Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Murder in the Maze

"Our readers are children! Millions of bloodthirsty little kids, and we give them what they want!"
"The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader"

Note to self: when planning posts in advance, make sure not to skip a week by accident, resulting in me having to write a post hastily because apparently, I didn't have a post scheduled for this week until I noticed last minute.

I have read a lot of mystery comics from Japan. I am of course reading series that are still running like Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, but also read a lot of shorter, older series, especially after the release of the fantastic Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi ("Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar", 2018), which provides an overview of the many, many mystery comics that have been published in Japan. In particular, this book focused on honkaku mystery comics, so puzzle-plot focused stories and as you peruse this book, you'll learn that this genre has a long history in Japan, and have been extremely succesful starting in the nineties. On the other hand, I have always wondered about such comics outside Japan. I know of a few of them, of course, like the Mickey Mouse comics, or Inspecteur Netjes, and while I know there have been comic versions of Ellery Queen and other characters, I was more interested in original characters. One of the names you'll likely to come across sooner or later when looking for puzzle plot-focused American comics is The Maze Agency, created by Mike W. Barr, with various artists working on various series (runs). Originally published privately by Barr (with art by Alan Davis), the series was professionally published starting 1988 and has since seen also seen two follow-up series in the nineties and the early 2000s. The Maze Agency will even see even a completely new series later this year, as the fourth series will start late 2023. So it's a series that's been around for a while, even if it runs very irregularly.

The series is about Gabriel Webb, a a young true crime writer who would rather write puzzle plot mysteries. As of late, he has been trying to woe Jennifer Mays, a former CIA agent who now runs the succesful private detective burea the Maze Agency (Mays... Maze...). While the determined, headfast Jennifer runs a very efficient detective bureau herself, she occassionally does take Gabriel along for non-conventional jobs, because as it turns out, while Gabriel is a bit scatter-minded and clumsy, his free mind is precisely the type of brain needed for the more baffling cases Jennifer sometimes handles, like a supercar disappearing within seconds, a psychic being targeted by an unknown assailant or an art thief who steals the frames, but leaves the paintings!

The series was strongly inspired by Ellery Queen, and in fact, in essence, The Maze Agency is built up as a fair-play mystery, with proper clewing, and while there's not always an informal Challenge to the Reader, the fact each issue is about 30 pages long means that you know that around page 25 you should have all the necessary clues to, in theory, solve the crime. I say in principle, for there are plenty of issues where the clewing is so clumsily done to "surprise" the reader or the art doesn't really convey a clue well enough, so they end up feeling not as fair as the story pretends it to be. That said, having read about ten issues now, it is a fairly entertaining series, if not to see how Jennifer and Gabriel's relation very slowly evolves while they are solving all these crimes. The crimes themselves are often quite alluring, and the story-telling is dynamic, with twists and turns.

The first few issues follow a very familiar formula, with the initial crime, Jennifer and Gabriel investigating the crime, "some kind of dangerous scene" happening to create some suspense (like the murderer trying to attack Jennifer and Gabriel for nosing around too much), an occasional second murder and then the denouement, where Gabriel and Jennifer explain how the crime was done and where they point out the clues the reader should've picked up. Later issues move a little bit away from this, but as each issue is about the same in length and always last for only that one 30-page issue, the story beats usually don't change too much per story, even if the stories themselves can be varied. The second issue Murder - the Lost Episodes for example involves an interesting plot regarding a legendary television show, and while I think the last reveal of the murderer could've felt so much more satisfying if there had been more clues, I think the part preceding that was a fun idea. Issue 4, The Return of Jack the Ripper, is about members of a Jack the Ripper society being killed one by one. One clue pointing to the killer is quite nicely thought off, and mixed well with the Ripper theme. Issue 6, Double Edge, involves a locked room murder occuring during Gabriel's birthday party at a club. While the trick is a bit silly and unlikely to work, it is the kind of trick that makes you realize writer Barr does really like classic mystery fiction, as this is the kind of trick you could imagine to see in a classic locked room murder mystery. Issue 7, Hearts of Glass, where Jennifer meets an old friend who worked at the CIA, but who is killed in a locked room, similarly has a trick that is just a bit silly, but just imaginative enough to work for me.

A highlight is issue 9, where Gabriel and Jennifer team up with none other than... Ellery Queen! Written to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Ellery Queen, The English Channeler Mystery starts with an attempt on the life of a medium who channels the spirit Noraga has been made by poisoning her water, so Jennifer is hired to investigate the case, as well as Ellery. who via his father and Sergeant Velie also learns the details of the case. They are not capable of stopping an actual murder from happening, but they can work together to solve this murder. While the plotting is certainly not top-level, the type of reasoning seen in this story is particularly close to the Queen style of eliminating suspects, and it really fits this Queen crossover. And yes, this time, there is a Challenge to the Reader!

Overall, I do feel these first ten or so issues of The Maze Agency often feel just too short to really work out the clewing that these plots, in theory, provide. A lot of the gripes I have with these stories could easily have been solved just by allowing for more pages to tell the story more slowly and plant more clues and they end up feel a bit rushed in the thirty page limit. Artwork also differs sometimes per issue, and the placing of visual clues is perhaps therefore not always really strong. For example, clues like "look at how high this is" aren't really conveyed well via establishing shots or shots that clearly show certain characters' heights in comparison etc. Partially a problem of the artist, partially a matter of the writer needing to clearly point out that something is a visual clue.

But reading an issue of The Maze Agency once in a while is pretty fun, and I am interested to see how this new series will turn out, especially as surely series like Detective Conan being available in official English translation for decades now must have had some influence on how to do a fair-play mystery comic, right? I'll probably read more of this series in the future too, and if there's a really great issue I'll be sure to discuss them again.

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 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』