Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Secret Seven Adventure

Seven little Soldier Boys chopping up sticks;  
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.
"And Then There Were None"

Semi-regular "hey, there's a Honkaku Discord server" message. 

Hmm, the review of the first book in this series I posted last summer, even though it had a winter theme, and now I'm posting the review of the second book now at the end of winter, even though it has a summer theme...

It has been three years since Japan saw its first criminal trial on a locked room murder. While the police and prosecution were convinced the defendant was the murderer, they just couldn't figure out how the locked room murder was committed. Their argument in court was that it was a moot point: everything else pointed at the defendant and because it was clearly not a suicide in the locked room, but a murder, obviously commited by a third party, it meant it shouldn't matter they couldn't prove how the defendant escaped the locked room, because it remained a fact a murder did happen. The judge however didn't go with this story: the prosecution being incapable of proving how anyone could've committed the murder and escape a locked room basically meant every single person on the planet had an alibi. If it was impossible for anyone, why would it be possible for specifically the defendant? The defendant was declared not guilty, but this trial was the start of the Golden Age of Locked Rooms: would-be murderers realized they could get away scot-free as long as they committed a locked room murder the police couldn't solve. Each year saw more locked room murders, which in turn led to the rise of specialists in locked room murders both within the police, but also as private detectives and even cults that worshipped locked room murders started to arise.

After the murders in the House of Snow, high school student Kuzushiro Kasumi and childhood friend Yozuki are invited by Ootomigawara Aoi to her private island Kanaami Island. Ootomigawara is a young, but incredibly succesful entrepeneur and fan of mystery fiction, and last year, she bought Kanaami Island, which used to belong to the famous mystery author Richard Moore. Moore used his vast fortune to indulge in his passion for mystery fiction on the island, building cottages here and there that he could use for experiments for locked room murders, and he even had the complete island surrounded by a thirty-metre high wire mesh fence, hence the name Kanaami (wire mesh). In the previous two years however, two real locked room murders, in which the victims were decapitated occured in one of the cottages on the island. Moore himself has since died, and thus the island, and everything on it, was up for sale. Ootomigawara Aoi has now invited a few people to her newly acquired island for a murder mystery game, offering a fortune to the winner. Kuzushiro Kasumi is invited due to his involvement in the events at the House of Snow, and other guests include a mystery Youtuber Poirozaka Kousuke, mystery musician General Otozaki and... Kurokawa Chiyori, former judge who gave the sentence in the first locked room trial in Japan, and whom by many is seen as the "cause" of the influx of locked room murders in the country. Another guest is Kuzushiro's friend and classmate Mitsumura Shitsuri, who... was the defendant in the first locked room trial. Ootomigawara Aoi's game involves drawing lots, with one person having to create a locked room "murder" (of a doll) and the others trying to solve it. If the "murderer" gets away, they get 5 points, if someone guesses how it was done, they get 3 points and this game is repeated over the course of a few days. The first day goes as planned, but on the morning of the second day, the people on the island are shocked to find that two people have really been murdered, and in locked room situations too, one in a locked basement and another in one of the guest cottages. With the phone lines cut, it will take a few days before the scheduled boat arrives, but because the island is literally surrounded by a thirty-metre high fence with cameras, it seems likely the murderer must be one of the persons on the island... Furthermore, clues left behind at the crime scenes seem to indicate the murderer is... The Locked Room Encyclopia, a legendary assassin-for-hire who supposedly knows all locked room murder tricks. Can they figure out how The Locked Room Encyclopdia did all this, and who they are before they all end up dead in Kamosaki Danro's 2022 novel Misshitsu Kyouran Jidai no Satsujin - Zekkai no Kotou to Nanatsu no Trick which also has the English title The Murder in the Age of Frenzy of Locked Rooms: The Solitary Island in the Distant Sea and the Seven Tricks on the cover?

As mentioned above, I read Kamosaki's debut work last year, and while the concept was a bit underutilized, I really liked the idea of the Golden Age of Locked Rooms, the whole premise of an age where so many murderers commit locked room murders the government even publishes an official "locked room lecture", so I was looking forward to returning to this world. The second book is very similar to the first book in many ways, as you may have guessed from the cover (which too resembles the first one a lot). Whereas the first book was a pretty stuffed story with six impossible murders, this one goes beyond that and features seven locked room murders (some of which part of the mystery game, but most of them real murders). This story too features a closed circle situation, with everyone trapped on the island, and even the character naming style is the same, with most characters having names that references their role or occupation in very literal ways. I'm not really a fan of the dialogue sections where the characters themselves explain out loud for for example the butler Shitsugi sounds like the Japanese world shitsuji (butler), because it's a bit overkill, but I guess it does make all these names easier to remember. Like the first book, the fact this is a closed circle situation also means you don't get to see much of the "larger" society coping with the Age of Frenzy of Locked Rooms, though this book does improve a lot on that by having both the defendant and the judge of this first trial appear together, and have the judge comment on the current state of Japan brought forth by her ruling.

Anyway, so we have seven locked room murders (some game-murders) happening in this story, and let's make this clear at once, the book is in general more about quantity over quality, though that doesn't mean they are all bad locked room murders. In fact, some are really good, but especially the ones that appear early in the story are not really memorable and too simple. Because this book is so insanely packed, most locked room situations don't last really long in the narrative: the scene is discovered, and sometimes it only takes one "investigation" scene in between to immediately move to the solution. It does feel like this book is more about showing off locked rooms, so if you're more interested in solving them yourself, the book might feel far too hasty. Like Kitayama Takekuni, it is clear Kamosaki loves mechanically constructed locked room solutions, and the more mundane ones are the early ones that just feel like variations of tricks you have likely seen elsewhere, similar to a string and needle trick. You know they work, but it's not really surprising, so you end up shrugging at them. Because these ones mostly appear early in the story, and they follow each other up so quickly, I would understand if a reader would give up early, though some of the later ones are far more fun. And with just the right amount of ridiculousness, similar to Kitayama's work. While not going as far, some of the tricks here have a welcome notion of madness the first book didn't really have, making these tricks more memorable.

I think the more memorable locked rooms in this book, concentrated in the latter half, share a few similar traits in terms of set-up and execution in terms of narrative. That is, the mechanics behind the tricks are different, but they are similar in the sense that Kamosaki is very careful to stress the impossibility of each situation, but that when it comes to setting up clues to lead to the solution, it's sometimes a bit sloppy or just too haphazard. Him being very meticulous in stressing the impossibility of situations is also seen in the way he assures the reader there is no third party on the island, by stressing 1) this is an island, 2) with a thirty metre- high fence around the island, 3) with alarms that sound if someone would climb it, 4) cameras monitoring the single entrance in the fence, and an computer AI macro that checks who gets in and out, 5) assuring nobody has been hiding on the island before this security system was made because of police searches conducted when the decapitation murders were committed earlier and... 6) camera's placed on top of the fences, pointing upwards to the sky to check whether nobody is coming from above. One of the later locked room murders involves a key to a locked room, being held in a box, which is locked by a number of different keys held by different people, and the box being held in another locked room. Yeah, that seems quite impossible. This book improves on the previous book at some points by having more connections between some of the locked rooms, so they're not all discrete situations and there's one moment where that's actually brilliantly used. The decapatitations that occured inside a cottage the last two years on the island also have a very memorable solution, though I hate the way how it is "clewed" and how the detectives figures it out, because it was pushed so unnaturally. And the last impossible crime, which also involves a decapitation, is.... it's nuts, and it's definitely not my favorite situation of the book, but kinda funny to imagine. Though I have major doubts about whether things would actually go that way.

I do like the way the whodunnit aspects of this series is set-up. While the books are very much about locked room murders and how they were committed, both the first book and this book have trails that remind of Ellery Queen's style, with deducing what the murderer did and how that allows you to eliminate suspects and finally arrive at one name. While the chain here isn't long at all, and I think the Big Clue is telegraphed a bit too obviously, I do like that at least here, Kamosaki does a better job at setting up the clue-to-conclusion process more carefully and allowing the reader more time, compared to the hasty locked rooms.

I feel Misshitsu Kyouran Jidai no Satsujin - Zekkai no Kotou to Nanatsu no Trick is extremely similar to the first novel, almost feeling like a remake, but at certain points he did manage to improve himself, showing a bit more interconnectedness between the various locked rooms, and some of the murder situations also being more innovative and memorable. It's a book that is clearly written by someone who absolutely adores locked room murder mysteries and mechanical tricks, and while not every one of them is as good as the other, Kamosaki's enthusiasm seeps through the pages and makes this an entertaining novel as a whole.

Original Japanese title(s): 鴨崎暖炉『 密室狂乱時代の殺人 絶海の孤島と七つのトリック』

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