Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Turnabout Memories - Part 13

"I have to go over everything that's happened. I have to remember" 
Another Code R: Journey into Lost Memories

Here on this blog, it's a tradition to look back at the reviews and other posts that were published ths year and highlight a few of them. I usually post this list around Christmas, but as my weekly update day is Wednesday, I figured it'd just post it on the usual day then as it's so close... I'm always months ahead with writing posts, but this particular post I always write in December, because sometimes I schedule in extra posts (like Detective Conan: Black Iron Submarine) and sometimes I end up shuffling the post schedule, so I usually am not sure about what posts I can refer to in this end-of-year post until.... it's the end of the year.  Of course, some of the eligible posts I wrote way back in 2022 already... This year, I managed to read a few out-of-print authors and works I had been eyeing for some time now, so that was fun. I usually don't really plan what to read in a specific year, so even to me, it's a surprise how a year will end for me, sometimes I basically only read books by authors I already now, sometimes I see a rather noticable influx of authors I had never read before. I'm already in the second half of 2024 when it comes to scheduled posts, and I can already tell you there's gold among some of the posts there! I hope you'll all have a fantastic new year and see you back in 2024!

The Best Project Outside The Blog! In 2023!
Yes, this is just the self-promotion category! The very first novel I translated was The Decagon House Murders back in 2015, and now, quite some few years later, I finally got the opportunity to work on its sequel, The Mill House Murders. While The Decagon House Murders was originally published by Locked Room International, it is now currently being published by Pushkin Press, so to be honest, I had no idea at first whether they were interested in continuing the series, and whether I'd be in the equation, but fortunately, Ayatsuji himself also wanted me back on board, and I of course loved to come back to the series, resulting in a release by Pushkin Press earlier this year. Last year, I worked on Imamura's Death Within the Evil Eye, which was the first time I got to work on a sequel to a book I also worked on, but The Mill House Murders still remains a bit special, due to its connection to my first translated novel! The translation of the third book in the series, The Labyrinth House Murders, has already been announced, and once again, I had the pleasure and honor of working on it, so I hope readers here will pick it up too next year!

I'd also of course like to point readers here to the Honkaku Discord Server. It's been running for just over a year now, and it's become a nice place to chat about mystery fiction (not just Japanese). Of course, that's not my accomplishment, but that of the members in the server. It's a pretty easy-going server too, so if that sounds like fun, come have a look:
Most Interesting Non-Fiction Book! Of 2023!

Okay, I haven't read any other non-fiction mystery-related books besides this one, so this isn't really fair, but still, Iiki Yuusan's guide on the locked room mystery is really a must-read for fans of the locked room and impossible crime sub-genre, I think. In the book, the Ellery Queen scholar presents 50 mystery stories (30 Japanese, 20 foreign) that in his mind showcase the diversity that exists within the sub-genre. The book includes very cool diagrams of the crime scenes for each of the stories (so even for stories that originally didn't feature any diagrams), but what is more interesting, is the fact the book consists of two parts. In the first part, Iiki only introoduces the broad outline of the story in question and explains briefly why he thinks the book should be highlighted, but in the second half, he also spoils the solution of each story, and that allows him to freedom to pick entries based on their solution (and not just the trick), and that allows for some really unique picks for this book, like stories that aren't really impossible crimes until you consider the solution, or going with very experimental locked room mysteries. It's a fantastic book that really deserves a read.

Most Interesting Mystery Game Played In 2023! But Probably Older!
I've played a fair amount of mystery games this year. Detective Pikachu Returns was highly anticipated by me because I played the original back in 2016(!) already and had been waiting all this time to get closure on the story. A game like Tantei Bokumetsu (AKA Process of Elimination) was a game I had been wanting to play for a long time, due to its unique premise of a mystery game in the format of a SRPG and I finally got around to it because I wanted to play it before the English version was released. Rain Code was of course a game I had been looking forward to, as it was created by the same people behind Danganronpa. These were all games I liked playing in general, but always had points I found frustrating, or at the very least, they had obvious points that could've been improved. In that regard, I'd have to say Unheard was a very nice surprise, as I had very little knowledge about the game when I started with it, but it was a short, but memorable experience. Ultimately, I do think the most interesting mystery game I played this year was The Case of the Golden Idol, which offers deduction-focused gameplay combined with a rather surprising epic story. And yes, I had to quickly write the review of the game last week so I could feature it in this post!
Silliest Clue! Seen in 2023!
Morikawa Goten no Inbou ("Intrigue at the Morikawa Manor") (Detective Conan episodes 1050-1051)
Sometimes, you just want something silly. Morikawa Goten no Inbou is a two-parter in the animated series of Detective Conan, penned by Yamatoya Akatsuki. Once you see his name, alarm bells should ring, for while he has written an excellent Tantei Gakuen Q anime original with a locked room set in a sunken ship, his output for Detective Conan has been nothing but insane. The dear man also writes for Gintama, which should give you an idea of how silly he can be. In 2020, I choose his Glamping Kaijiken ("The Curious Glamping Incident") as the silliest mystery I had seen that year, and while on the whole Morikawa Goten no Inbou is not nearly as silly, I would say the final clue Conan presents to the culprit when he explains how he figured out that person was the culprit, has to be one of the most insane, and also outright insulting clues ever. No sane person would ever think to use that as a clue in a mystery story, but Yamatoya does. It's something you'd never expect to come, and it's brilliant.

Best Locked Room Epic! Of 2023!
Misshitsu Kingdom (Kingdom of the Locked Room)
I am not specifically a fan of the locked room mystery, but this year, I did happen to read three books that all aimed to be an enormous locked room mystery epic. Of the three, Kamosaki Danro's Misshitsu Kyouran Jidai no Satsujin - Zekkai no Kotou to Nanatsu no Trick (The Murder in the Age of Frenzy of Locked Rooms: The Solitary Island in the Distant Sea and the Seven Tricks) has a unique premise, set in a world where murderers know that by using locked room murders, they can't be convicted in a court of law unless the police figure out how they did it (because unless the police can prove how the defendant did it, the impossibility of the crime itself becomes an alibi for every single person) and in this book, we have no less than seven different locked room murders. However, the book is also fairly short, so each room barely gets any time. Kagami Masayuki's second novel Kangokutou ("Prison Island") is a John Dickson Carr-inspired epic of about 1200 pages long, with a series of impossible crimes happening on a prison island isolated from the outside world due to a storm. The extended page count allows Kagami to come up with a very robust setting for most of the locked rooms, and it results in a very epic conclusion where series detective Bertrand explains all the mysteries in hundreds of pages! However, on the whole, I found Tsukatou Hajime's Misshitsu Kingdom the better party. In terms of page count, it's similar to Kangokutou at about 1200 pages, but while Kagami's epic was very closely modeled after John Dickson Carr, Tsukatou uses very Carr-esque impossible crime situations, but at the same time, utilizes Ellery Queen-esque chains of reasonings to drive the plot, and this fusion of these two schools is what really makes Misshitsu Kingdom special in my opinion.

Best Post I Accidentally Deleted And Had To Rewrite Completely!
Kangokutou ("Prison Island")

Kangokutou didn't win in the previous category, but it sure wins here. In over ten years of blogging, never had I accidentally deleted a post I had finished already. I originally read Kangokutou in March of this year, and wrote my rather lengthy review of it soon after that and had the post scheduled for August, but the week before the post would go up, I wanted to change something, and a few wrong keyboard shortcut inputs later, I had accidentally deleted the contents of the post, and allowed the empty post to be saved. Which mean I had to rewrite the whole post from scratch, months after I had read the book in question. And I still think the original version of the post was better, going into more detail into the various crimes that occur in that locked room epic, but alas, we all have to just to be content with the current version of the post.

Best Premise! Of 2023!
Hen na Ie ("A Curious House")

I've read a few books this year with memorable premises. Some were straightforward, but ambitious premises, like the epic locked room mysteries mentioned two categories ago. Some had just inspired settings for the book. Take for example Houjou Kie's Amulet Hotel, a book set at a hotel catering to criminals, allowing for rather unique stories as it's not the usual police doing detective work here, but a hotel detective working for an organization which rather prefers to "clean up" a hotel guest themselves if the guest has violated a house rule to keep things quiet. There are also more fantastical premises I found memorable: In Yonezawa Honobu's The Broken Keel, we have a small kingdom off the coast of Britain that deals with the murder on their king while under attack by immortal Danes, in Kinnikuman Yojigen Sappou Satsujin Jiken ("Kinnikuman: The Four-Dimensional Murder Art Murder Case"), the famous Kinnikuman franchise tackles on the mystery genre by having the superhuman wrestlers entangled in murder cases, and Nitadori Kei's Suiri Taisen ("The Great Deduction War") is basically The Avengers, with detectives with various superpowers gathering to tackle one case. Other memorable reads tackle form: Shirodaira Kyou's Spiral ~ The Bonds of Reasoning 2: The Locked Room of the Steel Gang Boss and its spiritual successor Kannagi Uromu Saigo no Jiken ("The Last Case of Kannagi Uromu") by Konno Tenryuu revolve around presenting multiple solutions based on a past murder (in the latter case, a mystery novel with no clear solution), something Komori Kentarou also does with his incredibly fun Comiket Satsujin Jiken, being about a series of murders happening at Comiket among membeers of a doujin circle, with their latest release being a collection of short stories with their intended solutions to a murder in the fictional series Lunatic Dreamers. But in the end, I think Uketsu's Hen na Ie is still the one that managed to surprise me the most with its premise. Floorplans and diagrams are often an important element in a mystery story (see the also aforementioned Misshitsu Mystery Guide), but never had I seen a mystery story that uses floorplans exclusively to tell its story. While the first chapter is by far the best of the whole book, the idea of making the floorplan the star of the story, instead of a supporting role, was inspired, and the result is a very unique book that despite some flaws is very, very entertaining and memorable.

The Just-Ten-In-No-Particular-Order-No-Comments List
- Comiket Satsujin Jiken ("The Comiket Murder Case") (Komori Kentarou)
- Hakobune ("The Ark") (Yuuki Haruo)
- Semi-Otoko ("The Cicada-Man") (Nemoto Shou)
- Misshitsu Kingdom ("Kingdom of the Locked Room") (Tsukatou Hajime)
- Sougetsujou no Sangeki ("The Tragedy at the Twin Moon Castle") (Kagami Masayuki)
- Hen na Ie ("A Curious House") (Uketsu)
- Misshitsu Mystery Guide ("Locked Room Mystery Guide") (Iiki Yuusan)
- Meitantei no Ikenie - Jinminkyou Satsujin Jiken ("The Sacrifice of the Great Detective: The Peoples Church Murder Case" AKA The Detective Massacre) (Shirai Tomoyuki)
- Tinker-Bell Goroshi ("The Murder of Tinker-Bell") (Kobayashi Yasumi)

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Law of the Jungle

「 お前を信じる俺を信じろ」
 "Believe in the me who believes in you!"
"Guren Lagann"

Final review of the year, but it's about a great book!

Ootoya Takashi was always content being a minor private detective, always observing cheating spouses and that kind of work, so at first, he didn't quite understand why the student Ririko wanted to be his assistant, and when she explained, he refused her at first. Ririko's mother, during her lifetime, had been a member of a cult, which had swindled her out of her money, leading to Ririko's father kicking her, and Ririko out of the house. After Ririko's mother's death, she learned the truth about the cult, and wanted to expose their tricks under the cover of a detective agency. Ootoya eventually gave in, and together with Ririko, he exposed a gigantic scam conspiracy. Soon, Ootoya himself became a well-known detective too, but the truth was that while Ootoya did indeed solve a lot of cases himself, it was actually Ririko who was often one step ahead of him, even though she was his "assistant." When one day, in November 1978, Ririko disappears, Ootoya becomes worried about her because they have made enemies in the past, but he learns quickly she has gone to the South American country of Guyana, to the community called Jordentown.

Jim Jorden claimed he could heal any illnesses and injuries, and started his own, Christianity-based cult. He gathered quite some followers in the United States, but also enemies: many people who have also left the cult, portraying Jim Jorden as a fraud and eventually, even politicians started to take a better look at him. Jim Jorden swiftly left the United States to found his own community in the jungles of Guyana, and he was followed there by about a thousand followers from the US and other parts of the world. The people of Jordentown mostly keep to themselves, led by Jim Jorden and his upper management members, but lately, US politicans have been putting political pressure on them, and Jim Jorden wants to move his community to the Soviet Union, with the help of a prominent US businessman with ties to the Soviets. This businessman however wants to know whether Jim Jorden really has powers to heal people, and after some negotations, Jim Jorden agreed to invite a team who will investigate whether his powers are real, and to observe the living conditions in Jordentown. Ririko had been chosen as one of these people thanks to her experience with exposing a fake cult, and she is joined by Jodie Randy, famous for exposing fake psychics on television, Yi Ha-jun, a Seoul University student who exposed a sexual abuse affair by the Christian church, and former FBI agent Alfred Dent, who has actually managed to go undercover, acting as an attorney for Jim Jorden. Ririko and the others however didn't return to their respective countries even though they were only to stay there for a few days, so suspecting they might be being kept captive by Jim Jorden, or worse, Ootoya himself travels to Jordentown with the help of a reporter childhood friend. When they arrive there, they learn Ririko and the others were held captive, because they didn't believe Jim Jorden's "miracles", so Jim decided to have his "guests" stay longer so he could convince them of his powers and report back to the businessman so he and his flock can go to the Soviet Union. As the people in Jordentown all believe in Jim Jorden as their "god" who can heal them, and some of them are such fanatic believers they are willing to kill for him (and the community is armed!), they have no choice but to stay there for a while, but they are fairly sure they won't be hurt because that would definitely mean no trip to the Soviet Union. The following day however, Dent is found stabbed to death in his room, and the room was locked from the inside. Was this an impossible murder? But in Jordentown, there is a man who can perform miracles, so is he the murderer? While Ootoya and Ririko try to solve the murder despite the unique circumstances, more impossible murders occur, but will they be able to uncover the truth, and get away safely? That is the question in Shirai Tomoyuki's Meitantei no Ikenie - Jinminkyou Satsujin Jiken ("The Sacrifice of the Great Detective: The Peoples Church Murder Case" 2022), which also has the alternative English title The Detective Massacre

The first time I read anything by Shirai Tomoyuki, was the short story Chibiman to Jumbo, which was beyond nasty, with a lot of gore. And I don't mean "decapitated people" gore, but a lot of vomiting and eating sea roaches and stuff like that. I was told "nasty" was something Shirai wrote a lot about, so I was kinda avoiding him, despite hearing also positive things about his mystery stories in terms of... mystery. So when I saw The Detective Massacre won the '23 Honkaku Mystery Award and ranked in first place in the Honkaku Best 10 2023, and I heard this one didn't have the gore, I picked this book up as my first Shirai novel, and I am so glad I did, as this is easily one of the best books I've read this year, and I can definitely see why it'd end up high on people's rankings!

It's of course clear right away this book was inspired by the real story of Jonestown in a lot of ways, and that is also the defining feature of this book: a story set in a very unique place, a closed-off town in the jungle, for a cult built around one single man, who rules the whole community and who is beloved by everyone as a god with healing powers. For Ootoya and Ririko, this is effectively a closed circle, as they can't just leave Jordentown alone and you definitely need a car to make it through the jungle to a landing strip, and of course you also need a plane to get away there. Due to the beliefs of the cult members, about a thousand of them in all ages (children go to school during the day, while the adults work on the fields to farm food), the impossible crimes also are not considered to be as grave or serious by them, as by the outsiders: impossible murders aren't strictly impossible for the cult members, especially not if those who are killed were punished by the heavens for opposing Jim Jorden and his followers. The result is a book with a fantastic, suspenseful and tense atmosphere, where you know any false move by Ootoya could perhaps lead to them being punished by the cult members right away for going against their rules and yet they do want to solve the murders.

On the other hand, the cult members aren't like brainwashed Kali cult members, but often ordinary people from the US with their own personal traumas, which they finally learned to cope with thanks to their life in Jordentown and the teachings of Jim Jorden. While they believe in Jorden, they are also, on the whole, peace-loving people who just want a place for themselves to live without being judged by others, and while initially cautious for the strangers, they do welcome Ririko and the others to Jordentown and are eager to show how great their community is and how they'd like to move to the Soviet Union in order to continue this life. It's under these circumstance we have these murders, and we clearly see how people on one hand know murder has occured, but also try to give these deaths a certain meaning that fits with their lives and their beliefs, again resulting in a very unique atmosphere that really makes this a one-of-a-kind mystery novel.

Over the course of this novel, several murders occur during their stay in Jordentown, that are in principle simple, yet impossible. A man murdered in his bedroom, but with the key inside the room, a woman who was poisoned during a tea party, but the other women are all fine, things like that. The situations themselves are fairly small-scale and taken on their own, they might not be super impressive. However, The Detective Massacre manages to use these seemingly "small" murder situations in conjunction with the unique setting that is Jordentown to present an absolutely phenomenal mystery novel. That is in part already hinted at by the text on the obi of this novel, which tells the reader the solution part of this book is 150 pages long (close to 40% of the book!). Mechanically, these impossible crimes might seem simple, but because they are in such an odd place, where people literally believe in miracles and thus impossible occurings, the detectives have to go a long way to not only logically explain how things happened and the reason for that, they also have to explain why these murders aren't impossible, while at the same time, the explanation needs to accept the existence of miracles, because the people here believe in them. So the solutions often have to go a roundabout way to explain things, because the detectives have to incorporate the "common sense" that exist in Jordentown, while also arriving at a logical explanation acceptable for them. This leads to some brilliant pieces of deduction that only work in Jordentown and no other mystery novel. The book is also full of false solutions, as it takes a while for the detectives to arrive at the actual truth, but it's amazing how Shirai structured this book. The same situation allows for several false solutions, but they are all properly hinted at, and while not all of them are as clever and you quickly realize these must be false, it's still impressive how he managed to properly hint all of the false solutions as well as place the clues for the counter-argument to the false solutions, and also have a final solution ready. Fans of the works of Brand, Berkeley and Queen, with deeply structured false solutions that build on each other and stuff like that will definitely like this book too.

The placing of clues and foreshadowing in The Detective Massacre also deserves a special mention. Shirai does a fantastic job at placing all kinds of hints that come back much later for these false solutions, not only in the form of actual physical evidence being referred to later, but also situations or moments that seemingly have nothing to do with the murders, but that are mirrored in surprising and clever manners to become relevant to those murders. Some segments really just sound like nothing more than small characterization snippets used for a cheap chuckle, but then turn out to be applicable to the murder mysteries too by looking at those stiuations from a very different angle. It might be because of the weird location that is Jordentown, but it's easy to look at Jordentown as its own thing, so it's extra surprising when you see moments "outside of Jordentown" suddenly being used in a clever way to set things up that happen inside Jordentown.

The two detective characters of Ootoya and Ririko are also used in a really good way. The two detectives (technically, Ririko is Ootoya's assistant) have very different approaches when it comes to the question of what a detective is, and what they do, and that also results in them going for approaching the people of Jordentown very differently, and also trying to explain the murders in very different ways (hence there are not only false solutions, but actually different strands of solutions, where they work from different angles precisely because Ririko and Ootoya look at the people of Jordentown, and what they believe in, very differently). The ending, which puts Ririko and Ootoya at very completely sides in terms of "what being a detective is about" is amazing, as it really gives meaning to why we have two different detective characters. Some of the set-up to the final stretch of the book doesn't feel as strong as other parts of the book, but ultimately, it's a book that'll stick in your mind for a while, and the ending will play an important role in that.

This book also appears to be part of a series which follows the title convention of "Meitantei no..." ("The Detective...") but I don't know how strongly connected these books are, if at all, in terms of story. Story-wise, The Detective Massacre feels fairly self-contained, but there are a few references and characters who might be series characters? I guess there's one way to find out...

But as Stan Lee also wrote, 'Nuff said. Meitantei no Ikenie - Jinminkyou Satsujin Jiken or The Detective Massacre is a fantastic mystery novel, which uses a unique setting to tell the kind of detective story fans of Brand, Berkeley and Queen are likely to love with its many (properly built-up) solutions, but it's also a great book on its own as it uses the setting of Jordentown to present a mystery story you really won't be seeing anywhere else. Even something like Queen's And on The Eight Day doesn't quite come close to this. One of my favorites of this year, and I hope to read more of Shirai's work in the future.

Original Japanese title(s):白井智之『名探偵のいけにえ: 人民教会殺人事件』

Saturday, December 16, 2023

The Stone Idol

"That belongs in a museum."
"Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"

Most of the mystery games I play, place an emphasis on the story, and use game mechanics to allow the player to advance in the story. Most of them are of course adventure games where you closely follow the development of a tale of mystery, and the story is allowing the player to interact with the mystery by presenting them these puzzles in the form of questions, to see if you managed to solve them. Often, these games also offer an 'inventory' system in the form of a clue system, where you accumulate clues which you can use to for example answer the aforementioned puzzles ('showing evidence'). A game like Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney for example in fact mainly revolves around the exact same puzzle being fed to the player constantly, be it a highly context-senstive one (a contradiction between the evidence you gathered and a statement made by a witness), while other games like Detective Pikachu Returns might just present varying questions depending on the specific story part, ranging from "who is the culprit and what is the evidence that points to them" to "do we have some clues that could tell us how we could get past that guard?" or something like that. Still, most of the adventure games I play basically ask you context-specific questions that pertain to that specific part/scene of the story.

2018's Return of the Obra Dinn was a huge surprise as a mystery game, as it focused much more on one core deduction-focused game mechanic, and it basically only asked you the same question again and again, without much change in the actual underlying context of the question. Investigating the body-filled ship the Obra Dinn which mysteriously returned to the harbor, your task is to 1) identify each dead body and 2) identify the cause of death (and culprit if applicable). This task remains the same from start to finish, and you could theoretically just fill in the crew list, connecting each name with a portrait and their cause of death right from the beginning. Of course, the game wasn't that easy, as identifying each corpse depended on reliving their final moments via a magical watch, and it was necessary to have a very keen eye for contextual details to deduce from each death scene what name belonged to each face: a man being called by his name is of course a very easy clue, but most of them weren't that easy, and had to be deduced from seeing in them in multiple scenes and connecting various clues together. That said, the core tasks remained the same, and in my review, I described Return of the Obra Dinn as in essence being "a gigantic sudoku puzzle: you know each face and each name, and now you have to determine what names and faces can or can not belong together by crossing off all the possibilities. If for example you know this person is either the carpenter or the carpenter's assistant, but you also heard somewhere that the assistant dies before the carpenter, than you can identify both once you know in what order the two nameless faces died." Because each person can only have one name, face and cause of death, and names and faces of course are not shared among multiple people, it really felt to me like sudoku, determining the characteristics for each "sudoku puzzle" and knowing how faces/names/ranks/etc. had a finite number of uses. Strangely enough, I've had multiple surprised reactions when I described Obra Dinn's gameplay as sudoku, even though in my mind it seemed not only so obvious, but I couldn't even imagine it was an original thought in any way. Earlier this year, I played Unheard, which had a similar feel (but audio-based) and it was quite fun!

When The Case of the Golden Idol released in 2022, I heard it had gameplay similar to Return of the Obra Dinn, and I also played the demo when it was released, which I enjoyed a lot. But for one reason or another, I didn't pick up the full game right away, but now we're more than a year later, and I finally played the game. * When you start up the game, you are immediately presented with a ghastly scene: one man pushes the other off a cliff. The problem? You don't know what the heck is going on. Who is the murderer? Who is the victim? Why is he murdering the other? Where are they? As you click around, you gather key terms (names, verbs, locations, etc.), and you slowly start to piece together the story behind this scene: set in the 18th century, we are looking at the two men  who obtained the titular golden idol during an expedition, and apparently one is killing the other in order to keep the idol for himself. But who is who? You find letters with names in their rucksacks, so you know the two men must be Albert Cloudsley and Oberon Geller, but who is the pusher, and who is the pushed? 

It's here we are treated to the gameplay similar to Return of the Obra Dinn: to get anywhere in this game, you must first use the names you have gathered, and assign them to the faces you see on the screen. At first, this is fairly easy, like seeing one character addressing the other by name, or for example you can guess by their uniforms, but later scenes are much trickier. Because Golden Idol's gameplay focuses mostly on determining who and what everything is on the scene, the murders you'll be solving are fairly straightforward: the focus is not on the how, but on figuring out the whole underlying context. While a lot of the scenes might seem rather baffling at first, that's often simply because you're dropped in a scene that is unfolding right now, and usually after collecting the first few key words, you'll quickly grasp the broad outline of the case, after which you can concentrate on figuring out who everyone exactly is and the order of events leading up to the murder. Unlike Return of the Obra Dinn however, The Case of the Golden Idol will also ask you other questions about the scene to answer, again using the key terms you have accumulated from the scene. You might be asked to determine whom certain letters you found on the scene belong to, or you find a floor diagram and must also determine who stays in what room. Once you figure out these secondary clues, you are usually tasked with one final mission: to determine exactly what happened. This is done by completing a short summary of the scene, which has a lot of blanks. You fill this summary in using all the key terms you found. You might for example see Character A killing Character B with something in their hand in a  unknown location. So first you have to use the clues to determine A is in fact Colonel Mustard, a name you found in a letter in the luggage in one of the rooms and you remember one character calling A by his title, and then based on the books in the background of the location you determine the room is in fact the library and not the kitchen, and finally, you can fill in the blanks in the summary by saying [Colonel Mustard] walked into the [library] and used the [candlestick] to kill [Miss Scarlet].

While not as difficult as Return of the Obra Dinn, The Case of the Golden Idol is certainly a detective game that will challenge your mind, as while the first few scenes you investigate are fairly small and straightforward, later scenes might involve several screens with a lot more going on. The story is surprisingly epic, spanning several decades and each "level" is a specific scene (usually moments after a mysterious violent death) revolving around the titular golden idol. You follow the golden idol's journey as men crave its powers, but because each scene is presented without any introduction, it's up to the player to guess how this scene might connect to the previous one, even if it might be a few decades since the last scene and it's set at a completely different location with perhaps only one face or name you recognize from a previous scene. That is one part I really enjoyed The Case of the Golden idol over Return of the Obra Dinn, as the latter was a great deduction game, but the story you uncovered behind the crew's mysterious deaths was not that one of deductive mystery. The Case of the Golden Idol however does present one and realizing how each scene is connected to the next is part of the mystery the player also needs to unravel in order to beat the game. At first though, the scenes might feel very disconnected and that might feel a bit disappointing, as you move from one confused state to another, but it does come together quite nicely once you're past a certain point, when more of the plot is revealed.  

I quite enjoyed the overall story too, though I do think some of the secondary puzzles you are required to solve in each level had too much of a "logic puzzle" sense to them. One of the later stages for example had you figure out something out to a degree that wasn't really relevant to the case at hand (do you really need to know those exact numbers?) and those parts I didn't enjoy. I liked Obra Dinn a lot because it used the same basic puzzle of face + name (+ cause), but some of the secondary puzzles in Golden Idol feel very contrived as puzzles (sometimes, it almost feels like people are for example only calling other people by codenames or nicknames just so the player can be presented with a puzzle).

The demo I played one year ago of The Case of the Golden Idol is basically the same as the full product, so I can't say I was really surprised by the game now I have played it, but it is a very fun mystery game that really puts an emphasis on deductive thinking. If you liked Return of the Obra Dinn, you're certainly going to like this, and because of the shorter playtime and the slightly easier difficulty, I'd say The Case of the Golden Idol might even be the better introduction to this style of deductive reasoning games. I haven't gotten around to the DLC yet, though I have heard it's more challenging than the base game, so I'll probably eventually get around to playing those two too sooner or later! Preferably before the recently announced sequel comes!

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

The Body's Upstairs

Two little Soldier Boys sitting in the sun; One got frizzled up and then there was one.
"And Then There Were None"

There is no reality where students would gladly say yes when their Philosphy professor invites them to their office to talk about Ellery Queen and the philosophical problems regarding mystery fiction...

Hikawa Tooru is a budding mystery author who has been trying to get published ever since graduating from the Faculty of Philosophy, but he hasn't had luck on his side. One day, he receives a call from Sumiyoshi Masaki, a former upperclassman of the faculty, who is a rising star in the world of philosophy, having published a popular book on the subject, and now teaching at the elite women's university Seishuuin in the city. Sumiyoshi has recently read Norizuki Rintarou's essay on the philosophic problems inherent to the earlier Ellery Queen novels, which would form the basis of the so-called Late Queen Problem, indicating a post-modern problem in mystery fiction. Sumiyoshi wants to pick Hikawa's brain, knowing he's trying to become a mystery author and that he's a Queen devotee, and they agree to have a chat in Sumiyoshi's office after class. They are first joined by a teaching assistant with an interest in mystery fiction, but then a trio of students also appear. One of them, Sanae, is a student of Sumiyoshi, but the other two, Naoko and Miho, are not. It turns out Naoko wants to discuss something in private with Sumiyoshi and asked Sanae to introduce her. The three join the discussion on the Late Queen Problem for a while, and when it becomes late, Sumiyoshi decides to invite everyone for some drinks, but not before he has a talk with Naoko. 

They leave the others in Sumiyoshi's office and walk to Seminar Room 1 on the same floor, which is unused at the moment. Just before they enter, a different professor wants to discuss something with Sumiyoshi, so Naoko enters the room first. As the two professors walk away, they notice a guard also entering Seminar Room 1. Meanwhile, Hikawa and the two girls who remained also loaf around a bit, going to the bathroom before they'll leave, but then a loud cry comes from Seminar Room 1. Everyone runs to the room, and they find... a dead guard lying in the room. But for some reason Naoko is not here. Around the same time, the police arrives at the campus, even though nobody here called for them yet, but it turns out someone else called because they saw something outside: the body of a woman was hanging from the roof of the building. This woman of course turns out to be Naoko, who was tied by her legs and thrown from the roof, hanging her upside down with her skirt hanging upside down. But when did Naoko leave the Seminar Room, why is there a dead guard there, and why was Naoko herself too killed? Hikawa, who has solved a few cases before, of course wants to know the truth, but it turns out Miho herself might be an even sharper detective than himself in Hikawa Tooru's 2001 novel Saigo Kara Nibanme no Shinjitsu or The Penultimate Truth.

After Makkura no Yoake and Misshitsu wa Nemurenai Puzzle, it was very clear that Hikawa (the actual author) is a big fan of (early) Ellery Queen, writing in the same style, and of course,  Saigo Kara Nibanme no Shinjitsu follows the same idea. However, I feel that after the more exciting second novel, which utilized a closed circle situation to keep the story tense, Saigo Kara Nibanme no Shinjitsu was surprisingly boring to read, with an incredibly slow mid-section. As much as I love Queen-style detective stories, with an emphasis on longer chains of deductions based on physical evidence and the knowledge of what characters did or could have been aware of at what time, these kind of novels do rely a lot on presenting this kind of data to the reader, so the investigative portions of a story can feel a bit dragging. Saigo Kara Nibanme no Shinjitsu is an example of a book where the mid-section indeed suffers from this mode of writing, because it's just slowly feeding you data, and in a very passive way. Like in the first novel, Hikawa soon gains the trust of the police detective in charge of the investigation, who then occasionally gives Hikawa confidential information, and Hikawa has a few talks with the suspects, but all of this moves very slowly.

I think Hikawa (the author) tried to battle this by introducing the rival character of Miho, similar to the character Komiyama in the previous novel: in the second novel, the editor Komiyama turned out to be a talented fan of the mystery genre who pro-actively wanted to solve the mystery, and Miho too turns out to be very sharp, capable at times of out-thinking Hikawa (the character). But their battles only really become meaningful near the end of the tale, as Hikawa has a kind of inferiority complex regarding Miho throughout the tale, meaning it's just Miho sometimes posing a (clever) theory and Hikawa just reacting in awe and admiration. Perhaps it's because I read Misshitsu wa Nemurenai Puzzle and Saigo Kara Nibanme no Shinjitsu basically one after another, but the 'Hikawa feels inferior to rival' part of both stories felt very similar, so it was also not as exciting anymore (that, and you already know Hikawa's the series detective...)

Anyway, this time Hikawa is once again facing a situation that is not quite an impossible situation, but only nearly one. Nobody was constantly watching Seminar Room 1's door, but they can't figure out why the guard went in the room and ended up dead, while Naoko somehow ended up dead on the roof. Examining the timelines and noting the time the body of Naoko hanging from the roof was discovered by a taxi driver passing by the campus, they also realize Naoko must have left the room very early, creating only a small frame of time in which the murder could have happened. Meanwhile, there were only a handful of people left in this particular university building. In a way that's incredibly convenient for a detective story, it turns out the security company in charge of the building had secretly built an experimental system that logs the time and duration any time any door in the building is opened, which allows them to determine around which time Naoko slipped away out of the room, but again, this creates problems with the time needed to kill the guard in the room, and kill Naoko on the roof. Due to the system, the police also knows exactly how many people were in the building at the time, but not everyone with a connection to Naoko (mainly the people on the philosophy floor at the time of the murder) have a clear alibi.

As you can guess, the story becomes quite focused on deductions based on time, on figuring out where there's a gap in everyone's alibis which would allow them to commit the murder, and I have to admit, this can be quite boring. There's not much of physical evidence around, so you don't get much of those evidence based chains of deductions I tend to like, where you have to figure out why an object was used or what the use of a certain object tells you about the killer. Time table-based deductions can be interesting in combination with other elements, but on their own, or at least as the main focus, they tend to be very dry puzzles, and that's the same here, and part of the reason why this is definitely my least liked Hikawa novel of the three I have read now. Not that it is devoid of clever parts: the deductions regarding why Naoko was hung upside down from the roof are pretty interesting and exactly the kind of chains of reasoning I do like to read about, but it's definitely just a smaller element of a book that is more focused on time. The way the rivalry between Hikawa and Miho is also resolved in an interesting manner, that ties back in a meaningful manner to the discussion on Late Queen Problems mentioned earlier in the novel. Considering there's a second detective character, you know one of them will pose an incorrect solution at some time, but the way it's framed here, it doesn't feel like just filler or a fake, but it feels like an interesting thought based on the earlier philosophical discussion.

But on the whole, Saigo Kara Nibanme no Shinjitsu is certainly not my favorite of the Hikawa novels until now. While I appreciate the mode of the detection utilized in these novels, the way it is told now is a bit longwinded and I am in general not a super big fan of stories that require you to fill out time schedules for a dozen of characters and try to find a logical gap in them. Hopefully, the next will bring back some of the more focused mid-section like the second novel had. 

Original Japanese title(s): 氷川透『最後から二番めの真実』

Saturday, December 9, 2023

Terminal Connection

"That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me."
This year's Detective Conan film once again managed to beat the previous film's earnings record, which was already huge. It's crazy how the film series becomes stronger and stronger, even though this is the 26th entry!
Detective Conan manga & movies:
Part 1: Volumes 1 ~ 10
Part 2: Volumes 11~20; The Timebombed Skyscraper (1) / The Fourteenth Target (2)
Part 3: Volumes 21~30; The Last Wizard of the Century (3) / Captured in Her Eyes (4)
Part 4: Volumes 31~40; Countdown to Heaven (5) / The Phantom of Baker Street (6)
Part 5: Volumes 41~50; Crossroad in the Ancient Capital (7) / Magician of the Silver Sky (8) / Strategy Above the Depths (9)
Part 6:  Volumes 51~60; Private Eyes' Requiem (10) / Jolly Roger in the Deep Azure (11)
Part 7: Volumes 61~70; Full Score of Fear (12) / The Raven Chaser (13) / Lost Ship in the Sky (14)
Part 8: Volumes 71~80; Quarter of Silence (15) / The Eleventh Striker (16) / Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17)
(You will find the links to the reviews of volumes 70, 72~76, 78, 82~104 and the films Quarter of Silence (15), The Eleventh Striker (16), Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17), Dimensional Sniper (18), Sunflowers of Inferno (19), The Darkest Nightmare (20), The Crimson Love Letter (21), Zero the Enforcer (22), The Fist of Blue Sapphire (23), The Scarlet Bullet (24) and Bride of Halloween (25) in the library or via the Detective Conan tag)
Kudou Shinichi, the high school student detective who was turned into a boy by the Black Organization via an experimental drug and has now taken on the name of Edogawa Conan to lie low, is always on the lookout for any trail that'll lead him to his nemesis, and one day, Conan is informed by an ally about a recent infiltration operation by members of the Black Organization into an Interpol base in Frankfurt, which led to the death of an Interpol agent. Conan and his friends happen to be visiting the island of Hachijou to watch whales, but when Conan spots Inspector Shiratori and Metropolitan Police Department managing officer Kuroda also on the island, boarding a cruiser, he quickly connects their visit to the Frankfurt break-in and a new Interpol facility built near Hachijou. The Pacific Buoy is located in the middle of the ocean, built partially beneath water level and houses the new surveillance system of Interpol: it's connected to all police surveillance cameras in Japan and can be used to real-time track people and objects due its recognition software. The new facility also uses new software developed by Naomi Argento, an Italian-Japanese American. Her software analyses photographs and can predict how people will look as they age, allowing Interpol to also search for wanted persons who have been lying low for many years, or for example kidnapped children who might be older now. Today is the day this new facility will also be hooked up to the European side of Interpol, allowing them to also analyze European surveillance footage. Conan manages to join Shiratori and Kuroda during their visit to the Pacific Buoy, but during their stay, Naomi is abducted from the underwater facility. This is only possible if someone on the inside is helping the kidnappers (whom Conan is convinced is the Black Organization), but who is the Interpol traitor? However, events shift into high-gear when members of the Black Organization accidentally learn that Miyano Shiho, the ex-member of the organization whom they thought they had killed previously, is still alive: Naomi's software has recognized Shiho in Haibara Ai, the identity Shiho took when she took the experimental drug to turn herself into a child, just like what happened with Conan. Haibara becomes the Organization's new target, but can Conan save his friend in the 2023 theatrical film Detective Conan: Black Iron Submarine?
As always, a new Detective Conan animated theatrical feature was released in April of this year. Black Iron Submarine is film 26 already, and next year's film has already been revealed and given a release date of April 12, 2024, so that means the film sub-franchise of Detective Conan will be at least 27 films long, and they manage to keep on breaking earning record after record (Black Iron Submarine is at the moment the second best performing film in Japan of this year, and currently ranked at no. 25 of the highest-earning films in Japan of all time, beating Jurassic Park). Of course, the films' tone have also changed in these almost three decades, adjusting to the preferences and tastes of the audience. The earlier films were tonally quite similar to the stories from the manga, being mystery-focused stories with a bit more spectacle (explosions), but more recently, the films are far more character-focused, showcasing fan-favorite characters in very marketable manners, and of course even more and bigger EXPLOSIONS. of the more recent films, I still think 2017's The Crimson Love Letter managed to strike the best balance between a well-developed mystery plot and character-focused spectacle and definitely the film I'd now recommend to new viewers. This year's Detective Conan: Black Iron Submarine is in a way very similar to last year's Bride of Halloween, which I described as a film that ".,.does things I hadn't expected a Detective Conan film to do, but also didn't do a lot of things I expect, or at least hope to get from a Detective Conan film."
For again, we have a film that is fairly light-weight when it comes to the mystery-element, while at the same time, it dares to show aspects of characters in a way not even the main series has ever done, and it does this also by building strongly on events and the history of the main series. Whereas many of the films are written (to varying degrees of success) to be understandable to people who don't watch the main series (in fact, many people only watch the annual films), last year's The Bride of Halloween was very strongly connected to the main series, making numerous references to very specific stories, events and characters, even at times feeling like a sequel to certain storylines, and while the references this time are not as specific, a lot of what makes Black Iron Submarine work is because long-time fans know the context of the character interactions and what exactly drives them, and the film makes effective call-backs to earlier adventures with Haibara and her encounters with the Black Organization to tell its own original adventure, showing a Haibara we so seldom see in the main series. Up until now, the main series has shown us several stories where the Black Organization comes close on the trail of Haibara (Miyano Shiho) in their attempts to eliminate the traitor, and Black Iron Submarine is definitely a great addition to that tradition. In fact, the Black Organization has seldom felt so threatening and efficient. In recent years, only The FBI Serial Murder Case story from volume 100 comes close, but that was a small group of organization members versus one lone FBI agent on the run (backed up by Conan), while in Black Iron Submarine, we have the Black Organization being frighteningly effective in dealing with Interpol and their new undersea facility, while they also hunt for Haibara. I have to be honest, I hadn't expected the film to begin like that either! As a dramatic, character-focused suspense film, Black Iron Submarine is definitely highly entertaining material, with chases, fights and basically a war at sea going on between the Black Organization and Interpol, with Haibara caught in the middle, and with parties trying to outwit each other.
Because of this though, I think the film might be hard to follow who don't really know Detective Conan, as it juggles a very large cast of recurring characters this time, some only making very short appearances without much of an introduction. The film assumes you know the motivations of the characters, which can be especially difficult as a few characters in this film are in fact double agents, so sometimes they act for one party, and the next moment for another, and while this is shortly mentioned at the start of the film, there's no real "conclusion" to this, as their role as double agents of course continues in the main series, and there's no real "pay-off". On the other hand, the film is more straightforward than The Darkest Nightmare, which featured a lot of the same cast members, but in a more confusing "multiple parties with different agendas going against each other" plot... Also, the film does assume you're more-or-less up-to-date with the collected volumes at the time of release, so the film does for example show you the Black Organization member Rum, whose identity had been a plot-driving mystery for some time in the manga, but who was revealed a few volumes earlier.

As a mystery film however, I again have to stress Black Iron Submarine isn't anything special. The mystery-plot mostly revolves around who the traitor within the Pacific Buoy is who helped the Organization kidnap Naomi and later even commit a murder in the Buoy, but the tricks used by the murderer, and the clues pointing to them are rather basic, and I wouldn't really mind in a normal 24-minute episode of Detective Conan, but they feel rather underwhelming in a theatrical release. The best I can say is that yes, the clues are properly and fairly planted for the attentive viewer, but don't expect a sense of blissful comprehension when all the pieces fall into place, as the puzzle is just too simple. It also doesn't help the suspects have far too little screentime to make any impression on the viewer: they get an introduction at the start, but afterwards they all have like only one or two appearences saying one or two lines, as the film focuses more on the recurring characters from the main series. The murder half-way the film is also a bit too "on the nose" with its use of technology to facilitate the killing, and the kind of idea everybody will have played with in their mind at one time, and here it's used in the most non-surprising, direct manner imaginable. 

But in short: if you're just a mystery fan, you can skip Detective Conan: Black Iron Submarine, as the mystery plot is fairly flimsy for a 110 minute film, and it's also not really the focus of the feature. For fans of Detective Conan, and especially the character of Haibara though, this is a must-see. Black Iron Submarine is a highly entertaining suspenseful thriller revolving around her and the Black Organization that feels at least as tenseful and captivating as previous such encounters in the main series, but this film even goes beyond those stories at time due to it stronger focus on character drama. So if you're more-or-less up-to-date with the main series, I'd definitely recommend watching this film too. Can't wait to see the next Detective Conan film, which will focus on Hattori, Kazuha and KID!

Original Japanese title(s):『名探偵コナン 黒鉄の魚影』

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Murder as a Fine Art

"There is always only one truth!"
"Detective Conan"

I don't think I have many books with a grey cover...

Maya Yutaka is not an author you're going to read if you want something conventional. Ever since he made his debut in 1991 with Tsubasa Aru Yami - Mercator Ayu no Saigo no Jiken ("Darkness with Wings - The Last Case of Mercator Ayu"), you can detect a theme in his works, and that is deconstruction. Maya obviously loves the mystery genre, but it's his love that also allows him to deconstruct the familiar tropes and themes of the genre. Post-modernist themes like the Late Queen Problem are subjects that play a big role in Maya's work, and notions like the truth or the detective, which seem like very "obvious" themes in the mystery genre, are transformed, transfigured and molten into new shapes in Maya's books. His books are seldom straightforward, and will turn the conventions of mystery fiction around just to mess with you, whether it's by not providing a clear truth at all (like in the infamous Natsu to Fuyu no Sonata) or just delving into Late Queen themes like multiple truths/interpretations in Sekigan no Shoujo.

Maya Yutaka's 2011 short story collection Mercator Kaku Katariki ("Also Sprach Mercator") collects five stories that basically are all about Maya deconstructing the classic mystery tale with a great detective. As the title suggest, we are once again treated to an appearance by Mercator Ayu, who first appeared in Maya Yutaka's debut novel Tsubasa Aru Yami - Mercator Ayu no Saigo no Jiken ("Darkness with Wings - The Last Case of Mercator Ayu"). And yes, that is a very suggestive title. The very arrogant and self-centred private detective Mercator Ayu has since returned in several novels and short stories and in the past, I had read the first short story collection, but that one was actually still quite like a collection of normal mystery stories. Not the case with Mercator Kaku Katariki however. I can tell you right away: if you want to read a conventional mystery story, you need to walk away now, as you won't find anything remotely like that in the pages of this book. Maya plays with the reader in these stories, and does everything you won't expect of a mystery story. 

And in a way, it's incredibly fun. But you definitely need to be in the right mindset for this.

It's also very difficult to write about these stories, precisely because more often than not, they're not really meant to be normal mystery stories. They almost feel like punchlines, building on Late Queen problems and other post-modernist themes regarding mystery fiction and taking their conclusions to the extreme. So while the stories start out in familiar ways, the part that is usually the "solution" to a mystery is changed in these stories, concluding in very surprising and subversive ways.

The opening story Shisha wo Okosu ("To Wake the Dead") for example starts very conventionally: Mercator is hired to investigate the death of someone, who died one year ago, while he was staying with some friends in an old house up for sale just outside the town. They had been drinking, and he had been resting in another room, and it appears he just fell out of the window, killing himself. Mercator is now to see whether it was really an accident, as the friends still feel something was off. While they are waiting for Mercator and Minagi (a mystery author who acts as Mercator's Watson/slave), they quickly realize the death wasn't quite normal, and they start to suspect each other, but then Mercator arrives and he... solves the case? I do really like some of the deductions Mercator presents in this story. They do remind you that Maya was indeed a member of the Kyoto University Mystery Club, and he utilizes some clever Queen-like deduction chains to slowly point towards a surprising truth behind the death one year ago. Only... that's not all. Once the dust has settled, Mercator basically turns everything around in a way that completely renders this a non-mystery story in essence. I like the idea, but this first story proves right away this isn't really a mystery collection.

The second story Kyuushuu Ryokou ("A Trip to Kyuushuu") does something similar: Mercator forces Minagi to open a file on his own computer, which turns out to contain a virus. Because Minagi's manuscript has been wiped, Mercator offers to present Minagi a plot for a new story. They walk out of Minagi's apartment, but just near the stairs, Mercator notices a weird smell from one of the neighboring rooms, and when he peeks inside, it turns out someone's dead inside. Mercator and Minagi look around the room, trying to figure out why Minagi's neighbor is dead, as this will serve as Minagi's new story. Again, this story features a few nice short deduction chains based on the physical evidence they find, but ultimately, it's all building up to a climax that can only be described as a punchline, and any feeling of catharsis of learning the solution is washed away immediately. It's quite funny and I do think this particular story is the closest to a "normal" detective story, but still very subversive. 

The third and fourth story Shuusoku ("Convergence") and Kotae no Nai Ehon ("A Picture Book Without Answers") can't even be explained properly, as both are truly something you have to experience yourself. In Shuusoku, Mercator and Minagi are invited to a small island with a mini-cult to investigate a break-in, while in Kotae no Nai Ehon, the murder on a teacher is the subject of an investigation. While again both investigations do feature clever deductions that would've been great in straightforward detectives, Maya then decides near the end to tie explosives to the story, blow it up, gather the pieces and then set fire to them just to finish them off. The conclusions of both stories will infuriate you if you want a normal detective story, but that's what makes them so interesting as experiments regarding the set rules and tropes of mystery fiction. Kotae no Nai Ehon in particular is daring with what it tries to do, and truly something you can only pull off once, though I like the surprising elegance of what is done in Shuusoku better. These two are the must-reads of the collection, just for their craziness.

The final story Misshitsusou ("The Locked Room House") is a short short, involving just Mercator, Minagi and a dead body they find one morning in the house they are staying at. What follows is a short conversation-only story that once again ends with a ridiculous resolution if you'd think about it from a "mystery genre" point of view, though at this point, I think a lot of readers can guess what Mercator will do considering how outrageous he's been behaving all this time. The title of the collection is Also Sprach Mercator, and that is certainly a theme running through all these stories: ultimately, it's Mercator who decides what the "truth" is and how each story will end.

I did enjoy Mercator Kaku Katariki a lot, but it's not something I would want to be reading all the time. It worked for me, precisely because I had been reading a lot of formal mystery stories at the time, and so I had a lot of fun seeing those same tropes played with in such a daring way. I do think this collection is the most accessible work written by Maya where he addresses these deconstructive themes. Something like Natsu to Fuyu no Sonata just requires a lot more dedication from the reader, while Mercator Kaku Katariki is actually a very short and light-weight read. This is not a book I can unconditionally recommend to mystery fans, but if the idea of playful deconstruction appeals to you, I think this will be a very fun read.

Original Japanese title(s): 麻耶雄嵩『メルカトルかく語りき』:「死人を起こす」/「九州旅行」/「収束」/「答えのない絵本」/「密室荘」

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Choosing Sides

A place for everything and everything in its place.

Time for my single anthology review of the year... And yes, it's a bit late this year...

Disclosure: I am a member of the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan. However, I didn't vote for the stories this year.

Every summer, the Honkaku-Ou ("The King of Honkaku") anthology is published, collecting the best honkaku short stories published the previous year, as selected by the members of the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan. The selection of short stories basically acts as a counterpart to the Honkaku Mystery Award, which is awarded to the best published book each year. Short stories are usually published in different magazines or online, which can make them difficult to obtain at a later stage, so having all the chosen short stories collected in one book is quite convenient. The Honkaku-Ou format was started in 2019, as the previous format also included the year's best mystery-related essays chosen by the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club, but while not every year was as strong as others, I do think the last two years had really strong contenders, some of them I'd even consider candidates for my own best-read mysteries of those years. So I had been looking forward to the 2023 edition too. 

Honkaku-Ou 2023 (2023) opens with Imamura Masahiro's Aru Heya Nite ("In A Certain Room"), and apparently, this is the first short story Imamura wrote that is not part of a series. Oh, and another disclosure message: I translated Imamura's Death Among the Undead and Death Within the Evil Eye. This is, interestingly, considering his other works, an inverted mystery and opens with a scene where Kengo tries to talk things over with Yuuka his... girlfriend? ex? and things go horribly wrong, ending with her death. Because he snuck in the apartment building, he figures he might get away with it if he can spirit her body away for a while, and he's just done stuffing her body in a suitcase and about to leave the place, when an attorney appears at the door, who says he has an appointment with Yuuka, as she wanted to discuss something with him regarding a rather pesky stalker. Kengo pretends he's Yuuka's brother, hoping to fool the attorney long enough to get out of here, but the attorney seems to notice a lot of little things that add up to a big truth while he's in the room... This is a rather short story, and it's one I like better for the turnabout climax at the end of the inverted mystery, when things inevitably go wrong for Kengo, than for the build-up. While I like the big "twist" you often have in inverted mysteries that is presented here (when you realize the murderer made a truly fatal mistake), the minor mistakes and faults the attorney notices in the build-up feel less strong, and don't really give that satisfying feeling you often have even with smaller points like in Columbo. Not a bad story by any means, just a bit underwhelming on the whole.

Yuuki Shinichirou was featured in the 2020 edition of this anthology, and returns with the oddly-titled Koronde mo Tada de ha Okinai Fuwadama Toumyou Soup Jiken ("The 'If Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade' Fluffy Egg Pea Sprout Soup Incident"). This time we follow a kind of Uber Eats driver, but one of the shops he works for is rather special: the restaurants is also actually a detective agency. By making very specific orders via the app, clients can engage the detective/cook's services, who uses a select number of trusted Uber drivers to visits to the clients to gather the necessary information to solve the case. This time they are working on a case of a dead woman found in an apartment building that went up in flames. While people were watching the smoke outside, a woman saw another woman who mumbled "Good for him!" and then ran into the building. Later this woman was found dead in one of the apartments, which was occupied by her ex, who escaped from the fire in the building in time. Because of his connection to the victim, police are of course investigating him, but as the woman was seen going into the building herself, it doesn't seem it was his fault she died, but why did she go inside in the first place? At first sight, I thought the idea of an Uber-detective-service sounded fun, but I didn't think it was really used meaningful here. I assume this story is part of a series, but the way the story was told with bits of the driver returning to the cook to discuss the case didn't help the pacing of the story. The fire incident itself is not super complex and I think many will guess early why the woman went to the building herself, but I liked it enough, so I thought it was a shame the story read a bit awkward.

Shiotani Ken's 20XX-nen no Shuki ("Accounts Dated 20XX") consists of a series of reports written by different people, portraying a unique dictatorship led by the Great Leader X, who guides the strictly-led nation. The first account is from A, the director of Camp 33 in the Kanto region, a training camp where men are trained in several skill fields. His account to his superiors says nothing is wrong at the camp, but the next report already introduces to B, the replacement of A, as A was caught lying in his reports. B reports on the death of K, an injured man who had been sent to the camp to recover, but who accidentally died during his stay at the camp, a fact A tried to cover up. More letters follow, which slowly delve into the secret behind K's death. This was a short, but fun story, with each letter changing your views on what was said in the previous letter. It's not really fair play puzzle in that sense, as the writer of each new account always knows much more than the reader, but it's cool to see how the case changes and events described in earlier accounts can suddenly take a completely different meaning. The world described in these letters give this story both a very large, and small scale: apparently this is a North Korea-esque society, but at the other hand, all we see of this world is through these letters, which are all about events occuring inside a special training camp, so ultimately you don't see that much of this unique society. This would be cool to see in a full series.

According to Yagi Jun's own introduction, Chikusare ("Fatal Blood") was written as a horror story, so he was surprised it got picked for this anthology. It's about a sister, who joins her younger brother and his two children on a camp, as his sister-in-law is too busy with work to go with them. During their time outdoors, the sister remembers how there's a shrine in the forest here, with a cursed stone which can cut ties between people if you put the blood of the one you want to cut ties with on the stone. But as time passes by, she starts to see her younger brother act suspiciously with a cloth with some blood on it... This is indeed more of a horror story than a straight puzzler, revolving around the sister's suspicions about her brother's actions. Not bad per se, but also not really what I expect to read in an anthology like this. Had it been written more as a straight mystery story, I think I would have liked it better, because the last revelation is good, but the hinting/foreshadowing is a bit weirdly paced because it's more a horror story.

Araki Akane's Doukou no SHE ("Fellow Traveller SHE") is about Yuuko, who is going to kill somebody. She boards the night bus with just a kitchen knife inside her coat pocket, ready to strike when she arrives in Tokyo. The woman next to her however almost immediately notices the knife, and says she'll tell the driver, but Yuuko places the knife against the woman, Ruri, and tells her to stay quiet. The bus makes its way towards Tokyo, occasionally stopping at rest areas. During one of these stops, the passenger in front of Yuuko and Ruri says his phone and wallet was stolen from his bag in the overhead rack, and when they look around, the wallet is found inside Yuuko's bag! Yuuko knows she didn't steal the wallet, and immediately suspects Ruri pulled the stunt off to get out of her predicament, but how did she manage that while being kept at knife-point? A very thrilling story, though mystery-wise it is a bit... convenient? Like, I know people doze off in a night bus, but would nobody have noticed what was going in with that bag considering what was done with it in order for the wallet to end up in Yuuko's bag? The mystery of the smartphone is better, and I like the final turn of events regarding Yuuko's intended murder overall very much too though.

Shirai Tomoyuki's Moterean no Tekubi ("The Hand of the Moterean") starts with a group of three looking for crystallized fossils on the island of Posta, the realm of Gods. Once upon a time, an alien species called Moterans lived on the island, but they are now all extinct, and having been in the ground for so long, the three think they might find fossils turned into gemstones here. They eventually do find a cut-off hand, which is a bit weird, so they dig even further and far deeper in the ground, they stumble upon an arm. When they dig dozens of meters further, they find a body with a missing arm, and also signs they were naked when they died. This however leads to a very puzzling question: how did this Moterean's body end up like this on Posta Island, naked, and with their hand and arm at completely different depths in the ground? The one Shirai story I ever read was pretty gross and I hear that's his thing, but that was fortunately not the case here. This was an interesting archeological mystery. While I think the 'big' twist in the middle wasn't as surprising as it was probably intended, I liked the theories posed as to how parts of the fossil ended up seperated so far. The scale of the story encompasses thousands of years, so it's a weird "murder mystery" in that sense, but I really liked how this was used to come up with a very surprising explanation for the fossil being like that, as the misdirection really takes advantage of the unique setting.

Michio Shuusuke's Hariganemushi ("Horsehair Worm") is part of a series where each story includes a QR-code to a Youtube audio file, where you get to hear a specific scene/moment from the story. I think this is a pretty cool idea, but on the other hand, it's not really used in a meaningful manner in this specific story. I guess that's because the prose story has to work on its own, so you can not really have the audio track be the actual solution or a vital hint, but still, it's little more than a gimmick now. In this story, we follow a cram school teacher who is stalking one of his students: he has given her an USB charger, but in fact it's a listening device, and the last few days, he's been following her to her home, and listening from his car to the sounds from her bedroom. While doing this, he learns more about her home situation, which is quite grave with an abusive step-father. Things eventually explode in the household, but there's nothing the teacher can do. But what did really happen in the house, and what was it he was actually listening to? I think the problem with this tale is there's no real surprise? It's more a thriller than a detective story, as even at the end, when a detective-like figure explains everything, it doesn't feel like an explanation, because the teacher heard all of this himself and... there was no mystery or anything. The audio track you get to listen at the end, is also just part of a scene the teacher was listening to, with the exact same phrases, so all the audio track offers is just... hearing the scene acted out.

Overall, I think Honkaku-Ou 2023 was not as strong as previous entries. The last three years, there was always at least one story I really, really liked, making the whole collection worth reading, but while there were stories I simply liked in this year's edition, I don't think any of them were really must-reads. I think my favorites are Shiotani's story for having a unique premise and a good build-up to the solution, as well as Imamura and Shirai's entries for their more focused story-telling, but even then, it's not like I think these alone make this really a worthwile read. Oh well, I guess there's always next year!

Original Japanese title(s): 『本格王2023』: 今村昌弘「ある部屋にて」/ 結城真一郎「転んでもただでは起きないふわ玉豆苗スープ事件」/ 潮谷験「二〇XX年の手記」/ 矢樹純「血腐れ」/ 荒木あかね「同好のSHE」/ 白井智之「モーティリアンの手首」/ 道尾秀介 「ハリガネムシ」