancient Greeks and the Romans, and also unsolved historical riddles and/or hidden meanings behind historical events etc. I loved watching documentaries talking about the "truth" behind topics like the pyramids, Stonehenge and Atlantis, or reading about interpretations of myths and folktales and learning what they (presumably) were really about. Of course, you can easily see the overlap with my love for mystery fiction here, a genre that is often about the appearance of "a story" (the apparent happenings of a crime) and a hidden truth behind that appearance. 

It is a reason why I really liked Kujira Touichirou's Yamataikoku wa Doko Desuka? ("Where is Yamatai-koku?" 1998) when I read it two years ago: it was a short story collection that wasn't like any other typical mystery book. The stories collected here were about historical mysteries, like the question of where Yamatai-koku was located or even how Jesus manage to rise from his grave. But while the questions were not typical of mystery fiction, the way the characters discussed these "cases", came up with theories and built on these theories to arrive at a "logical" conclusion would have felt familiar to any mystery reader. The fun part of these stories was that the conclusion was always completely bonkers from a historical point of view. When you were done with a story, you knew the "truth" they arrived at was absolutely not true because it would be incredibly far-fetched, yet at the same time it would have parts that sounded really convincing, precisely because the theories were built using actual historical sources, and then examined through the deduction process as we know from mystery novels: highlighting all clues (in this case historical sources and the contradictions found there), how to interpret and explain clues/discrepancies and finally construct, through the process of proposing ideas, examining and if necessary rejecting them) a theory that explains everything, while incorporating all the clues/sources discussed. While the book was about real history and used real clues and sources, it was an excellent case study to show that mystery fiction doesnt need to be realistic to be amusing.

It shouldn't come as a surprise I was interested in reading more of this series, so today we have Shin Sekai no Nanafushigi ("The New Seven Wonders of the World" 2005), the second book to bring us to the little bar Three Ballets. Here we find the bartender Matsunaga, the historian Shizuka, the reporter Miyata with a knack for coming up with outrageous theories and this time, we also find Shizuka's guest Professor Hartman: he's visiting Japan for a congress, and Shizuka has promised to go with him to Kyoto. However, every time some other reasons pops up to prevent her from going, so she keeps meeting with Hartman in the evening at Three Ballets, promising they'll definitely go tomorrow. Hartman is very interested in Japanese culture, but his presence at the Three Ballets always leads to discussions between Miyata, Shizuka and Matsunaga about Western history, and especially, unsolved mysteries. For example, where lies Atlantis? But was also the purpose of Stonehenge, and why do so many cultures have a myth of a Great Flood? Every time they argue about these topics however, it's Miyata who ultimately arrives at a completely crazy, but strangely convincing hypothesis about those historical mysteries...

In a way, this is the exact same book as the first collection. Sure, the first book focused more on Asian history and this one more on history outside Asia, but the way each story unfolds is basically the same between both volumes. Some idle chat early on leads to the characters focusing on a specific historical mystery, they discuss various theories and interpretations regarding that mystery and finally Miyata comes up with an entertaining, but rather far-fetched explanation. For those not familiar with Asian history however, this second volume is a more accessible work, considering its topics like Noah's ark, Stonehenge, pyramids and the Nazca lines. Some minor knowledge of Japanese history and culture is handy, as often Miyata does refer to those, but considering we also have Hartman as a non-Japanese proxy character, you'd almost think this book was written for an overseas audience in the first place, as a variant version of the first book. Not that I am complaining, as both books are very entertaining.

I am not going to discuss the seven stories seperately here because they are all quite short and all you really need to know is that each story is about a major historical mystery like the aforementioned Stonehenge, Altantis or something the Yellow Emperor and his terracota army or the Moai statues. What is great is how Kujira utilizes methodology from mystery fiction to come up with batshit insane theories that somehow sounds somewhat convincing, even though your mind tells you it can't be true in anyway. What's really clever is that Kujira even manages to find a common theme between these various historical mysteries, even though they come from completely different places in the world and are set in completely different time periods. It's bonkers, but oh-so-much-fun! 

I mentioned it the review of the first book, but people who like the Professor Munakata series, or Katou's Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou and/or C.M.B. Shinra Hakubutsukan no Jiken Mokuroku will love this series too, I think. Sure, these stories look at "big history" so may lack the human drama angle of Katou's manga series, but the way these tales play with interpretation, and reinterpretation of a historical event should be very recognizable.

Shin Sekai no Nanafushigi might not be improving in any way on the first volume, but it's still a very entertaining short story collection that brings a lot of romanticism to these well-known historical mysteries and riddles, and it does that using methods we all know very well from mystery fiction. The book shows us once again that mystery fiction needs to be amusing and entertaining, and not necessarily realistic and that the joys of mystery fiction can be found anywhere, even in "hard history."

Original Japanese title(s): 鯨統一郎 『新・世界の七不思議』:「アトランティス大陸の不思議」  / 「ストーンヘンジの不思議」  / 「ピラミッドの不思議」  / 「ノアの方舟の不思議」 / 「始皇帝の不思議」  / 「ナスカの地上絵の不思議」  / 「モアイ像の不思議」

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

The Second Shot

Prepare for trouble!
And make it double!

I read today's book as a digital release, but I have this slight annoyance with the bunko-size pockets published by some publishers like Bunshun (of today's book) and Kobunsha, as their bunko-size pockets don't actually fit in my bunko-size bookcovers. For some reason, they are just a few millimetres too high... why can't they just use the normal size...?

Akari is still in high school, but managed to win an award with her mystery short story. This of course meant the first step in a long and succesful career in the industry of mystery writing... or at least, so she had hoped, but she's hopelessly stuck on coming up with a plot of her first original book. According to her not-so-scrupulous editor, there are plenty of high school student girls who win an award with a story, but then fall of the radar because they are unable to write a follow-up work, so Akari certainly feels the pressure to not become one of them. Fortunately for her, her brother is a police detective, assigned to the Homicide division of the Metropolitan Police Department, the most prestigious section of the whole police organization. Thanks to the auspices of their father, a Senior Commissioner at the MPD, Daisuke's placed in the career fast-track, despite him not being the fastest thinker on the force. Reality is stranger than fiction, they sometimes say, so Akari decides to nag her brother for juicy inside information about weird crimes that have recently occured, hoping they will inspire her and serve as a basis for her first book. While straight-laced Daisuke knows he shouldn't just tell his teenager sister about confidential investigations, Akari is a lot wilier than her brother and always manages to fool Daisuke into bringing her to the crime scenes and have her meet the witnesses and suspects (with the story that it's part of her social studies class). And the crimes Akari hears about do sound like they would work as mystery stories: from a dead body that appears in a storehouse that is always kept locked to the same pistol being used in two different crimes at two different locations at the same time, there's plenty of inspiration to be found in Kurachi Jun's short story collection Doppelgänger no Juu ("The Pistol of the Doppelgänger" 2021). 

I have to admit, after reading the excellent Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Mountain Lodges beneath the Shooting Stars"), which was my first time reading a work by Kurachi, I started looking into what more he had written, and Doppelgänger no Juu was one of the books that attracted my attention most. But not because the blurb on the back sounded especially appealing or anything. It was simply the cover: the art is so charming and attractive, and I knew I wanted to read this book sooner or later. I didn't know about the premise of the book until I opened it.

The book opens with Bungou no Kura - Misshitsu Kuukan ni Gotsuzen to Shutsugen Shita Tasatsu Shitai ni Tsuite ("The Storehouse of the Literary Giant - Regarding The Murder Victim Who Suddenly Appeared Inside a Locked Space"), where Akari manages to convince Daisuke to bring her to the murder scene involving the author Tokuyama Asen. Or to be exact, Tokuyama's storehouse. For Tokuyama Asen's been dead for some time now, but he's a well-respected figure in the world of Japanese literature, and the local municipality has been in talks with Asen's grandson to have Asen's house converted to a museum. Asen also had a large storehouse in his garden where he worked and kept his own book collection, which actually has a few rare editions and other collector's items. For the moment however, there's no budget reserved for this project, so for the time being, the plan was for the grandson, a civil servant attached to the town's culture preservation section, an acquaintance of the grandson attached to the literature faculty of a university and a local antiquarian bookseller to sift through the contents of the storehouse together, see what books can be sold to create an initial budget and see where they go from there. For about a month, these four have been meeting in the weekends at the storehouse, which is kept locked with a big padlock because of the valuable books inside. Last weekend however, one of the four didn't appear at the usual time, so the other three decided to go inside first, but to their surprise they found the fourth member already lying dead inside. The grandson, the only person with the key to the storehouse, swears absolutely that the key never left his side though this whole last week since their last meeting and he has an alibi for the time of the murder, so how did the body appear inside the storehouse?

As I have grown used to with Kurachi's work, this is a very well-structured and plotted mystery story, with comedic undertones (with Akari coming up with ways to fool her brother in doing her bidding and some sibling fights), but I have to say that this story is rather long considering the plot, and that is something that holds for all three stories in this volume. I feel all of these stories could have been at least one-third shorter, and they'd still feel as fleshed out as they are now mystery-wise. Some of the conversations just go on for much longer than they should, and they ultimately do make the mystery story feel less interesting too, at least to me, because while I do think the way clues and theories are set-up, say the technical writing of the mystery story, is good, I also feel like Kurachi have done more considering the rather lengthy... length of the story. In this story, the mystery revolves around how the dead body could've appeared in the storehouse despite the grandson saying the key never left him since the last weekend when they cleaned the storehouse. Kurachi, as a writer who works clearly in the Queen tradition, does a good job at laying out clues that allow you to build multiple theories to solve this impossible crime, and at the same time, he lays out other clues that disprove those theories, until you arrive at a simple, but elegant solution, but considering that took about 150 pages, I feel it's a bit too simple and there could've been one more twist or extra surprise to really sell the story, especially as the core problem (a body appearing in a locked space) isn't particularly unique when it comes to impossible crime tropes.

The title story Doppelgänger no Juu - Futatsu no Chiten de Douji ni Jiken wo Okosu Bunshin Shita Satsujinsha ni Tsuite ("The Pistol of the Doppelgänger - Regarding the Murderer Who Divided Themselves and Committed Crimes At Two Different Locations Simultaneously") is similarly a story that feels a tad too long, but the premise is at least a lot more appealing. One afternoon, a convenience story in the northern parts of Tokyo is robbed in broad daylight, by a masked man wielding a pistol who for good measure even shot some holes in the ceiling, but fortunately nobody got hurt. Around the same time, people in a tenant building hear some fighting going and shots fired at a shady detective agency located in the southern parts of Tokyo, and when later someone goes to check, the detective is found shot in his office. When the police reconstruct the murder and check the bullets in the body, they find out the bullets match the bullets shot in the ceiling of the convenience store, meaning they were shot from the same weapon but not only that, they learn that the two crimes must have occured practically simultaneously, with only one or two minutes difference, even though it takes about two hours to drive from the convenience store to the murder scene! How could the same pistol be used in two crimes that occured simultaneously at completely different places? I find this problem a lot more alluring than the one from the first story, and I think the clewing is better too. Once again, there are also enough clues that allow the reader to make wrong guesses/deductions, but I think the one major clue that allows the reader to tie these two crimes together is really clever, both the idea itself as well as the manner in which the clue is presented to the reader, hidden very well within the story and yet the moment it pops up again in the denouement you immediately realize what it actually means and how that could've made this impossible crime possible. This is the title story of the book for a good reason, for it is definitely the best story.

The previous story is clearly the best in the book, but I can't say for sure whether the last story, Tsubasa wo Haeta Satsui - Konseki wo Issai Nokosazu ni Kuuchuu Hishou Shita Hannin ni Tsuite ("Malice With Wings - Regarding the Murderer Who Left No Footprints and Flew Through the Sky") is better than the first story or not. Technically, the story is definitely "bigger", with more misdirection, clues and potential for false hypotheses and the manner in which it builds on theories to lead to the final solution is also better than the first story, but I think that the final solution is also a lot easier to guess than the first story, and some might even guess what happened by the time the basic premise is presented. Here Daisuke tells Akari about an elderly, rich man who was found dead in a teahouse in his garden. He was hanging from a rope hanging from a beam near the ceiling, and as his wife died some months earlier and the only footsteps found in the December snow from the main house to the teahouse were those of the man (only going) and the tracks of the wheelchair of his eldest son who found him the next morning, the police initially thinks it's a suicide, but the police detectives are also aware that the man's three sons all had their eyes set on their father's riches, and that any of the three might've wanted to get their inheritance early. But at the same time, it was impossible for any of them to commit the murder: the whole garden between the main house and the tea house was covered in snow and only the earlier mentioned tracks were found, and physically speaking, none of the brothers could've committed the murder either: the two oldest sons were involved in a car accident some months ago, which put the oldest son (who lived with his father) in a wheelchair, and the other a broken arm, which means none of them could've hung a man from a beam two metres high, while the youngest son is just physically too small and weak to have done the same. A rather traditional "which of the three" mystery story, with all three suspects having a specific reason for why they couldn't have committed the crime, which is strengthened by the fact there were no footprints left by the murderer in the snow. Technically a sound story, with all these classic elements and a proper build-up to theories and the discarding of them, but ultimately, it can't hide the fact that the solution isn't nearly as surprising as the story pretends it is. While not a disappointing solution per se, the fact that these three stories all feel a bit long-winded anyway doesn't help. It is a perhaps a good example of a technically solid story, but for a premise that shouldn't be used in a story of this length.

But did I like Doppelgänger no Juu? Yes, I did, and especially the title story is worth a read, as it's truly a solid mystery story. The other two stories however feel similar to me in the sense that they are structurally well-plotted, with thoughtful clewing, false hypotheses, and a proper logical build-up to the solution for the impossible crimes. Impossible mysteries often have a tendency to be just mystery stories that require the reader to have a spark of inspiration or just "think of the solution" based on one vague clue, but that's never the case with Kurachi, who often uses false theories to lead you to the true solution in a logical manner (theory X isn't true, but that if you consider this aspect of theory X, perhaps Y is possible). However, both the first and last story feel much too long for what they offer, as the base impossible crimes in these stories are fairly simple, and I feel that had these stories been shorter, I would have been more impressed by what was accomplished in a certain page count, while now, I have the feeling these stories were made muuuuch longer than they should've been just so these three stories would be the length of one book together. So in terms of mystery writing, this is a solid book, but it's not always as surprising as you'd hope it to be.

Original Japanese title(s): 倉知淳『ドッペルゲンガーの銃』:「文豪の蔵 密閉空間に忽然と出現した他殺死体について」/「ドッペルゲンガーの銃 二つの地点で同時に事件を起こす分身した殺人者について」/「翼の生えた殺意 痕跡を一切残さずに空中飛翔した犯人について」

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Don't Monkey With Murder

"Now is the time for the ultimate in Monkey Kombat!" 
"Escape from Monkey Island"

So I've been running behind with writing some of my reviews... I wrote this post eight months after reading this book...

After Mukashi Mukashi Aru Tokoro ni, Shitai ga Arimashita ("Once Upon A Time, There Was A Body", 2019) and Akazukin, Tabi no Tochu Shitai to Deau ("And On Her Way, Little Red Riding Hood Met A Corpse" 2020), Aoyagi Aito returns again to the world of fables and legends in his third short story collection in which he retells famous fairy tales as mystery stories. Whereas he made a trip to Western fairy tales in the second volume, the third volume titled Mukashi Mukashi Aru Tokoro ni, Yappari Shitai ga Arimashita ("Once Upon A Time, There Really Was A Body", 2021) returns to Japan, presenting five short stories that will sound very familiar in a way, but also very different as each time, Aoyagi manages to add completely new twists to stories that everyone knows. The impressive part of this series has always been that Aoyagi manages to make splendid use of the supernatural and magical themes of each of the stories, while preserving the fair-play spirit of the puzzle plot mystery story. Magical tools, houses made out of candy, wizards: all the stories embrace the supernatural motifs of the original fairy tale, and make excellent use of them to bring utterly original mystery stories, which at the same feel very familiar because most of us will be familiar with these fables. The second volume featured an overarching storyline involving Little Red Riding Hood travelling the world with her basket full of delicious food, but the third volume is closer in set-up to the first one, once again opting for (mostly) disconnected stories.

Taketori Tantei Monogatari ("A Bamboo-Cutter Detective Story") is of course based on the story of the Bamboo Cutter and Princess Kaguya, probably one of the best known Japanese fairy tales outside of Japan, for example due to the anime film The Tale of Princess Kaguya. This story is narrated by Shigenao, a bamboo cutter who one day finds a baby girl inside a bamboo shoot. He takes her home and raises her as his own daughter with the help of Yasu, an old friend. To their surprise, the girl Kaguya not only grows up into a beauty, but she also does that incredibly fast. Eventually, five suitors appear who all want to marry Kaguya, but she seems not very interested. She announces that the five suitors must each find one mythical item, ranging from a jeweled branch from the island of legends Hourai to a robe of Chinese fire-rat skins. They are to return in one year, and the person who has found his item will be found suitable to marry Kaguya. One year passes and Shigenao, Kaguya and Yasu see the five suitors appear in town again, all claiming they have found what they had been tasked with. The showing is to be held the day after, but during the night, Yasu's home catches fire. Shigenao and Kaguya try to save him, but find the house locked from the inside. When the fire is over, they go inside, and find Yasu dead, but he did not burn to death, but was already stabbed to death prior. But how could the murderer have escaped the locked hosue? Well, it shouldn't come as a surprise the various magical items mentioned earlier become relevant here, and once again Aoyagi manages to present a really entertaining story by using familiar motifs of the original story and utilize them in a genuine mystery story: we see Shigenao and Kaguya theorize which of these items could have been used to create the locked room murder, something you'd never have thought of when you first heard the fairy tale. Not only that, but Aoyagi manages to add in multiple false solutions in this relatively short tale and even has a bigger surprise in store by recontextualizig the whole fairy tale of Princess Kaguya at the very end, making this a fantastic opening story that basically pulls off everything this series should always strive for.

Nanakaime no Omusubi Kororin ("The Seventh Time the Rice Ball Rolled") is based on Omusubi Kororin, a story I myself didn't know beforehand. It follows old Soushichi, who is jealous of his neighbour Yonehachi, who became rich after chasing his rice ball rolling down the hill and found himself inside a hole inhabitated by mice, who offered the man a feast and a treasure. Soushichi tries to do the same, so he too rolls a rice ball down the hill and rolls down after it, and indeed, he finds himself shrunk and inside a gigantic underground network inhabitated by mice, who thank him for his rice ball and treat him to a feast. The old man is rather impatient though, and tries to get the part where he's given a treasure, but during dinner, one of the mice is found murdered in the food storage, but the storage had guarded, so it's a mystery how the mouse was killed. The old man then ends up dead... only not really, because he wakes up at the top of the hill again with his rice ball intact. He tries the thing again, and slowly realizes he must be in some kind of time loop, as the mice don't seem to remember he came earlier. Eventually, the mouse-murder occurs again, but once again, Soushichi's fixation on just leaving the cave a rich man eventually results in his death.... and he wakes up again at the top of the hill. Eventually, he guesses that the murder is involved with his Groundhog Day experience and he decides to solve it so he can finally leave this place. The impossible crime element of this story is quite clever, utilizing the original motifs of this fairy tale to present a mystery story that really could have worked in the world of mice. I wasn't that big a fan of the execution of the time loop aspect though. The "rules" behind the time loop are quite complex considering the length of the story, and they feel very arbitrary, with a lot of specific rules that only seem to be there to confuse the reader. That is why the "reveal" at the end doesn't feel really satisfying, because it's based on time loop rules that seemed to change after each story section.

Warashibe Tajuu Satsujin ("The Multiple Murders of the Straw") is a story is very tricky and complex considering the length, but the manner in which it utilizes the Straw Millionaire story doesn't become apparant until very late in the story, making this story somewhat difficult to rate. As on one hand, it is a definitely a good detective story, but its connection to the base fable isn't as strong as in other stories in this book. The story starts with the three deaths of the very same man: the mystery man Hachiemon turns out to have been living a double, nay, triple life as a mountain thief, merchant and money-lender, but for some reason he managed to be killed by three people in his three personas on the same night! Eventually the investigation into his murder leads to the home of the famous Straw Millionaire, a man who started with a piece of straw and with the guidance of bodhisattva Kannon trades himself up the world. Saying more would just spoil too much, but it's honestly a good story, just one where you feel the link with the fable is kinda weak and almost feel like it was added in later.

The final two stories, Shinsou: Sarukani Gassen ("The Truth Behind the Monkey-Crab Battle") and  Saruroku to Bunbuku Koukan Satsujin ("Saruroku and the Boiling Murder Exchange") form one story together, with the first story setting up the motive for the second story. The first story is a kind of folkloristic analysis of The Monkey-Crab Battle, a folklore tale where a monkey and crab get into a fight for a rice ball and the monkey ends up killing the crab. Friends of the crab then conspire to kill the monkey in his home. In this tale, the son of the murdered monkey tells someone about this tale, but then explains the famous tale isn't the truth, as there was a much bigger plot hidden beneath the version everyone knows. In a way, it's similar to other folklore-centric detective stories I have read in the past, like Professor Munakata, the Toujou Genya series and the Three Ballets series, where motifs of well-known folklore tales are examined and shown to have a hidden origin/meaning. In this story, the motifs from the original tale like the chestnut, cow dung and mortar who all conspired to kill the monkey, are shown to have been something else, though still firmly set in "fairy tale logic". It's a fun story that on one hand "analyses a folktale and shows the underlying meanings of certain motifs" while at the same time still remaining firmly set within the fairy tale world itself, resulting in a rather unique reading experience. The twist at the end basically sets-up the last story in the volume, which tells us of the mastermind monkey behind everything and who has been in hiding ever since, fearing revenge.

So in Saruroku to Bunbuku Koukan Satsujin ("Saruroku and the Boiling Murder Exchange"), we learn the monkey Nantenmaru has been fearing revenge for quite some while now, and he is living on an small island right at the centre of the territory of a large monkey clan, whose leader fortunately is fond of Nantenmaru and who has been keeping Nantenmaru save on that island. The island is surrounded by a thick, muddy swamp that will swallow anyone trying to get in, and there are no high trees around the island, making Nantenmaru's boat the only way to cross to the island. One day, Saruroku ("Sherlock") and his assistant visit the monkey enclave and there's also a feast that night. After the party, Nantenmaru returns to the island that night, but the following day, he's found murdered in his boat, his head stuck in the muddy water of the swamp. But who could've made their way to Nantenmaru's home on the island? As a locked room murder story, this one makes good use of the fairy tale setting to present a solution that is only acceptable in this specific world, but I think the merits of this story especially lies in the way it interacts with the previous story: this is really the 'second half' of the story, and a lot of the more clever revelations and twists are built on the set-up of the first story. 

Once again, Aoyagi Aito manages to deliver a great fairy tale murder mystery collection with Mukashi Mukashi Aru Tokoro ni, Yappari Shitai ga Arimashita. The book perhaps misses the surprise element of the first book, and I liked how the second book had that overarching storyline. In that sense, Mukashi Mukashi Aru Tokoro ni, Yappari Shitai ga Arimashita just feels like more of the same, but the stories themselves are always entertaining, and save for the Straw Millionaire one, I think they do a great job at twisting the original story just enough to bring a genuinely surprising mystery story, while also retaining the core fairy tale or fable. Definitely a good one to pick up any time, and I can't wait to see where Aoagi will bring us next!

Original Japanese title(s): 青柳碧人『むかしむかしあるところに、やっぱり死体がありました』:「竹取探偵物語」/「七回目のおむすびころりん」/「わらしべ多重殺人」/「真相・猿蟹合戦」/「猿六とぶんぶく交換殺人」