Wednesday, September 20, 2023

The Dark Side of the Door

And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door, 
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;
— Darkness there and nothing more.
"The Raven" (Edgar Allan Poe)

Two of the major mystery-related newcomer awards (meaning you get a publishing contract for your entry if you win) in Japan are the Ayukawa Tetsuya Award (publisher: Tokyo Sogensha) and the Mephisto Prize (publisher: Kodansha). Both are popular awards and many who want to write mystery fiction, will try to submit their manuscripts for those awards, as getting published via either of them means receiving a major marketing push and a lot of attention. Of the two, my own preferences correspond best to the Ayukawa Tetsuya Award, which is more focused on puzzle plot mysteries. In a broad sense by the way, so you can have a plot set in a nursing home for the elderly with a lot of real-life experience poured into the story,  but also one of the biggest hits ever that make use of supernatural elements in a mystery story. The Mephisto Prize on the other hand is, by its own definition, not really an award that focuses on mystery fiction per se. The jury are looking for entertainment novels, that span several genres from mystery to horror and much more. That means more variety, but also that a lot of the Mephisto winners aren't the kind of puzzle plot mystery I like to read in the first place. Something like J no Shinwa is really not the kind of novel I usually read and I didn't really like it, some aren't even mystery stories, while books like Clock-Jou Satsujin Jiken and Marumarumarumarumarumarumarumaru Satsujin Jiken are memorable puzzle plot mysteries. But in terms of consistency, I can usually assume a winner of the Ayukawa Tetsuya Award will more often be closer to my own preferences than a Mephisto awardee.

Hikawa Tooru made his debut via the Mephisto Prize in 2000, but interestingly enough, he writes in a mode more commonly associated with the Ayukawa Tetsuya Award. His debut work, Makkura na Yoake or Pitch-Black Dawn as the cover also says, is highly inspired by Ellery Queen and is a pure puzzle plot whodunnit. Like Ellery Queen, his detective character is also named Hikawa Tooru, a young man in his twenties who is hoping to become a mystery novelist. He used to be in a band in university, and the band is going to meet up again for the first time in a few years. Hikawa has been chasing his dream of becoming a professional novelist, doing odd jobs to make ends meet in the meantime, but all his former band members have become full members of the working Japanese society, which is one of the reasons why they haven't really come together again in a while (everyone having their own schedules). Izumi, the oldest and leader of the band who now works at the Suginami-ku Ward Office, arranges for the get-together to be held at a restaurant near his work, and while the place is a bit hard to find, everyone eventually makes it there, with some bringing a +1. After a night of catching up, Izumi says goodbye, as he lives in the neighborhood, while the others hurry to the Suginami Subway Station, as the last train will leave in about twenty minutes. They arrive a bit early though, so they hang about at the otherwise empty station. Some have to go the toilet, others walk around in the station while others wait at the platform. Just a minute before the last train arrives, Matsubara goes back up the stairs to go to the bathroom, but the next second, he cries out in terror, as he discovers the body of Izumi lying dead in the station's men's bathroom. Everyone is utterly baffled, not only by the fact that Izumi has been bludgeoned to death by an art object that had been displayed in the station hall, but because they had said goodbye to him before arriving at the station, and that he shouldn't be at the station at all as he lives in the area. Because the only people at the station, besides three station attendants, were the people at the get-together, it seems likely one of them is the murderer, even if the police can't completely rule out the possibility Izumi might've been killed and robbed of his money in the short time when there was nobody in the station hall when everyone were just still waiting for the train. Hikawa intentionally lies during his questioning to make it seem like someone might've escaped the station while he was waiting for the train and standing near the exits in the main hall, but in fact he knows nobody escaped and that therefore, one of his friends is the murderer and he is determined to find out who it is.

Makkura na Yoake is a surprisingly simple and sobre detective novel considering it's a Mephisto Prize winner, and you can definitely feel the Ellery Queen influence throughout the novel. A lot of the book is devoted to plain investigation and the discussion of possibilities and whether they can discard them, and to be honest, having read it now , I really find it odd this book isn't an Ayukawa Tetsuya Award winner but a Mephisto Prize winner. The murder set-up, while it has a few mysteries about it, is essentially very simple: a murder in the men's bathroom in a subway station and the only people inside, besides the station attendants, all had some kind of (in-direct) link with the victim. Because everyone's memories are a bit vague and it's hard to vouch for each other's alibis, it seems quite a few of them could have committed the murder, but two mysteries remain: why was Izumi in the subway station in the first place, and why did the murderer use the specific murder weapon? For the murderer didn't use the small handy statue to strike Izumi down, but with the flat base upon which the statue stood. The statue is much better suited as a striking weapon compared to the disk-like base, so why did the murderer choose the latter? It's here where the Ellery Queen-flavor becomes the most obvious, as a lot of the book is devoted to discussions about why this weapon was chosen, as well as trying to sort out everyone's positions and a time table until the discovery of the body. And of course, these theories and conclusions are then used to arrive at new conclusions, building whole chains of logic that eventually lead to the murderer.

The situation itself also reminds of the earliest Queen novels, with a kind of public space, but also with a limited cast, and a focus on where everyone was and what they were doing. Hikawa himself as a character obviously isn't early Ellery, especially as he's personally involved in the case, and technically one of the suspects himself too, but you can easily tell who inspired Hikawa.

But even as an Ellery Queen fan, I do have to say the middle part of the book is rather boring. The book tries to help this by telling the story in a kind of And Then There Were None way, with each section following a different character (so the book does not solely follow Hikawa himself). It gives the reader a somewhat more diverse reading experience, as it plays with the idea of you knowing the murderer has to be one of these people you're reading about, but so little happens in these segments. It's basically only Hikawa and fellow member Shiori who genuinely talk about the case, so the segments about any of the other characters just feel like time filler. And while Hikawa, Shiori and the detectives in charge do talk about the various possibilities together, posing theories and also pointing out flaws in each other's ideas, fact remains a lot of it remains rather open to interpretation until later on in the book, so the plot moves very slowly.

Which reminds me, why does the police detective decide to trust Hikawa all of a sudden...? At first they were annoyed with Hikawa's detective playing, but like one chapter later, the main detective decides to trust Hikawa and even feeds him confidential information about the investigation... Hikawa isn't even a renowned mystery writer or anything, he's someone who's trying to become one!

The solution however does remind me once again why I like Ellery Queen-style whodunnits so much. It's these kinds of chains of reasoning that impress me the most about mystery fiction: where the detective use fact A and fact B to arrive at conclusion 1, and combines that with conclusion 2 to arrive at conclusion 3, etc. etc. until lo, you have identified the one single murderer, even though you started with a very, very humble clue. In this case, the way Hikawa arrives at the identity of the murder is truly in the spirit of Queen. It starts with a simple problem, but by focusing on that, Hikawa can use logic to slowly eliminate who it couldn't have been, and finally arriving at who it only could've been. Even though at first, it seemed anyone could've done it. A lot of "side-issues" like motive however are left to speculation and guesses, which are only confirmed because obviously the actual writer Hikawa Tooru wants it to be like that, but the logic itself is sound. The book does feel a bit longer than it needed to be though, and I think I'd have liked it more as a short story, as the deduction itself is great. The book features a second crime in the second half of the book, and while that is fairly simple, I do like the way Hikawa determines the crime is in fact a crime, and not a suicide: this solution hinges on something uniquely Japanese, but also incredibly normal and easy to miss, yet once pointed out, you can't believe you didn't notice it yourself the first time.

Overall, I think that as a debut story Makkura na Yoake is not an outstanding, but still a reasonably consistent mystery novel that is in particular of interest for fans of EQ-style whodunnits. Hikawa would go on writing a few more books, so I'll definitely check them out to see how he further develops. Strangely enough though, Hikawa just suddenly disappeared as a writer. He debuted in 2000 and wrote his last works in 2004, but while he was active on Twitter and last wrote he was moving, he fell silent afterwards and no books have been published since, and his books are also not available as e-books, suggesting perhaps even the publisher can't reach him. For the moment, I have all of the Hikawa Tooru books that also have Hikawa Tooru as the detective, so I'll be discussing them here on the blog eventually.

Original Japanese title(s): 氷川透『真っ暗な夜明け』

Saturday, September 16, 2023

The Last Free Man

"Nothing is impossible," declared The Thinking Machine with equal emphasis. He always spoke petulantly. "The mind is master of all things. When science fully recognizes that fact a great advance will have been made."
"The Problem of Cell 13"

I have only read a handful of American comics , but are there good Batman comics that actually sell him as "the world's greatest detective"? Something with a fair-clewed, puzzle plot? I mean, I enjoy Batman as much as anyone else, and grew up with Batman The Animated Series, but I never really had the feeling Batman was the greatest detective, at least, so much of what would constitute detecting was technology-based, and while sure, it probably required some intellect on Batman's side to construct Batcomputers and stuff like that, you don't really get to see that, so as the viewer, we only see a Batcomputer analyzing stuff and providing an answer, or have Batman solve riddles or more like guessing villain schemes. 

So I got started with this, because I was thinking of manga artist Kuwata Jirou, famous for his 8 Man series, but until yesterday, the only manga I ever read by him was the Batman manga, better known as Batman: The Kuwata Jiro Bat-Manga. The 60s series was slightly based on the Adam West Batman series, only not camp, and far more action and scifi-based, and I genuinely like it as a 60s scifi manga. Some of the stories are based on the American comics, some are completely original creations (Lord Death-Man!) and it feels surprisingly close to series like Kamen Rider or Astro Boy, but with Batman and Robin.

This same Kuwata also made a manga adaptation of the famous 1905 impossible mystery short story The Problem of Cell 13, by American journalist Jacques Futrelle and featuring Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, also known as The Thinking Machine. Originally receiving a collected release in 1978, Meitantei Thinking Machine: Kanzen Datsugoku ("The Great Detective The Thinking Machine: The Perfect Escape") is a short, 110 page adaptation of the most famous of the Thinking Machine stories, and it's on the whole a pretty faithful and funny adaptation, only making small changes to add a bit of comedy, without intruding upon the plot. Like in the original story, the manga too starts with Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen making his claims that nothing is impossible for the human brain, as long as one applies it correctly to the problem, to which his friend Dr. Ransome challenges the Thinking Machine to show everyone exactly that. Supposing the professor was kept alone in a cell, in a prison in Chisholme, could he manage to escape within a week? The professor accepts the challenge, agreeing to be moved into a cell in the prison, with just three conditions: he wants a toothbrush (tooth powder in the original story), he wants a five dollar bill and two ten dollar bills, and he'd like someone to polish his shoes before he's put in prison. Can the Thinking Machine truly escape from a secured prison under those conditions?

The short story is over a century old, and while I won't spoil it, there's not really much I can say about it now. Would I put it in a top 100 list of best crime and mystery stories like H.R.F. Keating did? No, absolutely not. Is it a good impossible "crime" story? Ehh... it depends. In the context of 1905 of course,  The Problem of Cell 13 is an original impossible crime story, that also does focus on the proper process of providing clues -> logical reasoning -> solution, but it does make a few jumps in the explanation that for a modern reader of puzzle plot mysteries, might feel unfair, or at least not strongly enough hinted at. I think the basic idea of how the Thinking Machine manages to escape the prison is good though, but seeing it from the POV of a puzzle plot enjoyer, I would have preferred a few more "confirmation" clues to what the professor was doing, as the story demands quite some imagination/fantasy from the reader if they were to try to solve this themselves. Of course, because this story is so old, it pre-dates most genuine puzzle plot mysteries, so it's very much looking at the story with "future" knowledge, but that's how I feel about it. 

While reading this adaptation by Kuwata, I was also strongly reminded of Lupin the Third by the way. Who of course was... at one point, inspired by the original Arsène Lupin (even if they are very different personality-wise), and who as a character, is from the same time period as the Thinking Machine. Those stories too are usually not really fair play mysteries, so quite similar in that sense. I wonder if Kuwata had Lupin the Third in mind while drawing this manga: it dates almost ten years after Lupin made his own debut, and he of course also had his own prison escape stories. The Thinking Machine in the Kuwata adaptation in particular is quite enjoyable to see, mischieveous, and almost with the heart of a young, playful boy despite his age and wisdom. 

As mentioned, the changes are quite minimal, though one change is probably just a "oops, that slipped my mind" mistake: the story starts with a scene that is basically only one single paragraph in the original story, where the Thinking Machine beats a Russian grandmaster in a game of chess, even though he has never before played chess and only studied the rules before the game. This opening scene is set in Great Britain, and the story then remains in there, also stating that's where the Chisholme prison is. Which... makes the request of Professor van Dusen for (US) dollar bills to take inside the prison even more mystifying, and another later story development too. In a way, it makes the Thinking Machine's plan even crazier, in a funny way, but yeah, I think this was just a brain fart of Kuwata and his editors, forgetting to either move the story back to the United States or at least change those American references...

It had been a while since I last read the original story, so I thought this was a fun way to revisit The Problem of Cell 13. As a comic adaptation Meitantei Thinking Machine: Kanzen Datsugoku is a functional, and pleasant read, but at the same time, it's of course simply an adaptation of a fairly short story, so it's not like this was ever likely going to be a must-read masterpiece. But as a Japanese adaptation of a Western mystery story, it's a fun footnote.

Original Japanese title(s): 桑田次郎(絵)『名探偵シンキングマシン 完全脱獄』

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Survival of the Fittest

Memento mori
Remember you will die

I like Enta Shiho's art, but all these covers with just a girl's face looking at the camera all feel kinda samey after a while...

People probably didn't quite expect the zombie virus to take over the world in this way.  Twenty years have passed since the first recorded instance of a "zombie" or the "living dead." With time, scientists discovered it was not a virus, but a pathogen that causes dead mammals to becoming moving creatures again, even though people still commonly refer to it as the zombie virus. By now, most mammals across the world have already been infected by the pahtogen, but fortunately, a healthy person (or animal) usually has enough natural resistance against the zombie virus. It was when they die, or are severely weakened, the zombie virus can take over their mind, controlling the living dead. While the pathogen only affects the recently deceased (older bodies have not risen from their graves), society had to adapt to a world where the dead, and also the critically injured and ill will turn into a zombie. Many of them of the human zombies are rounded up, but because it is impossible to tell which are zombies of actually dead people, and which zombies are of people who are technically alive, but taken over by the zombie virus, they can't really "get rid of them" that easily. The bigger problem is the food economy, as it became impossible to do factory farming anymore, as even one single sick animal could in no time tun all the others in the farm into zombies. Society had to adapt to the new reality, and to some extent, they did, but there is still much to learn about the living dead.

Ultimate Medical is a medical company doing research into the living dead, and one day, they have a big announcement to make regarding zombie research. The presentation is to be held at the manor of Ukari Ichirou, an executive of the company. But when the time of the presentation arrives, the scientist in charge doesn't appear on stage. They go to the room where he was preparing for his presentation, but find it not only locked from the inside, but they hear rather worriying grunting noises from inside. When they mange to open the door, they see what they had feared most: the glassy look in the eyes and the slow movements of the scientist as he charges in the direction of the humans is unmistakable. The scientist is eventually led out of the house, where the police manage to capture him, but they are confronted with a mystery: the scientist was clearly murdered, which turned him into a zombie, but the room where he was preparing was completely locked from the inside, door and windows, and no weapon was found in the room, nor a murderer. So how did the scientist turn into a zombie? Yatsugashira Ruri, a rather young-looking detective, suddenly appears on the scene and manages to convince Ukari to hire her to find out why the scientist was murdered and how, but it doesn't take long for Ruri to get targeted herself by someone, sparking the suspicion that something bigger might be going on. Will she figure out who the murderer is in Kobayashi Yasumi's Wazawaza Zombie wo Korosu Ningen Nante Inai (2021), or as the cover also says: No One Bothers to Kill the Living Dead?

A mystery about the living dead might not sound that original anymore (because of exhibit A and exhibit B), but hey, it's a book by Kobayashi who makes really great use of supernatural settings in his mysteries with his Märchen Murder series, so if there's someone who can come up with something cool with zombies, it must be Kobayashi. And certainly, if there's one thing this book absolutely excels at, is the depiction of a world where a zombie virus (technically not a virus) has taken over the world, but not in a way that has immediately caused the downfall of human society. We are shown "zombie farms" where zombies are rounded up and just... let free, because they don't really know what to do with them, we have detailed descriptions of how the food economy had to change because it became impossible to continue the large-scale farming model and other goosebump-invoking details like how with the changing food economy, some people started to enjoy zombie meat (because it's better than nothing) and some even very much like the suspicious "monkey" meat they sell of which everybody knows it's not a monkey but they want to lie to themselves, and some people even go out hunting for wild zombies themselves to get some... fresh meat right off the bone. The world-building in Wazawaza Zombie wo Korosu Ningen Nante Inai is really interesting, and in that way, quite different from the earlier mentioned examples of zombie mystery fiction, which were set in worlds that barely started to know the new reality.

As a mystery however, I find the book slightly less engaging. The book opens with the locked room mystery revolving around how the scientist could've been turned into a zombie while he was preparing for his presentation in a private room, but the book doesn't really focus on that: that part is mostly ignored as we follow Ruri, who uses the excuse of being hired to investigate the locked room murder, to look into the research of the zombie-fied scientist, digging into a bigger conspiracy, which, due to numerous flashbacks to her past interspersed between the chapters, is obviously very much connected to herself. More than half of the book feels more like a private eye-type of story, where we see Ruri and her sorta assistant poking around, making people in Ultimate Medical nervous and occassionally some moves being made to get Ruri off the case. Some readers might find this more interesting to read as there's always a new event coming up, but I myself find it less interesting because at times, it just felt unfocused. As the book continues, we learn a lot more about Ruri's past which will eventually tie back to current affairs, but I didn't think this part really interesting. I believe the book was originally published with a YA horror-focused imprint, so I guess I shouldn't be expecting a hyper-puzzle-focused mystery out of this, and depending on your mood, the private eye mode of the book might be satisfying enough, but I personally felt it a bit lacking, with a few surprises which were telegraphed too obviously.

They don't completely forget about the locked room mystery of course, so we return to it at the end of the book, and it's an okay mystery, that makes good use of the unique world of the book. It's not a super complex trick however, and personally, I would also have liked a short story version of this that only introduced the world, the locked room murder and without the bigger conspiracy Ruri is after, because then I think it would have stood out a bit more, but as it is now, it's an okay locked room murder, which however is set aside for a very, very long time, so the impact is lessened.

By the way, I mainly know Kobayashi via his Märchen Murder series, which has some rather unique conversations which I always thought were because the stories were based on books like Alice in Wonderland, with characters speaking in roundabout manners and jokes based on misunderstandings and wordplay, but you also see that, though to a lesser extent, here too.

Overall, I did have fun with the book, but its main selling point is definitely the world that is portrayed within its pages. Don't expect too much of the locked room mystery mentioned in the blurb, and you'll have an entertaining time, especially if you also like the Märchen Murder series as it as a similar vibe. It's not very long either, so works great as a 'light-weight' book to be read between other books.

Original Japanese title(s): 小林泰三『わざわざゾンビを殺す人間なんていない』

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Death Takes a Dive

 (KICK) ルール破りの(JUMP) 悪の超人
(KICK) Those cheating (JUMP) Evil supermen
No more playing games now!
(ATTACK) I'm the fighter who turns things around (FIRE) In the last five seconds
 I am the blazing Kinnikuman
"The Blazing Kinnikuman" (Kushida Akira)
 I'm always interested if a non-mystery series tries to do a mystery story, even if often, the result is not likely to be a particularly original story. But it's always fun to see how an existing fictional world is used to tell a puzzle plot mystery story, especially if the original work is far removed from the mystery genre in the first place, allowing for surprising mix-ups.

So I was both surprised and interested when earlier this year, it was announced there'd be an original mystery novel set in the world of Kinnikuman! Kinnikuman (Or also known as Muscle Man) is an extremely long-running comedy action series by the duo Yudetamago, about an alien prince Kinnikuman who wants to become a superhero, and eventually becomes an intergalactic wrestler, fighting with and against other crazy super-powered wrestlers both good and evil. I don't know the series very well, but it's very well-known in Japan, and at a time, its popularity was also seen in schools with the collectible Kinnikuman Erasers (Kinkeshi), small erasers in the shapes of the many, many, maaaany wrestlers from the series. At any rate, it wasn't a series I'd immediately associate with the mystery genre, but that was what made the announcement so interesting, so I eventually picked up the book Kinnikuman Yojigen Sappou Satsujin Jiken ("Kinnikuman: The Four-Dimensional Murder Art Murder Case", 2023), written by Oginuma X and supervised by original creators Yudetamago. The book starts with the arrival of Meat on the planet Earth: Meat is the best friend of Kinnikuman and his chief vassal, but Kinnikuman, who is now king of the planet Kinniku, has gone missing. Meat suspects his loafing king has returned to Earth yearning for the old days and he first swings by Kinnikuman's old Earth home, where he stumbles into Kinkotsuman. a rival wrestler who also heard rumors Kinnikuman had returned and came here to pick a fight. Meat and Kinkotsuman decide to work together to find the missing Kinnikuman and start looking in other places where he could be, mostly locations where other super-powered wrestlers are likely to be, but each time they run into a mysterious murder. Meat is certainly not among the strongest wrestlers, but he has a brilliant mind, and he is determined to solve each crime if it brings him closer to finding his king.

My first reaction: huh, this is a licensed book in the Kinnikuman franchise, and Kinnikuman isn't even the focal character of the book? I mean, the book is about his disappearance, so the title character barely appears in it!

As mentioned, I am not very familiar with Kinnikuman, but I do know the wrestlers in this series are really, over-the-top super-powered beings, with abilities like flight, teleportation and superhuman strength, so I was instantly interested to see how those kind of powers would be used in a puzzle plot mystery. That said, I was also worried my little knowledge of the series might be an obstacle in terms of being able to enjoy the book, as it is obviously mainly aimed at fans of Kinnikuman, and not general mystery fans. So how does it fare?

Well... let me start right away with the message I can't really recommend this book to just general fans of mystery fiction with no interest in Kinnikuman whatsoever. It drops too much on the reader with minimal context, and while I could still understand it, there was a lot I knew would be more interesting if I knew about these characters and their powers better. It doesn't help that this book mainly has Meat as the protagonist (and not title character Kinnikuman) and it is clearly more a 'for the fans' book. The book has an prologue, and epilogue and four stories for Meat to solve, but each story introduces "new" characters for the reader, which the fan is likely to recognize immediately from the main series, but each story does only the bare minimum to introduce each character, so everything feels very rushed, and characters start to blend together really quickly because some of them have barely five lines before Meat starts explaining whodunit.

In the four chapters, Meat and Kinkotsuman encounter different murders and a theft during their search for Kinnikuman, prompting Meat to solve them quickly because he is in a hurry to find the king. The murders themselves are fairly mundane, but things quickly become crazy when you learn what kind of powers each of the involved wrestlers have, from opening interdimensional wormholes to being able to basically stop time. But this isn't only true of the suspects, but also of the victims, who often have outrageous powers too. So in the end, we do have "normal" mysteries in the sense that the victims and murderers were "equal" in power, only due to the fact everyone has a different range of powers, it can be difficult to figure how each crime was committed. And here we have the main problem of the book that is connected to what I said above: you see, the book has pretty interesting murder set-ups that make good use of the various powers established characters have, using them in original ways to come up with impossible crimes, but because the book is so short and has to rush through every story, each story simply has not time to properly set the stage and tell a story. I have a feeling each story needed to be at least twice as long to properly introduce each suspect, explain their specific powers and play about with pointing fingers at the suspects and thus have a more satisfying tale of detection. As the stories are told now, they may be sufficient for someone who knows who say Buffaloman is and what his personality and power range is, but here it feels a non-fan reader is always two steps behind. So sometimes, things feel unfair, even though they really shouldn't feel as such as they could've been explained and set-up more properly if each story had been longer, instead of presenting new information in the conclusion of each case to the reader. 

In the story The Key of 10 Million for example, Meat has to protect a jewel from being stolen by the phantom thief wrestler Lupine, only for the thief to succeed, but solving this case requires some information that probably makes perfect sense for a Kinnikuman fan, but not for me, and it is only explained in the conclusion. Other stories like the title story The Four-Dimensional Murder Art Murder Case and The Revived Victim have good ideas here and there that make good use of the powers of these super-powered wrestlers, but they are explained so poorly they barely feel fair. The final story, The Junikukan Hotel Murder Case, has actually a brilliant, and absolutely horrifying trick, but it really needed at least double the amount of pages to really set-up the whole ordeal and play around with the suspects. The whole book has moments like these, that show the writer does know how to write a mystery story with these characters in the world, but for some reason, they didn't enough necessary meat to the core plot.

So as mentioned in the beginning, Kinnikuman Yojigen Sappou Satsujin Jiken is mostly interesting for existing fans of Kinnikuman, who want to see their familiar characters used in what is essentially an original and adequately written mystery short story collection. For those with basically zero knowledge of the series however, it's written far too hastily, making it feel more unfair than it actually needs to be, as a lot of the problems I have with the book are not with the plots themselves, but more with it being too brief on a lot of relevant topics. The book might be interesting to read if you're fan of shounen battle manga, and want to see how for example a series like Saint Seiya might also work as a mystery story, but otherwise, I think you can safely skip this one.

Original Japanese title(s):おぎぬまX(原)、ゆでたまご(監修)『キン肉マン 四次元殺法殺人事件』

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

The Burning Question

"Match wits with Ellery Queen and see if you can guess whodunnit"
"Ellery Queen (avant-title)"

I don't have that many books with bright yellow covers I think....

One of my favorite reads last year was Ashibe Taku's Oomarike Satsujin Jiken ("The Oomari Family Murder Case"), which in a way was the quintessential Ashibe novel, because I think it might be the book where he managed to combine all his personal tropes/interests and the mystery plot the best. Many of his book have very detailed historical and literary references, often ones that only the fans will understand, and while sometimes I think it goes a bit too far, it was handled extremely well in Oomarike Satsujin Jiken, a story that was set in war-time Osaka (the city of Osaka also being a major theme of Ashibe's books) about the downfall of the Oomari family during the war, one of the many merchant families in Osaka, focusing on its female members who stay behind to hold the fort while the men were sent to war. The way the book blended the historical setting and the Trojan Women-esque story with a mystery plot that could've only worked in that specific setting was really good, and to me, it really felt like the work where all these Ashibe tropes came together the best.

Ashibe Taku's Meitantei wa Dare da ("Who is the Great Detective?", 2022) is many ways very unlike what I'd normally expect of an Ashibe work, and almost the complete opposite in tone and approach compared to Oomarike Satsujin Jiken.  The book is a short story collection, and the premise of the book is that the stories are everything but (straight) whodunnits, and yet they are, in a way, still whodunnits. As the title of the book already suggests, the seven stories in this book are not about whodunnit, as in, who committed the crime, but the stories turn the question around, and presents the reader with variants. In one story, the question is who shall be murdered, instead of whodunnit, and while in a different story, you are actually asked to deduce which of the suspects isn't a culprit, because the rest of the suspects in fact are all conspiring criminals! And of course, the final story, the title story, has you even guess which of the "suspects" in the story is in fact a detective. So the stories are whodunnits, but not in the way you'd expect!

When I say that this book is very much unlike a work you'd expect from Ashibe though, I do have to say right now that's especially noticable when it comes to the matter of the "depth" of the stories. For this book is really short, and each story is over before you know it. The stories all follow a similar set-up too, starting in media res with the narrator (each time a different person) finding themselves in a pressing situation which forces to guess their special variant of whodunnit, and once the set-up is explained to the reader, it basically immediately advances to the solution. Each story moves at a very fast pace, but also very much just revolve around one single trick or idea, Where other short stories I read by Ashibe often had very deeply fleshed-out historical settings or more engaging "fluff" around the core plot with for example literary references, the stories in Meitantei wa Dare da are all so focused on their single-idea-per-story, each story is basically a hit or miss. Either you like the idea or not, and there's little more to a story to feel anything about, almost like one trick ponies. So whether you'll like this book, will depend very much on the mystery of each individual story, and only on that, because that's all the meat on the bones.

And because all stories are quite short, I don't think it's wise to introduce them one by one as I usually do because by the time I'm done you basically already know 3/4 of the stories. But to briefly pick up a few: the first story is titled Hannin de nai no wa dare ("Who is Not the Culprit?") and has perhaps the funnest reversal of the whodunnit concept. The narrator is the nephew of a money lender with some enemies, and because his uncle is dying and he will inherit, the narrator suddenly learns some people who borrow money are very willing to kill to escape their debts. Making use of a coupon to stay at a remotely located inn, the narrator happens to overhear three of the other guests at the inn conspiring to kill him because he'll inherit his uncle's money lending business, but the narrator can't get a look at their faces nor does he get to hear the voices really well. Due to the remote location, he can't just get away on foot, so the next morning, he looks around the breakfast hall, staring at the four other guests having their first meal. For if there are three conspirators, it means the fourth must be not connected, so the narrator wants to ask them for help before the three culprits will do something to him. Ultimately, the plot is very much a 'figure out who is not lying' type of plot, but the set-up is really funny. Another memorable one is Ikinokotta no wa dare ("Who Survived?"), where a reporter is put on the trail of a group of missing persons who seem to have no connection whatsoever, but who all have been invited to the same, remotely located hotel. When he arrives there however, the building suddenly catches fire and is lost completely. However, the police find traces people have been killed in the guest rooms, and the whole set-up reminds them of those death game stories, where people are lured together and somehow enticed to kill each other. But a clue sets the reporter on a trail that makes them suspect one of them faked their death, but which of them? Again a story that revolves very much about one trick/one clue, though I think the "big" clue in this story is better than the one in Hannin de nai no wa dare.

Other stories have titles like Kaitou wa dare da ("Who is the Phantom Thief?"), Tsukamaru no wa dare da ("Who Will be Arrested?") and Wana wo Kakeru no wa dare da ("Who Sets the Trap?"), so you can probably imagine what kind of stories that will be. Some stories are very straightforward in the way they handle the title theme (Who is the Phantom Thief? will probably not suprise you in terms of how the story goes), some stories are a bit more surprising, like the title story, where the detective is actually the "bad guy" because one of the guests at a hotel is an operative working for a foreign dictatorship looking for a political activist who is lying low in Japan.

You can tell author Ashibe has fun with these stories and some of the seven stories have clever twists or a well hidden clue that makes you go "aha!' when you reach the end, but still, it does feel like he could've gotten more out of the whole concept of the book, because each story is just so... light. At first I even thought that these stories had perhaps been serialized in a non-mystery magazine (so for a general audience) and that's why they were so short and very much about one single idea each time, but apparently, this was a straight-to-book release. I can imagine Ashibe wrote this lighter experience in between his bigger, more developed projects with tons of historical and literary research behind it, like a short 'rest' period between his heavier works, but I can't help wondering what he could've gotten out of the concept if it had the 'depth' of many of his other works.

Don't get me wrong though. I did like Meitantei wa Dare da as a read, and it was fun each time to see how the whodunnit angle would be changed, but I read this book between other, longer/"weightier" books so it was perfect for me as a breather read. As a mystery short story collection though, it's not exactly what you'd expect from Ashibe based on other works I have read, and it'll probably feel a bit lean on the bones for many readers, even if the core premise is definitely entertaining. So not a bad read, but I think the premise is still better than the execution.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓『名探偵は誰だ』

Saturday, August 26, 2023

The Sea Mystery

No swellings tell that winds may be 
Upon some far-off happier sea—
 No heavings hint that winds have been
 On seas less hideously serene.
"The City in the Sea"

Huh, that's funny, this is a detective game with a historical setting about Ryuunosuke, who studied in England, and who has to solve a mysterious death on a ship crossing the world. And it's probably not the game you were thinking of.

After the Great Kanto Earthquake in September 1923, private detective Toudou Ryuunosuke boards the liner Shouyoumaru in San Francisco to retun to Japan. On the second day of his trip to the harbor of Yokohama, a passenger and waiter bump into each other, toppling a barrel on the deck, but to the great surprise of the few people on the deck at the time, a skeleton comes falling out of the barrel. The captain of the ship is called, who wants to keep things quiet as he fears news of a skeleton on board might cause a panic, but one of the guests who was silenced finds it all a bit too creepy, so she confides in Toudou Ryuunosuke about the affair and hopes that he, as a detective, can find out where that skeleton came from. Toudou accepts the job and starts poking around on the ship, which is transporting many people from professors, photographers to military men, but also of course the large crew of the ship. But while Toudou is investigating the affair of the skeleton, a crew member is found murdered in the ship's barber shop and Toudou is officially asked by the captain to look into the murder. But how are the skeleton and this murder connected? That is the great mystery in the mystery adventure game Ougon no Rashinban ~ Shouyoumaru San Francisco-kou Kairo Satsujin Jiken ("The Golden Compass ~ The Murder Case on the Shouyoumaru on the San Francisco Harbor Route", 1990).

Ougon no Rashinban is the second entry in the Toudou Ryuunosuke series originally created by Riverhillsoft, a developer creating adventure games for Japanese PCs in the eighties. Their star writer was Suzuki Rika, who would later set-up her own company Cing which was responsible for a few great mystery-themed adventure games on the Nintendo DS and Wii (the Another Code and Kyle Hyde series). During her time at Riverhillsoft however, she also created a few well-known series in the mystery scene in Japan: besides the Toudou Ryuunosuke series, she also created the J.B. Harold series, about the Liberty Town detective J.B.. The Toudou Ryuunosuke series, also referred to as the "1920 series" as the games are set in that period, originally "ended" with Ougon no Rashinban by the way, but after Riverhillsoft closed, Althi acquired the IP. Althi would release the original games on the DS, but also on (pre-smartphone) mobile phones, and they would also create brand new entries in the series. I don't think Suzuki Rika was involved with the games after Ougon no Rashinban, but there are like nine of them in total. As a fan of Suzuki's work, but also because of my interest in mystery adventure games in general (also the older ones!), I had been wanting to play this game for a long time, as I had once seen footage of the original PC version, and it looked quite good. I ended up playing the Switch port of the mobile phone port of the game by the way. I can't quite find when this game was released on mobile phones, though I guess it'd be in the first half of the 2000s like most of these games, and the Switch port released earlier this month (Thanks to G-Mode, which has been releasing these old mobile phone games!).

Putting it bluntly, if you have played any of the major Riverhillsoft adventure games, you will have played all of them, as they are all extremely similar in design. And there is a caveat: the game design is really dated. So these games are not really something you'd want to play very often, in succession. Like always, after a short introduction of the case, you are just dropped in the game, and given extremely many locations to visit, to talk with also an extremely large cast of characters. I'm talking 30, 40 persons, spread across at least as many locations. Ougon no Rashinban in particular has insanely many locations to visit, basically the most of any of the Riverhillsoft games I have played. The game allows you to basically visit any room on the Shouyoumaru, but many of those rooms have to function at all in the game, and are just there to inflate the number of options. So a lot of it is just to waste your time (outdated game design). Once you have found someone to talk to, you can talk to them about like 60 different topics per person. 60(!), you say? Yes, you can ask each person about all the other characters on the ship, about the incidents you are investigating, about other things going on and also show them the evidence you have. Do that times 30-40 people, which you have to find on the ship, and you can see how dated the design feels.


I like the basic concept of these games though, as they give off a feeling of being open-ended. At the start of the game, you can visit a very large amount of locations from the start, and as you start talking with the passengers about all the topics, you slowly start to see the connections between each character. A might seem like a nice guy at first, but when you talk about A with B, B might reveal something interesting about A. By talking to everyone, you'll slowly start to connect dots to create lines, and very slowly, your suspicions regarding a character will be risen. But because initially, you are fairly free to tackle these interviews with the characters in any order you like, it feels kinda open-ended, especially considering this was a game originally released in 1990. Ougon no Rashinban does streamline this a bit, as the game is divided in chapters (a specific part of the trip/time of the day), and once you have obtained all the necessary information about everyone/everything of a chapter, it will move on to the next chapter, with time also passing by between each chapter. Within a chapter, you have relative freedom, but this chapter division does make the game feel more... alive, I guess, as characters move around between chapters and there are also actually story developments.

But because the game is quite old, the game design feels very tedious. In each chapter, you are just basically just going around EVERY room and talk to EVERY person, because you need to activate the story flags that will allow you to move on to the next chapter. But you simply can't know beforehand where those story flags are hidden. Sometimes, a character will suddenly decide they can reveal something about a different character, even though they wouldn't do that in the previous chapter. Sometimes, you just need to confirm they don't know something.  Sometimes, just meeting with a character turns out to be a necessary story flag. There is a flag counter for each chapter, but more often than not, I thought I had done everything, and then it turned out I had 140 out of 160 flags for that chapter. And then it turned out I hadn't spoken with a character about a character he didn't have anything to tell me about in previous 10 chapters, but now decided he knew something interesting about! Or when the men's bathroom is completely useless for 13 chapters long, but then you do need to search in chapter 14 to find a piece of evidence. The official site of G-Mode for this game actually has a hint guide/walkthrough and while it will direct you to do the trickier parts, it often skips necessary flags too, giving you only like 90% of the tasks you need to do each chapter. So I'd be following the walkthrough step by step, and still end up missing like 10 story flags, which I'd have to look for myself.


You'd think I hate this game, but I do really like the atmosphere, the character art, and the story that is told. But it is very much a game of its time, and this game has probably about 1.5 times the locations of the J.B. Harold games, making it feel much more tedious, as there are so many rooms that are just there as filler. But yeah, this is the type of game that truly deserves a remake, because mystery adventure games have come so far in three decades. I mean, even the most basic of things, like a menu with a character list or relation chart is nowhere to be found, even though the cast is huge! (as I am writing this, I learn the original PC version had one! Why didn't the mobile port have it too!?) There is not even an in-game map to tell you where every passenger is staying on board of the Shouyoumaru, you have to write that down yourself. Mechanically, all you can do in this game is talk to other characters. There is no real interactive mechanic by which you, as the player, have to solve the mystery yourself: you are never punished, nor are you asked to answer questions yourself. You just gather information, and the game will connect the dots for you. Searching rooms for evidence is also just selecting an option, and Toudou telling you whether he found something or not. There are so many things in Ougon Ranshinban a modern game would streamline and make more enjoyable to play. In the game, you "listen" to a lot of testimony of characters about others, and sometimes, that will allow you learn someone has been lying to you, but you can't actually actively confront someone with that knowledge. The player themselves have to remember character B told them something about A, which activates a story flag, meaning the next time you talk to A, Toudou will automatically press A about the matter. A modern game would probably use a testimony inventory system or contradiction mechanic to give the player more agency to actually detect the mystery themselves, or at least allow them to have some kind of mechanic to allow them to re-read important testimonies. And while the mobile phone version does show a little mark when you hear something for the first time (activate the flag), a modern remaster would streamline the general flow a lot, meaning less wandering mindlessly around having to check every location and talk to everyone about everything, and limit your options more. Meanwhile, a more modern take on the game would also allow you to see more directly of the Shouyoumaru itself, which is an interesting location. Each character actually has an interesting story behind them, even if their lines are fairly short, so it'd be cool if that could be developed more, allowing them to speak in more detail about the interesting parts of their part of the story, while cutting the huge amount of "I don't know anything about that" lines.

But as said, the art of the original PC version is really nice, and while the mobile phone port looks, understandably, very cramped, it does have a nice atmosphere...

As a murder mystery, Ougon no Rashinban doesn't rely on clever tricks or anything, it's really about slowly uncovering the various relationships between the many characters on the ship, and slowly zooming in on the suspect, but I think that, especially considering the time this game was released, this was a pretty good effort in terms of character-focused mystery fiction. So it'd really benefit from a modern take on the same base story and characters, as I do think this part is done well, it's only very dull and monotonous to play.

Having played so many of Riverhillsoft's adventure games, I can't say Ougon no Rashinban ~ Shouyoumaru San Francisco-kou Kairo Satsujin Jiken surprised me very much. It plays like I had expected it, and tells the same kind of human-focused mysteries I have learned to appreciate. But at the same time, I have the feeling this game tried to be more ambitious by having even more locations to visit, but that only resulted in a more tedious game as so many of the "added" content is just empty filler. I think that of all mystery games I have played, these Riverhillsoft adventures would benefit the most of a remake, with actual interactive mystery-solving mechanics, as the story itself is usually interesting. I wonder if there's a market for that...

Original Japanese title(s):『黄金の羅針盤 翔洋丸桑港航路殺人事件』

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Telltale Weapon

"Up, up, and away!"
"The Adventures of Superman"

Today's book: one I didn't plan to buy so soon after release originally, but it ended up as the 10th title on the 2023 Honkaku Mystery Best 10 ranking (for late 2021-late 2022 books), so I felt compelled to pick it up...

Several months ago, I reviewed Higashigawa Tokuya's 2005 novel Yakatajima ("The Island of the House"), an entertaining mystery novel which was set on the island Yokoshima in the Seto Inland Sea. Higashigawa's Shikakejima ("Trick Island", 2022) is technically a sequel to Yakatajima, but they can be read seperately very easily, for Shikakejima is set about two decades after the events of Yakatajima, and takes place on a different island in the Seto Inland Sea. There are a few short cameos and minor references to Yakatajima, but nothing absolutely vital. The book opens with an unusual family gathering on the private island of Nanamejima (Crooked Island), an island which is basically a gigantic slanting cliff sticking out of the sea: the holiday home of the Saidaiji family is located on the lower (level) parts of the island, while the back garden basically becomes a steep hill that goes up and up until the every end, where it turns into a direct drop into the wild seas. The Saidaiji family business is publishing books: decades ago they started out with an illustration book of Momotarou, but has now grown to be one of the biggest publishers in the Okayama prefecture. The death of the family patriarch thus makes waves. The last will of Saidaiji Gorou will be read at the island, but one of the persons who has to be present in order for the will to be read is Gorou's nephew Kazuya, who more-or-less disappeared long ago. With the help of the private detective Kobayakawa Takao however, he's soon found in the capital and brought on the boat to Nanamejima, alongside the lawyer Sayaka, who comes here instead of her father (the family lawyer, but who is now bed-ridden). Sayaka doesn't really get along with the rather strangely behaving Takao, but they arrive safely at the island, and Sayaka reads the will as planned. The following day however, Kazuya is found dead in the back garden, and a storm prevents the police from coming immediately. Sayaka and Takao also strongly suspect the family has something to hide, based on some of the wording in the will, and if Kazuya was killed because of that family secret, Sayaka and Takao also need to be careful with how they act, as they are all trapped on the island now. 

An island with a strange building, an island in the Seto Inland Sea, a closed circle situation... yep, Shikakejima is very much the (spiritual) sequel to Yakatajima. Due to the many (in-universe) years between the two books setting them apart, they can be read seperately without any trouble, though we do learn that the private detective Kobayakawa Takao in this book is the son of two characters we met in Yakatajima, and they have short (indirect) cameos too, so that's fun for the fans. There are a few other sneak references to the events of Yakatajima, but nothing in the book truly requires you to read them in order. Though I do think Yakatajima was overall better than Shikakejima, so that might influence your choice on whether to read them in order, or not, or whether you'll want to read either of them, I guess. 

Tonally, this book follows the same style as Yakatajima and Higashigawa's usual way of telling stories: with a lot of (physical) comedy, people bickering and misunderstandings, and beneath the camouflage of the comedy, you'll find cleverly hidden clues and foreshadowing elements to the core mystery plot. Shikakejima does not stray from the Higashigawa Template, though personally, I do have to say I liked the bickering of the two main characters in Yakatajima more than in Shikakejima, though I guess that's just personal preference. There's a distinct Yokomizo Seishi-esque atmosphere you can detect in the background and a few overt references too to some of private detective Kindaichi's better known adventures, starting with the last will and the specific call for the nephew to be present during the reading. There are more call-backs to Yokomizo and his Kindaichi series, and I do think having a bit of knowledge of the Kindaichi tropes will help the reader's enjoyment of the book.

Also similar to the first book is the presence of a strangely-built house on a small island. The Saidaiji manor is a big house, with not only two wings on either side of the main building, but also a gigantic dome functioning as a library on top of the main building, but the layout is very odd, forcing people to take the stairs in the main building to go up one floor first, before they can go to either wing of the building (i.e. the wings are not accessible via the ground floor). The building is so strangely built, you know instantly it will play a role in the mystery, but it might very much surprise you in what way!

The book is basically divided in two major mysteries: one is the current death of Kazuya who is found murdered in the back garden. His body has been completely beaten up, but not only does a storm prevent the police from coming, both Sayaka and Takao seem to notice the whole family actually seems very reluctant to actually report the deal to the police. Because they are just guests on the island, they don't dare to dig too much into the family secrets, but they eventually learn about another family tragedy that occured several decades ago on this very same island: the former patriarch of the family was killed one night, but the deed was immediately discovered, and the men of the family followed the murderer all the way up to the highest top of the gigantic slanting cliff, but there the murderer disappeared, and the only explanation seems like they must have fallen into the sea, as there is absolutely nothing at the top of the cliff. The whole deal was covered up by the family, and the nephew was one of the people on the island that night, and it seems like this current murder is connected to what happened in the past.

I have to say though, the past mystery isn't really super interesting. The solution to that seems rather... an easy way out, and it's not really well-clewed. It doesn't help I know Higashigawa has written a different story that uses a similar idea, but here it becomes such a big focal point of the whole story, I can't help but feel a bit disappointed: as a way to explain someone disappearing from a super high cliff, it's just... bordering on being cheap. The current murder, of the nephew who was found in the back garden though, that has a lot more interesting points. Practically speaking, it's incredibly silly, but it's also amazingly memorable: it's definitely a murder method I am not likely to forget, and certainly one of the most memorable ones I'll read this year. While I think it's incredibly difficult to realize how exactly this murder was committed, I do have to admit there's one absolutely brilliant clue dangled in front of the readers which I found really clever too, even if I don't think it's enough to really have the reader realize what is going on. That said, the method itself is incredibly original, and as a "punchline" it's fantastic. It's the type of murder method that could indeed only be used in mystery fiction, the type that is more about being fun than being realistic.

Overall though, I didn't quite like Shikakejima as much as Yakatajima. Perhaps it's because I also read them relatively close (about six months apart), but I don't think the past murder is very strong, and while I like the present murder in general, I think the existence of the past murder muddles things a lot, as there is little to no synergy at all between the two murders. So you get two distinct ideas, and I think the present murder would simply have been enough to carry either a shorter novel or a short story, or with something else that has more synergy with the present murder. If you had to choose, I'd recommend Yakatajima over Shikakejima.

Original Japanese title(s): 東川篤哉『仕掛島』

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

The Case of the Photo Finish

 Where do I 
Fit in the picture of your world
"Impossible" (Nadia Gifford)

Most of the books I discuss on the blog are part of a series, and I have mentioned before that's because I generally do like reading series. It's just convenient knowing, with some wiggle space, what you could expect from a certain book in advance if it's a series work, so I often end up reading a book in a series I am already familiar with (or perhaps of a writer I already know). If I read a book with the most brilliant alibi trick ever, it is just unlikely a book in the same series (written in the same period?) will turn out to be the absolute worst mystery novel I ever read, or at least, I assume so. So when I don't have any titles I want to read immediately for one reason or another, I usually end up picking up a book in a series I already know.

Not all series actually benefit from... being a series though, I realized as I read Aizawa Sako's Invert II - Nozokimado [Finder] no Shikaku ("Invert II - The Blind Spot in the Finder", 2022). This is the third book featuring Jouzuka Hisui, an attractive, mysterious woman who is a self-proclaimed "spiritual counselor". In the brilliant first book from 2019, Medium - Kourei Tantei Jouzuka Hisui ("Medium - The Medium Detective Jouzuka Hisui"), we learned that as a spirit medium, she had the power to channel of the deceased and see flashes of their dying moments. In the book, she teamed up with a mystery writer, who had to reverse-engineer Hisuis visions and find real proof and come up with a supporting line of reasoning to present to the police, as they weren't likely to believe them just saying "she channeled the victim". The book was exciting from start to finish, and could surprise you any time because it would use Hisui's abilities in rather unexpected ways. The second book, Invert - Jouzuka Hisui Toujoshuu ("Invert - A Collection of the Inverted Stories of Jouzuka Hisui" 2021), managed to keep this element of surprise and an air of mystery surrounding Hisui by presenting inverted mystery stories: by this time, the police is, reluctantly, working with Hisui as they recognize she has certain abilities that allows her to pull of things others can't, even though they don't really understand how and in Invert, we followed three different murderers who would be approached by a rather mysterious woman who'd claim she had channeling powers. At first, none of these murderers believe her of course, but you can imagine the shock when she tells the murderers things only the victim would know happened at the time of the murder, and she'd slowly connect those visions to real evidence of their guilt. What made this book work, once again, was that we never saw too much of Hisui and never knew what she had up her sleeve: in the first book we saw from the POV of the mystery writer who had to interpret her visions, in the second book we mainly follow the murderers. Invert II - Nozokimado [Finder] no Shikaku is, as the title suggest, however following the same format as the first Invert: the book contains two stories (one short story and one basically long enough to be considered a novel on its own). This of course already takes away a bit of the surprise element, as the book more-or-less follows the same formula as the previous book and it does feel like more of the same, which is very disappointing: I remember being very excited to realize how the format had changed between Medium and Invert, allowing for more surprises and mystery around Hisui, but Invert II just follows the trodden path.

Which isn't helped by a second element of this book I didn't really like: the focus on Hisui as a character. I think this is because the Jouzuka Hisui series had turned into a multimedia franchise by the time these stories were written: there's a manga adaptation by the artist behind the The Decagon House Murders manga and a live-action drama series started airing around the same period Invert II - Nozokimado [Finder] no Shikaku was released (with the first story adapted in the series too). The live-action series is pretty interesting by the way because it actually changed titles midway: the first half was based on, and named after Medium, but once they got past those stories, the series changed titles to Invert, and a new promotional poster was released, making it technically a "different" series (and of course, the stories then shifted to the inverted mystery format). But I have the feeling both stories found in Invert II were written with this expansion into different media in mind, with a bigger focus on Hisui as the protagonist, with probably more scenes focusing on Hisui personally and her private life in this book alone than in the two previous books combined. Like I mentioned earlier, one of the reason I think both Medium and Invert worked so well was because Hisui was a rather mysterious, hard-to-read character, which allowed for cool surprises sprung on the reader, but Invert II moves away from that and instead decides to reveal much more about her. The result is a book that is an okay inverted mystery story collection, but which misses that *extra* element of surprise the other two books had that made them especially good. Invert II is a normal inverted mystery collection, in a series that had been above normal, so it stands out a lot.

The first story is also a bit simple in set-up despite its length. In Seija no Kototsute ("Message of the Living"), Hisui and her assistant/housekeeper Makoto end up stranded on the road with their car, next to a dangerous-looking cliff, during a storm, so they run to the nearby house with the lights on they passed just a minute ago. They ring the bell and hope to be offered shelter until the storm is gone, but find the door open and a surprised teenager in the hall looking at the two beautiful women in wet shirts. But the reason Souta is surprised is actually because this isn't his home and the woman who lives her is lying upstairs dead with a knife in her body. This is actually the second house of a classmate of Souta, and Souta had been hiding here after running away from home. Never could he have dreamed the house would be used this very day though, so he fell asleep in one of the bedrooms, but then woke up when he heard the woman coming inside the house. After accidentally making a noise, the woman came upstairs suspecting a burglar and before Souta knew what had happened, they were struggling, they both fell on the floor and when he woke up, the mother of his classmate was lying dead in front of him. He had just cleaned his hands and face when Hisui and Makoto stepped inside the hall, so, yes, he was very surprised at the sight of the two women. As they're already inside, he can't really send them back outside in the storm, so he finds himself forced to play the role of someone who lives here, allowing them to stay here until the storm is over. Normally, a teenage boy would be more than excited about being to spend the night in a house with two beautiful women and his hormones certainly clouds his judgment at times, but there's still the body upstairs, and keeping up the lie of him living here becomes harder and harder as Hisui starts asking more questions...

Okay, this is an inverted mystery, but as Souta didn't plan any murders and he's honestly completely surrpised by the sudden stay of Hisui and Makoto, he obviously keeps making small mistakes and rather easy-to-see through lies. It's not really satisfying as an inverted mystery, as even Souta himself knows the lies he's been making are just barely believable ("I'm not on any of the family pictures because I don't like being in pictures") and while Hisui and Makoto usually let things slide, many parts of the Challenge to the Reader Hisui presents to the readers at the end of the story aren't really impressive: she asks us to identify what put her on the trail of Souta being not a resident of the home, while as the reader, you feel more like "in what way was Souta ever believable as a resident of this house???". Souta is just stumbling from one lie to another, so unlike most inverted mystery stories, it's not like you are trying to find the one flaw in an otherwise perfectly planned murder and the tone of the story, where Souta is also just fighting his hormones and fantasies of being alone with two beautiful older women, of which Hisui especially isn't shy of some physical contact, and your mileage will vary on that comedic element of the story. The big mystery is of course how Hisui will eventually find the corpse. There are some parts of the problem-solving that depend on things I usually like: Queen-like deductions based on physical evidence (like a woman's wallet lying on the table and wet sneakers outside) that allow Husui to deduce what happened, but some of these deductions seem a bit iffy, and one negative clue in particular didn't really work for me, because it was too much of a jump for me to have readers guess that would be missing simply based on what was found. So this was not my favorite story in the series by any means.

The second story, Nozokimado [Finder] no Shikaku ("The Blind Spot in the Finder") has Hisui becoming friends with Junko, a photographer who shares an interest in mystery fiction. Little does Hisui know that Junko's interest in mystery fiction actually sprang from the fact she's been planning murders, as she wants revenge on the bullies who are responsible for her younger sister's suicide many years ago. The victim is Kanon, a popular model who went freelance a while ago, who has no idea the photographer she has asked to take her new photographs is actually the sister of the girl she used to bully in high school. Kanon has been tormented by a stalker lately, so she had moved to a somewhat remote lodge near the mountains for some privacy, and it was here where her body was found in the bath tub, with some signs indicating her stalker had broken in and after a struggle, stabbed her. Police investigation however also leads to finding Kanon had contact with Junko lately about a photo shoot, and that Junko's sister's suicide had been caused by Kanon. She's questioned just to be sure, but she has an iron-clad alibi: for on the day Kanon was killed, in the afternoon (the estimated time of death), Junko had been together with... Hisui, going on a photo shoot date together. Hisui confirms she had been with Junko the whole day, spending the day at a park with Junko taking pictures of Hisui. She is also reluctant to look more into the case, as Junko's one of the few friends she has made since returning to Japan, but as the police investigation digs deeper into things, Hisui realizes Junko's alibi might not be as strong as believed.

While this is an inverted mystery story, we don't get to see the details of how Junko managed to have her alibi with Hisui for the time of the murder, so that's a big part of the mystery for the reader too. Another point about this story, is that it's only about Junko for about half of the narrative: a lot of the story is dedicated to Hisui herself, where we learn about how she's really fond of Junko as she has troubles making friends and this leading to her dilemma of not wanting to suspect her friend of murder. This look into Hisui's personal life and feelings on a case are what doesn't really work for me personally in this volume, as I loved the mysterious vibe of Hisui in the previous stories. This story is rather long, I have read full novels of about the same length, but for me, the story could've left these Hisui-focused parts out, and be about half the length it is now for a better, more focused mystery story, but I guess this focus on Hisui as a character is an intentional change in direction for this series. As a mystery story, I think its merits lie especially in the way to how it is proven how Junko managed to fake her alibi: the trick itself is perhaps not very surprising, though it's set-up well, but the clues leading up to this conclusion are really good: focusing on the state of physical evidence, theorizing about why they are in a certain state, and combining all of that together to a comprehensive line of reasoning. This is certainly the best part of the story: if the story had only been about the trick of Junko, it would have been an okay, but not remarkable story, but the clues leading to the conclusion defnitely make this better than it would've been otherwise.

So Invert II - Nozokimado [Finder] no Shikaku didn't manage to impress me as much as the really impressive Medium and the entertaining first Invert. This is due to a directional change I personally didn't really like, and that combined with the fact we only have two stories now, one of which is probably intentionally a bit lighter and more comedic than usual, we end up with a volume that has very little of what made the previous two volumes so memorable. The title story is a fine inverted mystery story with a focus on the logical reasoning leading to the downfall of the murderer, but I don't feel this book is a must-read in comparison to the previous two books, and to be honest, if an Invert III is released, I'll probably wait for a while before I return to this series, as I don't really feel compelled to read more of Invert right now. Though I'd be enticed to read more of Hisui again of course if the series takes another directional change, because I know Aizawa can come up with really surprising twists with this series when not sticking to any specific formula..

Original Japanese title(s): 『invert II 覗き窓の死角 』:「生者の言伝」/「覗き窓(ファインダー)の死角」

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

The Clues Challenge

Hey, you can hear me, right? Yeah, I know, it's weird, me calling out to you even though we can't see each other. But I know you're there, so listen to me. I need your help. I am supposed to research a book called Zarathustra no Tsubasa, but I have no idea what it is or what it exactly is I am supposed to research. I'm just not good with this thinking stuff. So I thought, perhaps I should get some advice from someone who's better at that. Yep, it's you I am talking about. So perhaps you could tell me what do do?
To help ⇒ Go to 2.
To not help ⇒ Go to 6.

Great, we're a team now, the two of us! Should we come up with a team name? No? Oh, okay, well, you might change your mind later on. Anyway, we're going to investigate this Zarathustra no Tsubasa or whatever it is called. But don't worry, I haven't come completely empty-handed. For example, did you know Zarahustra no Tsubasa is Japanese? It means The Zarathustra's Wings. What? You ask me whether I know Japanese? Well, to be honest, the English title The Zarathustra's Wings is just one I noticed on the cover of the book, as it has both a Japanese and English title. I also found out that the book was written in 1986 by Okajima Futari and that it is apparently a gamebook. What should we do first?
Look up the author of the book ⇒ Go to 3.
Look up what a game book is ⇒ Go to 4.
Oh, right, Okajima Futari. I've heard of him. Or to be exact: them. It was the pen name of Inoue Izumi and Tokuyama Junichi, who were active between 1981 and 1989. I think they also wrote Klein no Tsubo and Soshite Tobira ga Tozasareta. Apparently, this is the only gamebook they ever wrote, though Klein no Tsubo does begin with a man writing a gamebook, which is then going to be changed into a virtual reality game. Guess the theme of a gamebook must've remained interesting to them, as Klein no Tsubo was released almost ten years after The Zarathustra's Wings. But that's all we need to know about Okajima Futari for now, right? What next?
Add (W) to your inventory. 
Look up what a game book is ⇒ Go to 4.
Look up what The Zarathustra's Wings is about ⇒ Go to 5.
So I looked around on the internet, and I think a gamebook is a type of fiction where the reader participates in the story themselves by making choices, which changes the outcome of a story. They're also known as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventures.The choices you make as you progress in a story, for example by choosing to go either left or right in a maze, will lead to different narrative branches, all with varying outcomes. Some gamebooks also have more complex systems built-in, like an inventory mechanic or a story flag system which allows the game to check whether you have done certain segments already or not. Gamebooks were especially popular in Japan in the 1980s, ranging from both original gamebooks to gamebooks based on for example films like Laputa Castle in the Sky and Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind.  You even have gamebooks based on Famicom (NES) video games, like the ones based on Famicom Detective Club Part 1 and Part 2. So The Zarathustra's Wings is one of these books, huh? And there are of course (board) games like Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective which are design-wise very close to a gamebook.
Add (F) to your inventory. 
Look up the author of the book ⇒ Go to 3.
Look up what The Zarathustra's Wings is about ⇒ Go to 5.

Oh, that's funny. The Zarathustra's Wings is about this detective, he's not really bright, so he needs help when it comes to the mental stuff. So he starts taking advice from some person we can't see, telling him to do this or do that... sounds familiar? Yeah, he also talks to that person directly sometimes. Anyway, the detective is hired to investigate the murder on Kashima Eizaburou, the wealthy businessman who was found dead in his study three months ago. He had recently obtained a jewel called the Zarathustra's Wings and shown it off to some house guests, but the following morning, he was found murdered in his study, and the Zarathustra's Wings were missing! What's more, the study was locked, and the key found on the desk inside the study, so this means it was a locked room murder! This detective is hired by the son-in-law to find out who the murderer is and to find the missing Zarathustra's Wings. Sounds like an interesting adventure! Should we read it?
Inventory check.
Do you have (X) in your inventory?   ⇒ Go to 8.
If you want to read the book  ⇒ Go to 7.

The murderer suddenly appears behind you, plunging a knife into your back. If only... we had made a different choice, I might've been able to save you...  
Wow, that took a bit more time than we had expected, didn't it? For the most part, it does what you'd expect of a gamebook, allowing you to choose who to interview or where to go. By using a special story flag checklist, the book also makes sure to know what pieces of information you have obtained (or not), which will become important later on. A common problem with gamebooks also seen in The Zarathustra's Wings is of course that each section of a gamebook is fairly short, so it reads quite differently from a novel: a lot of the story feels quite shallow and too much to-the-point and all the characters kinda feel the same. But at least the book makes you feel like a detective. Kinda. The book is basically divided in two parts, the first part being more focused on the murder investigation, and the second part on the search for the missing jewel. In the first half, you will be interviewing the suspects, see what you can learn from them and explore the study where the murder happened and the other rooms of the house. While the murder took place in a locked study, the trick used to accomplish this is very, very basic and the tricky part of the gamebook is basically activating all the story flags necessary to "solve" the murder: you might have a very good idea of what happened, but if you happened to miss a section and not have activated Story Flag A for example, you might fail in the "accuse segment" anyway because you didn't discover all the evidence. Perhaps this would have felt more satisfying if the trick itself had been more complex, but because the trick is so simple it almost feel like nitpicking... And in general, the necessity of "activating story flags" (= proving you obtained certain pieces of information) is a style that works very well with Ellery Queen-esque "elimination" deduction styles (where you cross off suspects of a list), but not so much as with a locked room... The second part of the book is focused on learning the whereabouts of the Zarathustra's Wings and a certain coded message is a vital key to learning its location. The code itself is in hindsight pretty simple, but there aren't really good hints beforehand, and you can't advance in the book without breaking this code: you only learn which section to go next if you decipher the coded message. When The Zarathustra's Wings was originally released in 1986 (before Internet!), apparently a lot of people got stuck there so when the book was re-released as a pocket in 1990, they added a segment with sealed pages at the end, with a hint (basically the answer) to solve the code, out of fear of people getting stuck there again. But what did you think of this second part? I wasn't a big fan of it myself, because it was so focused on the code, and if you had missed certain story flags in the first half of the book, you'd be punished here severely.
Inventory check.
Do you have (F) and (W) in your inventory?   ⇒ Go to 9.
If not  ⇒ Go to 6.

It is impossible to have (X) in your inventory. You cheat! I didn't know I was working with a cheater! Forget it, I'm outta here!

Guess we're done now. We've looked into Okajima Futari's gamebook Zarathustra no Tsubasa or The Zarathustra's Wings. I guess it's more interesting as a concept, as there aren't that many mystery gamebooks, and certainly not by mystery novelists. But the mystery itself in the book isn't super exciting: if this had not been a gamebook, but a normal mystery novel, the locked room murder trick would be very disappointing and one could also argue that a locked room murder on its own doesn't work very well with the way the gamebook handles story flags, and that a pure whodunnit would've been better perhaps. The code too is a major part of the story that might not be really what people were looking for when they opened this book wanting to play a murder mystery gamebook. So Zarathustra no Tsubasa is only worth looking into if you are specifically interested in trying a murder mystery gamebook, as there simply aren't many, but don't expect a hidden gem here. Anyway, that's it for our team-up for now. Perhaps we'll meet again, but until then, stay safe and don't make any wrong life choices.
The End

Original Japanese title(s): 岡嶋二人『ツァラトゥストラの翼』