Wednesday, December 14, 2022

A Case of Immunity

" I hate guns. Besides, I'm a bad shot"
"Troubled Waters"

At least these covers are still really neat...

Professional photographer/amateur detective Minami Mikikaze has been playing tour guide for the American forensic expert Elizabeth Kittridge in Japan since Aru Egypt Juujika no Nazo ("An Egyptian Cross Mystery"). When he was younger, Mikikaze suffered heavily from a weak heart, but it was Beth's father who was the surgeon who successfully conducted Mikikaze's heart transplantant a few years back, and they have kept in touch ever since, which is also how he became friends with Beth. Beth is visiting Japan for an international symposium and workshop program on criminal forensic investigation, and Mikikaze has been tagging along as her guide and personal photographer, though she can speak (a kind of) Japanese herself. The two of them also happen to get involved in all kinds of mysterious crimes during Beth's visit to Japan, from shorter adventures to a novel-length adventure in Aru Girishia Hitsugi no Nazo ("A Greek Coffin Mystery", 2021). And after a short story collection and a novel, we of course get the novella form: Tsukatou Hajime's Aru America-Juu no Nazo ("An American Gun Mystery", 2022) is once again titled after an Ellery Queen novel and is also the title of the first novella included in this book. Beth has been accompanying Mikikaze, who has planned to this trip to take some nature pictures, but after taking a fantastic photograph of a sunset and making their way back through the forest back to civilized world, the two of them are stopped by a police detective, who is obvious looking for something or someone. When he learns that Beth is an American coroner, he makes some calls and Mikikaze and Beth are asked to come along, and they are brought to the American consulate nearby. They had two events today at the consulate, a cultural exchange fair during the afternoon, and an evening masquerade party to celebrate the birthdays of the wife and daughter of the consul, as their birthdays are within days of each other. However, around sunset security noticed a suspicious figure in the large garden, and when they went to look for him, they found him shot to death, the pistol at his side. The victim was Ethan Matthews, the ex-husband of Vanessa Lang, one of the security officers in charge of the consulate. His obsessive behaviour caused their divorce, but that only changed him in a genuine stalker, which is why he might have been hanging around the consulate, but how did he end up with a bullet in his body? While everyone hopes it was just an accident and that he shot himself with his own pistol, they can't be sure, and as Beth, as an American, happens to be around, they ask her to examine the body and determine the cause of death, because obviously, they want to clear up this murder on consulate grounds as quickly as possible and don't want to wait for FBI agents to arrive from elsewhere in Japan or the US. However, while they are handling this case, and some people are waiting in one of the lounges, another murder occurs, with a man being shot in the head through the window of the lounge. What is going here?

What is going on here? As you may guess from the titles of these books, Tsukatou is greatly inspired by Ellery Queen in this series. These stories are not directly based on the Ellery Queen novels though, but only built on themes or just the title: in the title story's case, two people being shot, and of course this happening at an US consulate, and the victims being Americans. The stories were also inspired by Queen in terms of plotting, featuring chains of reasonings based on physical evidence, focusing on the state and circumstances of how something is found and the logical implications of those lines of thoughts. The state of an object tells something about when the culprit did something, with what purpose they did something, which knowledge they had that allowed them to do something, etc., and all of that serving as clues to identify the killer: the bread and butter of Queen-style plotting. Aru America-Juu no Nazo however does not feel like such a story: it is a mish-mash of seperate ideas that could've found a better place in different stories, but together they... don't add up to very much: there's little synergy between the various events and mystery-to-solution moments, and in the end, this rather long novella just feels... chaotic. 

The story starts promising though, with a consulate party being the "setting" of the story, but it doesn't take long for pretty much all the guests to be sent away, leaving a rather small cast of characters (suspects), and it's here when the chaos begins. What starts as an investigation into the death of Ethan Matthews soon becomes a muddy series of events that just happen, but don't really feel connected in terms of story, with for example Beth disappearing for a moment, followed by a second murder, and the appearance of a surprise character. You have all these events happening, but if you break it down, you see you just happen to have seperate things occuring simultaneously... simply to make the story seem more complex, and not because the incidents are connected to each other, even at the lowest level. This is of course the easiest, and least impressive way to present a "mysterious" story, just by stuffing unrelated events together in one box. Some ideas used in this story are okay or even memorable, but they just don't really work together, and there are certainly a few ideas here that really don't work in this story. The second murder for example, where a man sitting in a chair on the second floor of the consulate is shot from outside, has a solution that really doesn't fit this story or the world of Mikikaze and Beth, while I certainly would've swallowed it easier if it had been used in another story. One aspect of Beth's disappearance on the other hand is brilliant, and does work perfectly in this series, but ultimately, the story doesn't work as one cohesive mystery story. There are few elements that work specifically because they are in this story, while I do recognize there are ideas that would've worked better in a different story, or at least not together.

Oh, and then there's the way this story addresses a certain real-world issue with a fictional substitute. It was kinda daring to do this so close to the real-world counterpart, especially with the fictional twist it uses and while I think the core idea/thought behind this was pretty neatly used, this too feels out of place in this story, in this series.

The second novella, Aru Siam Futago no Nazo ("An Siamese Twin Mystery") is much shorter than the title story, but also much better. Beth and Mikikaze are visiting Kunou Junjirou, a professor researching quantum entanglement within twins. At his lake-side laboratory are more people, like his assistant, his (second) wife and James, his stepson from a previous marriage. James and Alistair used to be Siamese twins, but the two brothers were seperated some years ago, and now Alistair is living his own life as an illustrator in Australia. Present as test subjects are also the Zenba twins. The laboratory is located near a lake in the mountains and they are having a bit trouble with their equipment due to a solar flare, but their problems were not as drastic as those of the people in a private plane flying above them. One crashed plane later, a fire has started in the forest on the opposite side of a gorge. This is also where the main road is, so the people in the lab can't escape the fire, though fortunately, or unfortunately, the crash also took down the one bridge connecting the lake-side to the main road, meaning the fire won't reach their side for quite some while. Still, it is decides to already move the women to the island in the middle of the lake, as the professor has another house there. The party is split in two, with four remaining in the laboratory for the night to watch the fire, while the other four use the motorboat to cross to the island and sleep there for the night. During the night however, the party on the mainland discovers one of them was murdered, and when they phone to the island, Beth tells Mikikaze the professor was also killed in the motorboat when he made a second trip back-and-forth that night. Why were two murders committed during the mountain fire?

Okay, the mountain fire and closed circle situation are of course a homage to The Siamese Twin Mystery, and the presence of one half of a Siamese twin and another pair of twins is not a coincidence either, of course! Where the first story felt chaotic,  Aru Siam Futago no Nazo makes much better use of its page count, and brings a story that feels much more in line with the rest of this series, focusing on Queen-like deductions. We get plenty of deductions revolving around how the two crime scenes on the mainland and the island looked like and what the murderer must have done there, or chose to not do, and that ultimately all adds together to lead to a solution that feels quite satisfying, especially compared to the first story. The book actually cleverly invokes a different early Queen novel too, but that's for the reader to find out more about. But what this story does much better than the first one is the connection between the various events. Yes, at first this story too sounds a bit chaotic with two different murders occuring on the mainland and the island in the same night, and the circumstances are quite different too (one of the twins who was supposed to stand guard on the laboratory roof was found stabbed on the mainland, the professor was killed in the motorboat, and the other twin was found knocked unconscious near the boat), but Mikikaze manages to connect these two incidents not just by guessing they must be related due to them occuring in the same night, but using logic to show how these two incidents must be connected, and how they ultimately point to the identity of the murderer. I really like the hints that point directly to the murderer too, and the motive is quite memorable.

But would I recommend Aru America-Juu no Nazo? I'm really not a fan of the first story and consider the weakest of the series until this point, though I'd say the second novella is definitely worth a read. If you have already read the previous two books, I'd say read this one too, but I wouldn't recommend this as your first adventure with Mikikaze and Beth, as the gap between the highs and lows are too big. I think overall, the first collection is still the best, so start there and see if these stories interest you. 

Original Japanese title(s): 柄刀一『或るアメリカ銃の謎』:「或るアメリカ銃の謎」/「或るシャム双子の謎

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