Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Camping-Out Murder

"There's always only one truth!"
"Detective Conan"
I should probably point to the Honkaku-themed Discord server more often. Take a look there if you want to chat with other fans about mystery fiction, including (shin) honkaku stories!

By the time this review is published, the second season of the anime adaptation of Kyokou Suiri, also known as Invented Inference or In/Spectre should have started airing. Iwanaga Kotoko, seemingly a small girl ("woman!") with a glass eye and one prosthetic leg is in fact the Deity of Wisdom for youkai (all kinds of supernatural beings, spirits, etc.). She helps these supernatural beings whenever they were in trouble involving the human world, acting as arbitrator and detective. Sometimes it's having to come up with a reasonable excuse for problems caused by a rampaging spirit, sometimes a youkai is actually a witness to a suspect's alibi, but obviously, the youkai can't go to the (human) police. So this often leads to Kotoko having to create fake, but believable (human-world) explanations for events that occured with actual supernatural causes. Hence the title Invented Inference, for in this series, the truth is often clear from the start and explainable through supernatural means, but it's a rational fake solution Kotoko is after, and of course the solution still has to be based on "clues" in order to sound convincing to humans. The fifth book in this series by Shirodaira Kyou is titled Kyokou Suiri - Gyakushuu to Haiboku no Hi (2021) and also bears the English title Invented Inference Short Stories - Day of Counterattack and Defeat. I am not really sure why it is called "short stories" though, as it's basically a novel, even if the opening chapter isn't about the main case of the book. Kotoko and her boyfriend Kurou are surprised when they are contacted by the police, who are asking about Kurou's cousin Rikka who had been evading them ever since the events of the first novel. Rikka had been roaming Japan without a fixed address, but got involved in an accident and because Rikka had lived in Kotoko's home for some time before she moved out, they were contacted as the persons closest to her to confirm her identity. When they visit her, they learn she was involved in much weirder accident than the police believes it is. As far as the police know, Rikka happened to be out camping on a mountain and on her way up, she also met a group of four men who were also planning to camp on the mountain. Later that night, three men fell from a cliff and died, while a fourth man barely managed to survive his fall. Rikka found him and carried him all the way down the mountain. The police is of course investigating the death of the three men, but they could never imagine that the direct cause of their fall is...the vengeful spirit of a giraffe whose remains were kept at a shrine on the mountain, but which has been left unattended for ages. The men were suddenly assaulted in their camp by the rampaging giraffe spirit, causing their fall, and Rikka even faced off against the spirit herself, surviving due to her own supernatural powers. But now Rikka has been placed in the custody of Kotoko and Kurou again, Kotoko has to come up with an explanation for the curious fall of the three men, and also device a way to tame the rampaging giraffe.

 (I really shouldn't read a book and then wait... *checks notes* ...eight months before writing the review...)

This is most definitely the fifth book in a series. Yep. I wouldn't recommend anyone to read this entry as their first step into the world of Invented Inference, for while I think the underlying theme of this book is interesting, it won't work without having seen Kotoko work and do her thing in the previous stories, and the fact that this story is the first we actually see Rikka real-time is also a reason why a lot of the pay-off is in the fact this is the fifth book. We first learn about Rikka in the first novel, where she has already been evading Kotoko and Kurou, and while she pops up now and then in flashbacks, this is the first time we have a direct confrontation between these characters. However, a lot of how she acts and what she actually wants from Kotoko becomes a lot clearer with the knowledge we have of her from the previous flashbacks, so yeah, read this one in order.

But how is the book as a mystery?  Well, for one thing, it's actually a pretty short book (oh, so that's what "short stories" in the English title means?), so the whole set-up is a bit limited. We have one short prologue where we hear about a short case Kotoko once handled, which becomes important at the end again, but most of the book is about the 'mysterious' fall of four men, of which three died. Obviously, this isn't a normal accident, so you have to come up with something pretty convincing to explain three deaths, but fortunately for Kotoko, Rikka is actually very sharp too, and while she only met the party of four men once and later briefly talked with the man who survived the fall, saving him from the giraffe spirit, she actually managed to learn a lot about the dynamics between the four men, and has caught on the fact that something fishy was going on between them. This of course allows for Kotoko to come up with a plausible explanation for why three men ended up dead because we now know they weren't there just to camp. The focus in this tale is more on motive than anything else, I think. While the false solution is of course also based on physical evidence found at the camp and also on actions taken by the men, a lot of the mystery revolves around Kotoko having to explain why everyone acted the way they did on their trip, and how that eventually led to their deaths. While that is of course a matter very open to interpretation, interpretation is exactly what this series has always been about and that coupled with the physical evidence found to serve as support for her proposed "truth", it still feels fairly solid. As said, the mystery as it is set-up is really limited and it's not like we get that many different fake solutions proposed to explain the three deaths, but I do like how the supernatural elements really do play a very important role in the mystery. It's not just Kotoko having to explain away the ghost giraffe: some events that help explain what was going on between the four man at their camp are directly influenced by the presence of the supernatural on the mountain that fateful night, influencing the actions of the men and thus leaving "possibilities" for Kotoko to pick up to come up with a non-supernatural explanation. This concept of the supernatural creating possibilities for a non-supernatural explanation is really neat, and it works well here, especially as the reader is tempted to not think of the supernatural at all in order to come with a human explanation and just consider them anomalies.

The ending shines more light on why this book is also called the Day of Defeat and coupled with the first chapter and perhaps more importantly, the events from the previous four books, we are shown a kind of shifting point in the series, where it appears Rikka will join the main cast of Kotoko and Kurou, but that this will put pressure on Kotoko in her activities as the Deity of Wisdom and her absolute role as god in a world with inabsolute truths. This is more a thematic matter than directly involved in the mystery plotting of this series, but it might mean Kotoko will come up with slightly different kind of invented inferences in the future.

But while I liked Kyokou Suiri - Gyakushuu to Haiboku no Hi generally as a new entry in the series, it is really awfully short and feels more like an extended short story than a full novel. It is not the high point in the series and a lot of it only works because it expects you to have read the previous four volumes and be familiar with the trio of Kotoko, Kurou and Rikka. So it's not a book I will recommend as is: if you liked the first four books, yes, go read this one too, but otherwise, start with the beginning and just see how far you want to go with this series, and perhaps you'll end up here too.

Original Japanese title(s): 城平京『虚構推理 逆襲と敗北の日』

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