Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Minute for Murder

“Nonsense. You can’t order life mathematically,” retorted the Judge.  
"The Spanish Cape Mystery"

Still weird how the author Hikawa just... disappeared...

After a succesful party with employees of a computer company and the game company Joyit, they decide to have another one at Joyit's offices. Saeko, who was a great success at the previous party, goes again, bringing along her friend Shiori. They arrive early at Joyit, and are led to an office room where they can wait for the party to start: due to unforeseen circumstances in the program they are working on at Joyit, there's a bit of a delay, as the programmers and managers who are scheduled to go to the party too have to scramble and quickly fix the program. People walk in and out the office while waiting for the party to start, chatting in the hallways, and with some people using this opportunity to talk with people private. But when the party is about to start and everyone heads back to the office, they find the sales manager Senzoku alone in the office, sitting dead in a chair having been strangled. The police start to investigate the murder, but Shiori quickly realizes this is a kind of locked room. From the office where Sensoku was killed, there were three routes via which the killer could've escaped between the murder and the discovery of the body: going right from the office, or left and another left for the emergency exit, or left and then a right to go to the normal staircase. These three routes however where all observed, as people had been chatting at those spots before the body was discovered. Recognizing this puzzle, Shiori and Saeko decide to present this problem to their friend Hikawa Tooru, an aspiring mystery author, who too admits this is not a "real" locked room mystery, but a "rhetorical" one as the escape routes were all blocked, and he takes on the puzzle in Hikawa Tooru's Misshitsu Logic, also known as The Rhetorical Locked Room (2003).

Misshitsu Logic is the last novel in Hikawa Tooru's five-part series about the same-named Hikawa Tooru, an aspiring mystery author who after five books still hasn't quite managed to make his professional debut. The actual novelist Hikawa Tooru stopped publishing books after 2003, and has basically vanished, so I guess that ended the fictional Hikawa Tooru's career too! I've been reading these books the last few months, because they were touted as Ellery Queen-inspired books, which they certainly are, but while they shared a focus on both physical evidence and the actions of people, based on what they knew/could have known at what time, and longer deduction chains, these books never really quite managed to capture the spirit as well as other Queen-inspired authors like Arisugawa's Egami novels or Tsukatou Hajime's Nationality novels with Mikikaze

Misshitsu Logic is a rather strange novel though, as it's extremely short. It's basically a novella, even though the price of the book was certainly not lower than you'd normally expect. What's more, this book, more than ever, feels likely barely more than a logic puzzle, as the title suggest. It barely feels like a work of "fiction" in the literary sense. The book consists of three parts, with the longest part being the first part, which basically sets the scene for the puzzle: we follow different characters in the two hours leading up to the discovery of the murder, with people chatting with each other, walking in and out of the office and of course, with time stamps. The second part focuses on the investigation, showing how the murder was practically impossible because the escape routes were all under observation by people standing in the hallways, but basically adds no new information beyond what we learned in part 1. Part 3 is obviously Hikawa explaining who the murderer is, and when you're done, you've barely read 160 pages (to put in context: the previous novels were all at least 250 pages, and closer to 350 pages). 

So most of the meat of the book is found in Part 1, but this really reads a logic puzzle. It's so... devoid of energy, just swapping between perspectives with time stamps and everything as everyone moves around. Previous books did the same, mind you, but at least continued this after the discovery of the murder too. But because this book is so short and the bulk of the pages is devoted just to the lead-up to the discovery of the murder, it just feels like a logic puzzle, and nothing more. I also had real trouble getting into the minds of all the different characters, partially due to the weird set-up. Why do they have a inter-company party... with just like 10 people... at the offices of one of the companies? Why not just somewhere in a restaurant or bar? Why does the "company party" read more like a mixer party, with some of the men obviously just here to ogle the women? Why are the people joining this party from completely different sections of each company? Why is Saeko basically the only one from the computer company? While not really a big deal, I just got distracted constantly by the weird company party this was supposed to be, and I kept wondering why it couldn't just have been any other occassion, set at Saeko's own company, rather than it being about a inter-company party.

So ultimately, you just have a logic puzzle about what route the murderer could've taken after the killing, and why they went unnoticed. As expected of Hikawa, the focus of the chain of deductions is very Queen-esque, zooming in on the various people standing at the chokepoints and examining in a logical manner whether for example they would've been lying about not seeing the murderer leave or not, and things like that. He does this in a meticulous manner, checking the various witnesses (suspects) one by one and explaining how their observed actions would prove whether they did lie or not, but it all feels too sterile in this book. The meat-to-mystery ratio is too lean, leading to something that isn't fun as a book to read. There's not really a brilliant "gotcha" moment, something that turns the chain of reasoning around or provides a brilliantly new angle to the puzzle. It's very business-like, and while there's one moment that's kinda presented as a clever piece of insight on Hikawa's part to allow him to push the chain of deduction forward, it falls flat, as the build-up is chaotic and not fun for the reader at all. I guess the 'cleverest' part was the final step, which allowed to Hikawa strike away the last of the innocent suspects and end up with the identity of the guilty murderer, but even than it was something that was just.. okay, and not something worth recommending this book for.

Misshitsu Logic may be the last Hikawa Tooru novel starring the same-named detective, it is also by far the worst one. It is extremely short, basically a novella, but even then it's far too sterile, with the book barely feeling like anything more than a logic puzzle, only told in a slightly longer manner, while not being enjoyable to read as a prose story. Even as a Queen fan, this is too dry, with a set-up that is just people walking in and out of rooms, and then just a dry: okay, now solve this puzzle! The deduction chain, while meticulously set-up, lacks a really impressive moment, resulting in a book you'll just shrug at. A sad way to end a series, but that's the way things go.

Original Japanese title(s): 氷川透『密室ロジック』

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

A Figure in Hiding

It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful. Behind the figure was a vague suggestion of a Cyclopean architectural background.
"The Call of Cthulhu"

I'm still bummed I have the first few books in this series with their original pocket covers, as the current covers with Arai Keiichi's art are much more alluring!

Disclosure: I translated Higashigawa Tokuya's Lending the Key to the Locked Room, the first book in same series as the book discussed today.

Ikagawa City series:
Lending the Key to the Locked Room
Misshitsu ni Mukatte Ute ("Shoot Towards The Locked Room")
Kanzen Hanzai ni wa Neko Nanbiki Hitsuyouka ("How Many Cats Do You Need For a Perfect Crime?")
Koukan Satsujin ni Mukanai Yoru ("A Bad Night to Exchange Murders")
Koko ni Shitai wo Sutenaide Kudasai! ("Don't Dump Your Bodies Here Please!")
Squid-sou no Satsujin ("The Squid House Murders")
Short Story Collections
Tantei Sae Inakereba ("If Only That Detective Hadn't Been There...")

Watashi no Kirai na Tantei ("The Detective I Don't Like")

Two years ago, I reviewed Squid-sou no Satsujin ("The Squid House Murders"), which was the most recent entry in Higashiwa Tokuya's Ikagawa City series. At the end of the review, I noted that while I was at that point up to date with all the novels, I hadn't read the three short story collections yet. A minor trouble I had was that while I hadn't read the books, I did already know about more than half of the stories found in the first two collections due to them being adapted for the live action drama or having read the story in an anthology before. So I was not really in a hurry to read these books. But that did mean I still had the third collection to read, and that is of course the topic of today's post. Tantei Sae Inakereba ("If Only That Detective Hadn't Been There...", 2017) has a suggestive title, and indeed, the stories found in this book are mostly inverted mystery stories, which is... in hindsight not as surprising as I had initially though. While the novels aren't really inverted mysteries, you had some stories like Koko ni Shitai wo Sutenaide Kudasai! ("Don't Dump Your Bodies Here Please!" 2009) that have multiple narratives, and one of them being about two people who have to get rid of a dead body (and no, this is not even the main mystery!). In fact, the series always features multiple narratives, most often following the adventures of private detective Ukai and his assistant Ryuuhei, and a duo of police detectives simultaneously, with a lot of the mystery being structured around how these narratives intertwine. So in a way, having stories seen from the POV of the murderer isn't that odd for this series. The book is very short though, as are the stories, so I can already start with the conclusion that this is a funny book to read, but it's unlikely to actually "fill" your stomach if you're hungry for mystery. Most of the stories have interesting ideas, but often work towards what could be considered a punchline, and it's more the kind of book you want to read between more "serious" mystery.

Kuramochi Kazuya no Futatsu no Alibi ("The Two Alibis of Kuramochi Kazuya") is a pure inverted story, following the attempt of Kuramochi Kazuya of succesfully killing his wife's uncle and get away with it. His wife's uncle is a wealthy man who owns a restaraunt which is now run by Kuramochi, but business has not been great, and his uncle now refuses to pump more money in the restaurant. So the solution is of course to kill the man and inherit his money through his wife. The plan is to create a perfect alibi: he has invited the private detective Ukai, saying he wants to hire Ukai to find his lost pet. During their talk, Kuramochi excuses himself for a moment to use the bathroom, but in fact he drowns his uncle, whom he had rendered unconscious beforehand, in river water he brought home, so when he will later dump the body in the river, the police will determine his uncle actually died by drowning in the river, at a time Kuramochi was talking with Ukai. Of course, things go wrong, but why? The mistake he makes is incredibly cliche'd, but it actually works here, because the set-up for why Kuramochi fell for it was done really well: as always, it was hidden in the funnier parts of the narrative, and you'd never know that running joke was actually a set-up for the solution. Definitely a "punchline" type of solution, but one I liked.

Ukai and his landlord Akemi are visiting the local multi-day festival at the Ika River River Side Park, and the big finale is a competition between mascotte figures. One of the people they run into at the festival is Sayaka, a girl they met during a previous adventure, and who is most definitely not also the squid mascotte figure Kenzaki Maika, for Maika is of course really a cute character and they are not humans pretending to be mascotte figures. In the dressing tent, they also find others like Pufferfish Harry, the turtle Kamekichi and the masu salmon Yamame-chan, who are all getting prepped for the contest. Harry goes having a smoke in a seperate section of the tent, when after a while, Kamekichi, who had also been smoking, suddenly cries out. When they all go the smoking section, they find Harry lying on the floor, bleeding, and they find the person inside had been stabbed through his suit. Given that there had been only one other mascotte in the smoking section, it seems obvious who stabbed Harry, but is the answer really so simple? I am not that big a fan of this story: I do like the concept of how Harry was stabbed under seemingly impossible circumstances, but it seems a bit too little to carry a whole story, it would have worked better as a supporting concept, rather the main, as it is a bit too straightforward and I think it also works better in a visual medium.

Doctor Akihabara is a self-proclaimed genius in Hakase to Robot no Fuzai Shoumei ("The Alibis of the Doctor and his Robot") who has finally succeeded in creating a bi-pedal, talking robot after years of experiments (and yes.... he's a bit late...), but he owes his sponsor a lot of money, so the easy way out is to kill the man, and he realizes he can use his robot to create a fake alibi! Both he and his sponsor have a second villa in the mountains, and the plan is to kill the man, have his robot pretend to be the man while the doctor himself visits the neighbors, making sure they see his robot pretending to be the victim moving about in front of the windows, moving the estimated time of his death to the period while the doctor was having dinner with his neighbors. Akemi also happens to be visiting those neighbors, and while the doctor is quite smitten by her, he does not forget to make sure they all see "the neighbor" walking up and down in front of the window in a programmed routine. The next day, the corpse is found, but the weather conditions make it clear the murderer is likely someone staying on the mountains now, and there are only a handful of them in this season. I think this was the best story overall of the volume: there is funny banter between the doctor and his talking robot as they work together to kill their target and set-up the ruse, but the mistake the doctor makes is thematically brilliant and I really didn't see it coming. I'm trying to imagine it being used in a more serious story, but I don't think it would have been even half as effective as it's done here, as it adds a wonderfully ironic tone to the story. It's still a very simple, 'one-trick-pony'-esque inverted mystery as most of the others, but very satisfying considering its length.

To Aru Misshtisu no Hajimari to Owari ("The Beginning and the Ending of a Locked Room") has Ukai and Ryuuhei working on a case for a mother: she suspects her daughter-in-law is cheating, and has hired the two detectives to find evidence. They find out who the partner is and have the evidence, and the mother wants to confront her son with the evidence, and Ukai and Ryuuhei come along. They find the house locked, which is odd, as the son should've been alone in the house while his wife was visiting her own parents. Fearing something is off, they break in the house and find it empty. At least, they think so, until they enter the bathroom, and in the tub, they find a chopped up body, with the head of the son floating in the tub! But if the house was locked from the inside, where did the murderer go to? The story starts in media res, allowing for some tension, but the solution to the locked room is almost hilarious silly. Like the other stories, it's really just a punchline, but it works because it's not treated too seriously, and it is a neat subversion: you'll see the same trick used in a serious way far more often, but I didn't immediately recognize it because it is used in such a silly, non-practical manner now, so it kinda slips beneath the radar. Again one of those ideas that work because it's done in such a light-hearted manner in a very short story.

Higaisha to Yoku Nita Otoko ("The Man Who Greatly Resembles the Victim") follows the story of Kitayama Masato. Masato is the illegitimate son of Anekouji Kenzou, the former head of the wealthy Anekouji clan which runs Anekouji Products. But while his older brother Anekouji Kazuhito became the new head of the company, Masato was never recognized officially and is now living from one part-time job to another. One night, he is approached by a beautiful woman, who confides to him she plans to kill Kazuhito, as he had dumped a dear friend of hers who committed suicide because of it. It turns out Kazuhito and Masato, while they have not met in years, actually resemble each other a lot. The woman's plan is to use Masato to create an alibi for her: Masato is to pretend to be Kazuhito by visiting a cafe Kazuhito frequents and have some drinks there, while she'll kill Kazuhito, thus making it seem like Kazuhito died much later than he actually did. Kazuhito finally agrees to the plan, and both do everything according as discussed, but the police still manages to figure out how they did it. But why? The story has a very interesting twist before the true end, that changes your views on the murder scheme slightly, but it is fairly minor, as two pages later, you'll already arrive at the true solution. Which is a bit predictable, once the jokes about a certain trait of Masato are introduced in the story. Not a bad story per se, but perhaps the "lightest" of the five stories, and they are all very light in content matter in the first place.

I already mentioned it earlier, but Tantei Sae Inakereba is on the whole a funny collection, but it's very short and light-hearted, and not likely to really satisfy you if you're looking for memorable detective stories. But as something you can read very quickly between heftier volumes, it's alright. I doubt this volume alone will convince anyone to seek out all the Ikagawa City books, especially as you don't see as much of the series characters in these stories due to the inverted format of most of the stories, but having read all of the novels, I did enjoy this brief return to the odd city. Now to see when I will tackle the other two collections...

Original Japanese title(s) 東川篤哉『探偵さえいなければ』: 「倉持和哉の二つのアリバイ」/「ゆるキャラはなぜ殺される」/「博士とロボットの不在証明」/『とある密室の始まりと終わり」/「被害者とよく似た男」

Friday, June 7, 2024

The Corpse Danced at Midnight

"What a good night for a murder, eh? I mean, if somebody wanted to kill anybody, nobody would know if it was a gunshot or a firework."
"Agatha Christie's Poirot: Murder in the Mews"

This reminds me, I really should check whether I can get a new capacitor for my kinetic-driven watch...

Also: I haven't mentioned the Honkaku Discord in the weekly posts for some time now, but errr.... there's a Honkaku Discord server! It's a pretty easy-going server where we talk about mystery fiction (not exclusively Japanese), do book clubs and things like that, so if that sounds like fun, come have a look:

It's been almost two and a half years since I last discussed The Clockmaker Detective series by Ooyama Seiichirou, a series also known as Alibi Kuzushi Uketamawarimasu ("Alibi Cracking, At Your Service"), which is the title of the books, as well as of the live action drama series. The temporary absence from the blog doesn't mean Ooyama hasn't been working on this series though. Two short story collections have already been released, but earlier this year, the third "season" of this series started officially with the publication of the story Tokeiya Tantei to Shinnen no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and A New Year's Alibi"), which can be read for free at the J Novel site of the publisher. The story starts in the usual manner: the narrator, who is still called a rookie by his fellow police detectives even though he's been in the team for over a year now, visits Mitani Clockmakers, a quaint shop run by Mitani Tokino, a young woman who inherited the shop from her grandfather. As per her grandfather's instructions, she also offers an alibi cracking service, because it is "time-related" and therefore should be part of a clockmaker's work. Tokino has been helping the narrator immensely in his investigations, and this time, he has another problem. After exchanging new year's greetings, the narrator explains the conundrum the police are facing now.

On New Year's Eve, just after midnight, a man was found shot to death on the street. As the man still had his wallet, the victim's identity is soon determined: Noto Shingo is better known as the manga artist NOT, who has a hit manga with Hi no Kuni ("The Land of Not"). It doesn't seem he has any enemies, but one fact does attract the police's attention: the crime scene was close to Shijou-ji, a temple Noto always visited at midnight on New Year's Eve, right after midnight. It turns out an old friend of Noto lives near the temple: Itsu Kouhei, also known as Itsutsuboshi, is the manga artist of Bouzu Deka ("Monk Cop"), and the two have known each other from when they were both still struggling artists. In the past, Noto would go visit Itsu on New Year's Eve and go to Shihou-ji together, though with both of them being busy with their respective hits, they hardly see each other anymore. Still, the police suspects Noto might have intended to go to Shihou-ji with Itsu, and that Itsu might have killed Noto then, so they pay him a visit and of course ask about his alibi for New Year's Eve. Itsu however has a perfect alibi: he had been working hard on the last day of the year because of a deadline, and his assistant was with him the whole day and evening. They worked until the afternoon, fell asleep until the early evening of the thirty-first. They then watched Kouhaku Uta-gassen together as per tradition in many Japanese households on New Year's Eve. When it became midnight, Noto invited his assistant out into the garden to take a breather, where they heard people crying out "Happy New Year" and the bell starting to ring at Shihou-ji: as at many temples, the bell is struck 108 times to drive away earthly desires, and at Shijou-ji, they start exactly at midnight. After that, Itsu also read some manga drafts of his assistant and gave him some pointers, so Itsu thus has a perfect alibi for the time of the murder. Yet, the narrator feels the alibi might have been falsified, but all his own attempts at breaking it seem to fail. Can Tokino solve this mystery?

Well, of course she can. She wouldn't be much of a clockmaker if she couldn't!

After two relatively stories Tokeiya Tantei to Niritsu Haihan no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Antinomic Alibi") and Tokeiya Tantei to Ichizoku no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and a Family's Alibi"), we have a relatively "simple" story this time in terms of structure. What is interesting though, is how Itsu's alibi seems to vouched for by two elements that seem completely out of his control: the assistant was watching Kouhaku Uta-Gassen, which is a live television program which also counts down to midnight, and he heard the striking of bell of Shihou-ji Temple, which again is an element that "proves" what time it is, and not only to the assistant alone, but to everyone else who were watching Kouhaku Uta-Gassen or heard the bell ringing: in a way the assistant (and Itsu) gained their alibi by being a participant in a "group event", and that is a lot harder to falsify than a clock in a room or something like that. I do have to admit that the solution feels a bit underwhelming after the previous two stories, which were much trickier, but I guess this works perfectly as an opening story for a third volume, as the two "communal" proofs for Itsu's alibi do really seem very strong at first sight.

Some elements regarding Itsu's trick are explained in a rather handwavey manner ("Oh, he probably did this...") and feel a bit cheap, but I do really, really like the clue that points to the biggest trick Itsu pulled: while I had guessed what it was beforehand, I actually didn't realize how that clue actually tied back to the solution, and I think that clue was really clever, and perfect in case you hadn't made a guess yet. I'm almost more a fan of mystery fiction that provides clear clue-trails, rather than expecting the reader to make some wild guess based on instinct, so I could appreciate that element. It is also nice to see the narrator is actually starting to get a hang for alibi cracking himself too, as he and his co-workers are clearly are getting the hang of it and starting to think a bit like Tokino, coming up with pretty good theories for how the culprit could've created a fake alibi. 

All in all, a not very surprising, but still consistent opening story to what will hopefully become another solid volume with stories with original perfect alibi stories! I will probably discuss the following stories too in the future as they release (probably not five months late the next time), so let's hope the next one will come soon!

Original Japanese title(s): 大山誠一郎「時計屋探偵と新年のアリバイ」

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Obituary for a Dead Anchor

If you have never been at sea in a heavy gale, you can form no idea of the confusion of mind occasioned by the wind and spray together. They blind, deafen, and strangle you, and take away all power of action or reflection. 
"A Descent into the Maelström"

I honestly don't like writing posts about books I didn't really like. Which is also the reason why reviews on my blog tend to be relatively positive: if I really didn't like something, I probably didn't finish it, or I didn't want to spend more time on it by also writing a post.

The S.S. Meganaut is en route from New York to Cherbourg. Every night, an auction is held in the smoking room, when guests can bid on numbers, which correspond to the number of nautical niles they think the ship will be able to traverse the coming day (so, it's gambling). One of the passengers on board is the wealthy Victor Timothy Smith, accompanied by his daughter Coralie. He and his entourage seem to have quite some fun bidding against, and winning from the lawyer Saul de Brasto, who has not been able to even buy one number because Smith constantly uses his immense fortune to outbid de Brasto. The lights in the smoking room suddenly go out however, followed by a pistol shot. When the lights go back on again, Smith is lying dead on the floor, daughter Coralie has passed out and Saul de Brasto is holding a smoking gun in his hand. Not surprisingly, de Brasto is immediately detained by the ship detectives for the murder on Smith, but he denies having shot Smith, claiming he shot his pistol at someone else in the room, a hitman who was trying to shoot him! However, an examination of the crime scene soon proves de Brasto right: Smith was shot by two bullets one after another, while de Brasto only shot once, and his bullet is found buried in a table in the other direction than where Smith was. The detectives are baffled as to who the murderer then is, especially as the case becomes even grimmer with Coralie dying from the sheer shock of what occured, but it happens four psychologists on their way to London develop an interest in the case too, and they each think they can explain who the murderer really is in C. Daly King's Obelists at Sea (1932).

A few years ago, I read King's Obelists Fly High, a book that was certainly not perfect, but which I did think was a fun read due to some interesting points, most notably the Clue-Finder: an appendix at the very end of the book, a list of all the hints complete with page and line reference, sorted by category (clues to how, who, motive etc.). It was a very daring way to prove to the reader the game was being played in a fair manner, and I had always wanted to read the other Obelists books too, to see whether the other books could perhaps improve on the points I did find less impressive about Fly High.

Obelists at Sea is not that book. Oh well, there's always En Route...

Obelists at Sea is a book that has many of the same elements of Fly High, elements that can provide for an interesting mystery story. We have the murder happening in a closed circle situation (a luxury liner), a story built around multiple solutions, as provided by the four psychologists, a mystery surrounding someone being able to shoot twice at Smith in the dark and of course the promise of a Clue-Finder, a multi-page proof to show King has indeed provided enough clues for you to solve the murder. The book even features multiple very detailed floorplans of the S.S. Meganaut. Memorable are the punny names of most of the characters (Victim = Victor Timothy) too.

But all of this goes nowhere good. The floorplans for example? Basically just there for fluff, because they don't actually serve any role mystery-wise. There's plenty of interesting moments and points of mystery throughout the novel, like a corpse disappearing from the doctor's quarters and the mystery of the two bullets in the victim, but the actual solutions for these events are basically shrugged over, quickly explained in like two or three sentences without giving those moments any weight. The book focuses much, muuuuch more on the idea of having four different psychologists, who each champion a different school, offer different theories for the murder (of course all pointing at different people, based on different evidence). Of course, we have seen other books utilize such structures too, from The Poisoned Chocolates Case, which too has multiple detectives proposing different theories, similar to a lot of Brand's work, but also something like Ellery Queen, where sometimes you'll see Ellery himself proposing multiple solutions. But Obelists At Sea doesn't work for me, because the theories are all so based on pscyhology (King was a psychologist), I just can't take them really seriously in a mystery novel. In a way, I do get King attempted to portray psychology from a slightly ironic angle, making fun of the four psychologists (who are basically caricatures, embodiments of their respective schools) and their theories that aren't really based on anything but "X has shown indications they are of a certain character type, so they would have done Y", but this gets tiring very fast, especically as the majority of the book is written around this gimmick. The theories presented here feel like they would be spouted by a random character and immediately brushed off in a Queen-style, evidence-and-logic-based mystery novel, not the types you can structure a whole novel around. What doesn't help either is that while the book kinda wants to say "see, psychology doesn't work" by showing these psychologists arriving at very different solutions simply because they adhere to different schools, the final solution and the clues found in the Clue-Finder are still mostly built around psychological clues! So I don't really get what King was going for. The final solution does have elements I like for a final solution (the whodunnit etc.), but by that time, I didn't really care anymore, and I think the route towards this solution could've been so much more interesting and satisfying.

The book also has a rather noticable anti-semetic tone throughout. The book never, ever forgets to remind you the main suspect Saul de Brasto is a Jew. The book starting with Victor Smith harrassing de Brasto by outbidding him every time can still be seen as a form of anti-semitism commited by one character alone, but even after he's dead, everyone from the ship's detectives to the captain keep referring to de Brasto as the Jew or the Hebrew (note that no other character in the book is referred to constantly by their background), which isn't helped when they also learn he's a lawyer, because of course he'd be a crooked lawyer (because he's a....). Even after the initial supsicion on de Brasto should be cleared, the man is treated as as if they had preferred to have jailed him anyway. It gets very tiring very quickly.

Obelists At Sea just didn't do it for me. While on the surface, it has elements that seemed promising, or at least, elements that I have seen used in plenty of mystery novels that were fun, beneath the water level, it just ended up as a book I didn't enjoy. The main structure just doesn't work for me because I am not interested in solutions based solely on psychological analyses of characters, the more interesting elements mystery-wise for some reason are underplayed because of that and the Clue-Finder gimmick is still focused on psychological clues, something I had hoped it would have done differently from Obelists Fly High. I bought a Japanese translation of Obelists En Route (translated by Ayukawa Tetsuya!) a while back, so I'll probably get to that eventually!

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Enemy Match

"A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously. A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself."
"Enter the Dragon"

I do really hate how the English in this cover is cut off halfway... Just add those last few letters on the front side...

Imoriya Mato is a high school student who at first sight might appear to be a somewhat self-absorbed girl who's good at playing cute in front of the (male) senior students, but looks deceive, and that is why she is chosen by her classmates to be their representative in the Fool's Smoke Game, a tradition at Hoojiro High School. Each year, all the classes and clubs fight to get the best possible location for the school festival, being the roof: if the weather is good, you have the largest space here, with a nice view and most people will eventually arrive there, ensuring great visitor numbers (and thus earnings from whatever stand or stall the class or club will operate). To ensure everyone has a fair chance at getting the roof spot, the Fool's Smoke Games are held: the representatives of all the parties who want the roof compete in special one-on-one games, and the winner moves up in the tournament chart. Mato, accompanied by her friend and "witness" Kouda, soon has her first major game with someone of the Student Council, the organization that up until now was managed to secure the rooftop for themselves via the games. The game they play is Glico with Landmines, a variation on the weighted Rock Paper Scissors game. Her opponent however is perhaps as intelligent as Mato, resulting in a game where both sides constantly try to outsmart the other via various strategies. The outcome of the game results in Mato gaining the respect of the student council and she soon becomes known at the school for being good at these games, which of course gets Mato involved in more games with major stakes, from a club being at risk of being banned from a cafe unless Mato wins, to games involving a lot of money with other schools. Can Mato outsmart everyone in these variations of children's games in Aosaki Yuugo's Jirai Glico ("Glico with Landmines", 2023)?

Long ago, I wrote a review of the (live action) Liar Game series, based on the same-titled manga. It's a series I think is a prime example showing a mystery story does not need to be about crime, locked room murders, ingenious alibi tricks or anything remotely close to what most people would usually associate with the mystery genre, as mentioned in my post on what I think a "mystery" can be in mystery fiction. Liar Game focuses on a series of games (with very high stakes), but these games are not games of chance: they can be won by logical reasoning, by rigging the games while playing the game "fairly" (finding loopholes in the rules given) and often, the fun was that it was the protagonist who somehow rigged these games in their advantage, making them the "culprit", but also presenting a howdunnit mystery of how they could've rigged the game, without violating the rules. Liar Game however was indeed a fair mystery at the same, giving the viewer all the necessary clues/set-up that allowed them to arrive at the same conclusion as the protagonist too in a logical manner, meaning "you" too could have found a fool-proof way to win a game which seems to be one of chance. The series also focused a lot on strategies and counter-strategies of the various players, and the "if you think I think you think I am planning to do this..." element will also be very recognizable to readers of logic game mysteries like Death Note and Spiral ~ The Bonds of Reasoning.

Jirai Glico is a connected short story collection that follows the same tradition as Liar Game by Aosaki Yuugo. He made his debut with Taiikukan no Satsujin ("The Gymnasium Murder") and was touted by the publisher as the Heisei-era Ellery Queen. Jirai Glico is published by a different company and while this book isn't directly inspired by Ellery Queen, one could say his style of writing mystery fits perfectly in the logical game subgenre: Queen-esque deduction chains often focus on "who knows what at what time and what influence does that have on their logical decision taking?", which is exactly what the meat of the stories in Jirai Glico is: we see five different familiar games transformed with additional rules, and we focus on the various, evolving strategies of the participants as they try to outsmart each other. And yes, part of what makes Jirai Glico so interesting is that the five stories all focus on existing games most of us will know, but with a few added rules that completely transform these familiar games into highly strategic matches. The result is a book that has been received very well critically as well, as it recently won the 24th Honkaku Mystery Award.

The title story Jirai Glico ("Glico with Landmines") for example is based on Glico, a weighted Rock Paper Scissors game, where the winner of each single match is allowed to take a number of steps on a staircase. Winning with rock means you can move three steps (Gu-ri-ko/Glico), scissors nets you six steps (Chi-yo-ko-re-i-to/Chocolate), as does paper (Pa-i-na-tsu-pu-ru/Pineapple). The first one to reach the top of the fifty step high staircase is the winner. The variation however is that at the start of the game, both Mato and her opponent are allowed to hide three landmines on any of the steps of the fifty-step staircase: whoever lands on a step with a landmine, will be sent down ten steps. What starts out as a simple game of chance with Rock Paper Scissors, however soon becomes a fascinating game of strategy, with both parties trying to logically deduce where the other placed their mines on the steps, and trying to figure out how to avoid those steps by tactically choosing which hand to play. Aosaki has a lot of fun letting his complex style of plotting loose on this game, and you could say the conclusion of the game is perhaps a bit predictable if you're familiar with these kinds of stories, the climb to the conclusion alone is definitely worth it, as you get to follow two geniuses trying to outsmart each other over... Rock Paper Scissors.

Bouzu Suijaku ("Monk Memory") has Mato helping out the school's karuta club: the members got into a row with the owner of a cafe they often frequented, and now they got banned completely. The student council, fearing the ban will hurt the school's reputation, hopes to smooth things over with the owner, but he refuses, until Mato challenges him in a game. He accepts, and proposes they play a game of memory/pairs with Japanese poem cards. Japanese poem cards have different illustrations on them, and can be roughly divided in three categories: princesses, men or monks. The extra rules involve these illustrations: finding a pair of men means you add that pair to your own pile and you get one new attempt at finding a pair. Pulling a monk pair however means you not only lose the turn, but all the cards currently in your possession go to the discard pile. A princess pair in turn is the best hand, as you not only keep the pair and get another attempt, you also obtain the complete discard pile at that point. They agree the person with the most cards in their possession at the end of the game will be the winner, with Mato's win condition being that for every ten cards he has, one member is allowed back, meaning she'd have to win all the cards in order to lift the ban on all the members. Mato starts this game of what seems to be just memory with more rules, but she soon realizes her opponent is cheating somehow. How is she going to win this game against a cheater? Well... by playing the game fairly... or does she? Bouzu Suijaku is a fun story, as we see Mato manipulating the game in a way to not exactly cheat, but to in a way to bend the rules a bit to fend off the cheater opposite her, and that coupled with a game that looks simple at first sight, but once again is deceptively deep, makes this a rather engaging tale of strategy.

Having caught the attention of the student council president, Mato is approached by her in Jiyuuritsu Janken ("Free-style Rock Paper Scissors"). Recognizing Mato's talents, the president hopes to get Mato under her control, and she challenges Mato to a game of free-style Rock Paper Scissors: if she wins, Mato will become a member of the council and thus has to do the president's bidding, while she promises Mato to locate a certain friend she lost contact with for her. free-style Rock Paper Scissors is in essence a very simple game, being the normal rock paper scissors, only both players are allowed to add one extra move each. They have to show each other the "form" of the move beforehand, but the effect (which other moves lose to it/beat it) is only known to the judge. Thus the two players must play Rock Paper Scissors with five moves, of which one move they themselves created, but the other remains unknown. What results is the story I perhaps liked best, because the president isn't fooled by Mato's act of playing cute, and both go in with guns blazing right from the start, trying to figure out what the effect is of the move the opponent created. The result is a fantastic battle of the wits, as both are willing to "sacrifice" wins in order to deduce the precise effects of the other's hand, while also making sure not to lose the whole game themselves. What is also fun is that this game involves a physical element like we see in competitive karuta, where people try to peak at their opponents' hand beforehand to predict what move they will use, making it much easier to visualize this as a very dynamic game.

Mato ends up having to follow the president's orders, which means she now has to play a game against students of Seietsu High, and a lot of money is at stake now in Daruma-san ga Kazoeta ("Daruma Counted"), as they are playing for Scholarship Chips, which are worth a lot of money at Seietsu High School, and winning enough will easily put you through college. Mato finds herself playing a variation of Daruma-san ga koronda (known as statues/red light green light/fairy footsteps and many more names), where the two participants are dubbed the killer and marker, with Mato becoming the killer. The two are standing at opposite ends of a park, and as in the normal game, the marker has to turn their back to the killer and count. The killer tries to approach the marker during this count, but it's game over if the marker stops counting, turns around and observes the killer moving. The killer has to take each step on each count of the marker. The variant rules for this game have the two players inform the judge beforehand about what they will do the next turn: the marker has to decide on how much they will count, after which they will turn around. The killer similarly has to decide on how many steps they will take beforehand, but is required to take all steps they decided upon, even if it's fewer than the marker's count: this will mean an instant game over. The killer has to reach the marker within a certain number of turns to win, while the marker has to count at least a specific number within X turns. While there is some strategic discussion on, this story is definitely the simplest of them all, and I found this was the easiest story to guess Mato's strategy. It's mostly intended to be a funny story to set-up the finale of the collection though, so I guess it works in that way.

After winning the previous game, Mato finds herself facing her greatest foe yet in the final game Four Room Poker. In this poker game the players have to bet their chips on each round, and of course the strongest hand wins. The hands in this game consists of three cards, but what makes this game of poker special is that every player can pick their own hand. After dealing the first hand of three cards to both players, players can choose to discard up to three of their cards. They are then given five minutes to enter three of four rooms in any order, where the rest of the cards of the deck have been laid out face down on tables. Inside these rooms, unseen by the other player, they can pick any card they want (but are only allowed to touch the number of cards they have to draw). The cards have been laid out according an undisclosed rule, and that's where this game becomes tricky: the only way the players can learn how the cards have been laid out, is to discard cards and drawing new cards each round, and hoping they can figure out how the cards are laid out by seeing what card they drew, but both players will draw, which will disturb the initial layout and making it harder to deduce what card lies where, and as the game proceeds, less and less cards remain, making it harder to create the hand you want. The result is the story that is definitely the most complex to grasp, as the physical aspect, where the players have to go in the rooms each time, adds a whole new dimension to the game of poker. It allows for some game shenanigans you also see in Liar Game that are somewhat unfair to the reader, as you could argue that one of them is cheating, even if the story doesn't consider it as such. So it is harder for the reader to predict how the game will go because of sometimes loose interpretation of the rules, but the way the two players try to outwit each other and react to each other's strategems is a delight to read!

What's more to say about the book? Jirai Glico is an enormously entertaining book that will show that you don't need murders or even anything remotely criminal to present an outrageously fun detective novel, that at the same time will offer you more logical reasoning and deductive chains you'll see in most mystery stories. Definitely worth the read!

Original Japanese title(s):青崎有吾『地雷グリコ』: 「地雷グリコ」/「坊主衰弱」「自由律ジャンケン」/「だるまさんがかぞえた」/「フォールーム・ポーカー」

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Way Up to Hades

"I have looked upon all that the universe has to hold of horror, and even the skies of spring and the flowers of summer must ever afterward be poison to me."
"The Call of Cthulhu"

There are good covers, there are great covers, and there are absolutely amazing covers.

When Amy Griffith was young, she used to play with fairies at the prehistoric standing stone monument in her home town. She was caught on photograph talking to a mysterious light by a newspaper reporter, and briefly became known as the Fairy Girl, but later the adults assumed she must have lied or just imagined things. But about a decade later, the Empire has been caught up by a spiritualist rage, and having moved to the capital to make some money for her family, Amy is now known as the Fairy Lady.... but in actuality, she's just a charlatan, using cheap parlor tricks to spice up her seance sessions. When she is visited by Darren Dunglas, a professional assessor of the Imperial Spiritualist Institution, the man immediately sees through her tricks, but for some reason he does seem to think that she can actually talk to fairies, and thus he can not understand why she's relying on parlor tricks. Both of them happen to be invited by the famous mystery writer Lenard Thorndyke to visit the infamous Blasphemy Mansion, which the author recently required. The house stands in a marshland and had been in the possession of the Davenport clan. Two hunderd years ago, Bradley Davenport was head of a secret club that worshipped the devil, and they did everything blasphemous in the house, from black magic ceremonies to orgies. Artists were also given a free hand, resulting in the house not only housing satanistic imagery like a statue of the Sabbatic Goat,  a gigantic Wicker Man in the back garden, but also rather erotic frescos and statues. The secret club is even said to have opened a hole to hell itself two hunderd years ago, which is why the courtyard is now completely sealed off: every door and window originally leading or looking into the courtyard has been bricked up. Bradley was eventually executed, though the house remained in Davenport hands, but last year, the last heir of the Davenports, Seraphina, disappeared, and Lenard quickly bought the house, as he is very interested in both spirits, as well as the treasure of the Davenports which is supposed to be hidden in the house.

For that reason, he has invited a group of spiritualists (as well as Darren) to stay for a few days at the Blasphemy House, with the idea being each spiritualist will head a seance to communicate with the spirits. The invitees include spiritualists with powers like taking ghost pictures, automatic writing, channeling spirits and giving them form with ectoplasm and communicating with spirits via rapping, though Amy is quite sure everyone is a phony, just like herself. Which is why she is very shocked to see on the very first night the first spiritualist Miranda Crandon really managing to give a ghost a material form by oozing ectoplasm out of her nose. The ghost points them to a crack in the bricked up door in the main hall, which leads into the courtyard which had been sealed for two-hundred years. They find a cross with pre-Church imagery at the center, and beneath the cross, they find the remains of a woman, which are still well-preserved, suggesting the woman has only been here for at longest a year, even though the courtyard has been closed off for two centuries! A servant is sent off to call for the police, even though the trip will be perilous due to a very heavy snow storm. The following day however, somebody has set fire to the Wicker Man, having placed the body they found inside, and then someone is killed inside the chapel, even though Amy and Darren were the last to leave the victim in that room and they had been in the drawing room ever since, and anyone going to the chapel needs to pass through the drawing room. With the snow storm going on outside, they don't even know whether the police has been notified, but as the spiritualists start to use their powers to communicate with the ghosts in the house to learn what is going on, they find out something sinister is on its way. But is the murder also the result of the supernatural, or did a living person commit this crime in Teshirogi Shoutarou's Tokushinkan Satsujin Jiken ("The Murder Case in the Blasphemy Mansion" 2023)?

I'll gladly admit the only reason this book caught my attention was the cover art. When it was announced first, I just knew I had to read this book. Of course, a cover doesn't seem much about a book's content, but assuming the cover had something to do with the story itself, the idea of the Sabbatic Goat playing some kind of role in a mystery story was interesting enough. I had never read anything by Teshirogi before, so it was a bit of a gamble, but to start with the conclusion, I was quite pleasantly surprised by the book.

At first I thought the book was going to be like Trick, with a fake psychic/spiritualist teaming up with a more science-based male partner, going up against other fake psychics. Only, that assumption was very soon discarded, as the book makes it clear fairly early on ghosts do actually exists in this world, and yes, there are also real spiritualists who can communicate with the ghosts one way or another. We do see that these ghosts generally can't directly influence the real world: some might sense the presence of ghosts and perhaps hear voices or see ghosts, but we don't actually see ghosts attacking people or moving objects on their own, so the mystery of this book fundamentally still works, as it is clear the answer to the locked room murder isn't just "ghosts did it." Even though it is surprising to see how "normal" ghosts are in this world, though it helps we see things through the eyes of Amy: she alone is the phony psychic here, and she doesn't really believe in ghosts or even fairies anymore, so like the reader, she too is quite surprised to learn at first spirits do exist.

And yes, the fact ghosts exist in this world do lead to some interesting situations mystery-wise. At one point, we even have a set of creepy twin mediums who communicate via rapping with ghosts, and they just decide to have a chat with the victim who just got killed to ask him who killed him. Of course, the mystery doesn't get resolved so easily, but we have several people with different spiritual powers, from ghost pictures to materializing ghosts with ectoplasm to a woman who can actually "time-shift" to the past and witness events that happened centuries ago. Some of these powers are used really cleverly for misdirection, and in a way that only works in this book, because we know the powers are real. In other novels, you might think there's some kind of trick behind them, but here you know you don't have to worry about that, and can focus completely on figuring out the meaning of the various seance sessions in relation to the grander mystery.  There is a a secondary plotline, where the characters try to learn more about the history of the Blasphemy Mansion, and the time when the secret club were having their orgies and doing all their black magic ceremonies, and I really like some of the misdirection that was used here in relation to the seances.

More impossible crimes occur throughout the book, like a woman's decapitated body appearing in a theater of which Amy alone held the key, but I do have to say the actual murders themselves are relatively easy to solve: while the supernatural parts are used very cleverly in terms of design to facilitate these murders, the tricks behind them are ultimately fairly familiar, so you might recognize them early on despite the, otherwise really well-done, dressing with the supernatural. But despite that, I think this book still is a very fun read, as the imagery and atmosphere are really good and you can really feel how the supernatural elements really work with these murders. The ending by the way really moves into cosmic horror avenues, and while some parts are not as strong as other parts of the book I think, like the grander motive behind the murders, it's not something I really mind as it all fits the vibe of the book.

But yeah, I really enjoyed Tokushinkan Satsujin Jiken overall. If you look at it purely as a mystery novel, it might not be as strong as you might hope despite it having some clever uses of its supernatural themes, but as a book that tries to be equal parts mystery and (cosmic) horror, it's a great success I think and I wouldn't be surprised if this one ends up on my favorite list of this year.

Original Japanese title(s): 手代木正太郎『涜神館殺人事件』

Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Haunted Monastery

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

This might the first time since I started doing reviews of both the Detective Conan manga and films that I managed to get the film review out before the corresponding manga volume...

Detective Conan volume 105 was released in April 2024, timed together with the release of the 2024 film Detective Conan: The Million-Dollar Pentagram and it also serves as the very first volume released as part of this anniversary year, as the manga of Detective Conan started its serialization 30 years ago, back in 1994. While the stories included in the volume themselves don't have any special "anniversary" themes, the physical volume itself does come in two variations: a normal one and a special edition one, which features an alternate cover that mirrors the cover of volume 1, as well as extra booklet with character sketches from when the series was still in the planning phase. Small note for collectors: the detective character introduced in the encyclopedia at the end of the volume is actually different in the special edition from the normal edition. Anyway, the contents of volume 105 itself are your standard fare for the series, so no big anniversary story. The volume opens with the remainder of Why He Became Her Butler, which started in the previous volume. Conan and Ran are travelling with Hattori and Kazuha in the express train, and it happens Hattori's self-proclaimed fiance Momiji is there too, accompanied by her butler Iori. During the trip, Iori is approached by a man, who forces the butler to cooperate, or else Momiji will be hurt. Via his phone, Iori is told to go to a certain seat in the train, where he finds a dead man, and he is ordered to find a USB memory stick this dead man has hidden somewhere. While Iori tries to deduce where the stick is, he also tries to remember where he knows the voice of the man threatening them from, which brings up memories of his time when he was a police officer with Public Security. Meanwhile, Conan and Hattori also notice Iori's acting strange...

A very, very mediocre story. The "where could the USB memory stick be hidden" mystery is just a device to tell the flashback story of Iori and Momiji meeting for the first time, fleshing out the perfect butler's background, but as a mystery, it's incredibly minimalistic and most of it is resolved before the reader gets any chance to even think about it. So a very character-focused story, which might entertain people who have become fans of Momiji and Iori ever since they were introduced around 2016, but not if you're just hoping to read a cool mystery once every five months...

So when I write my reviews of the Conan manga, I get the story titles from the official Shonen Sunday website for the series: the titles of the stories often will be used as the titles for the episodes when they are later adapted for the television anime, but sometimes they are changed, with the manga story titles retroactively changed to the anime story titles. Usually, this site is updated when the new volume releases, but for some reason, the site has not added volume 105 yet, meaning I don't really know the "official" titles for the following two stories.

Anyway, the second story is clearly one meant to tie in with the 2024 film The Million-Dollar Pentagram and set before the film, as Hattori is still planning to confess his love to Kazuha at a spot with a great scenery, and Ran, having learned Hattori's plans, has found the perfect spot: Mt. Washio, which offers a great sunset view. So Ran, her father, Conan, Hattori and Kazua go mountain hiking, but a sudden rain forces them to find shelter at a Buddhist temple on the mountain. Luckily for Hattori, Ran learns there's a great view from the temple too, so they stay here until the rain stops. During their stay, they learn about a monk who disappears some time ago, and that there are rumors of will-o'-wisp sightings here. The gang takes a look at the room where the monk had disappeared from, which is accessed via a small staircase. Later however, the gang witnesses the will-o'-wisp themselves as the fire moves up the staircase, and it is then they realize Mouri himself has also disappeared. What is happening at this temple? Not much interesting here, I'm afraid. What appears to be a potential interesting locked room mystery, provides you with the most unsatisfying solution ever, and while there are other mysterious events at the temple which are connected in the end, the events unfolding at the temple just don't really interest me, while at the same time, you know the Hattori plotline is going to be carried over to The Million-Dollar Pentagram, so none of this story feels even remotely engaging.

The final complete story in this volume features phantom thief KID, who is also a major character in The Million-Dollar Pentagram, so no surprises about him being featured here. Suzuki Jiroukichi has once again set-up another trap using a big jewel as bait to catch the thief. This time, he has rigged a special small exhibition room on the Bell Tree Tower, like a small box attached to the side of the tower. Because of its size and it being suspended mid-air, it's seen as the perfect trap, especially as the only entrance to the room (from the tower) has security cameras aimed at it, as well as other security measures, with the idea that if KID does manage to get inside the room, it'll lock from the outside, making escape impossible. A special team specializing in security has been hired to set-up this system, and they finish up just before KID's announced time of the theft. Conan is of course here to stop KID, and when the time arrives, things start to happen that prompt Conan to run to the security room to confront the thief. When he gets inside the room however, he finds not only KID, but the dead head of security too. Has KID finally stooped to murder? Well, of course not, and Conan too believes the thief didn't kill the man, but the situation doesn't look good for KID, as he was the only other person in the room besides the corpse and cameras had been aimed at the exhibition room entrance all the time, meaning the corpse appeared out of nowhere, and KID is known to be able to conjure up things out of nowhere.... To win some time, KID decides to "disguise" himself as high school student detective Kudou Shinichi (it's not really a disguise, as the two look remarkably similar), pretending to be here at the scene to catch KID too. Together with Conan, he tries to figure out who committed the murder and tried to pin the crime on him, but the duo run into a little, big problem: KID's rival, Hakuba Saguru, has returned from the United Kingdom, and this detective soon starts to have suspicions about "Shinichi's" actions at the scene...

By far the best story of the volume, as it's both funny and has a more robust mystery compared to the previous two stories, though because of the very, very specialized set-up of the room, and the manner in which Conan and KID discovered the body, I have a feeling many will find it easy to at least make a general guess about how the murder was committed, even though cameras had been aimed at the door entrance and they didn't register a thing besides the time KID forced entry into the room. Conan reluctantly doing his investigation while "tolerating" KID as Shinichi is funny, and the mystery does get a bit fleshed out due to the inverted mystery-element of the story: KID and Conan are being detectives as they try to solve the murder, but they are also "the culprits", trying to hide the fact KID has disguised himself as Shinichi, with Hakuba Saguru acting as the detective in that storyline. So you have a two-pronged mystery plot that gives this story some depth. There are some story seeds sown here that get reaped in the film too, so as also shown with the Hattori story, you'd better read this volume before you watch the film.

Oh, by the way, I did read this volume too before I went to the theatre, I just postponed writing this review for some time... They had some neat promotional material in the bookshop by the way: they had a newspaper about the exploits of the phantom thief KID (setting up the story of the film), as well as the newspaper featuring Shinichi on the frontpage seen in the very first chapter of the manga, and always shown in the opening scenes of the animated films each year.

Detective Conan 105 is not a really interesting volume mystery-wise, to be honest, and that's continuing a trend that's been going on for some time now, so I do find it harder to become really enthusiastic now for each new release. It wouldn't be so bad if we had the older release schedule of a new volume every three months, but nowadays it's basically one volume every half year... The volume does have ties with the film, so you'd better read 105 before watching the film, as you'll see more clearly how author Aoyama does try to "hype things up" for the film in the manga itself too. Anyway, we'll have to wait months again for the next volume unfortunately, but considering this is the 30th anniversary year, I do hope the next volume features a more substantional mystery tale, one that doesn't need to tie in with ongoing storylines or feels the need to flesh out characters. Just a six chapter story solely dedicated to telling a large mystery story. Please?

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌『名探偵コナン』105巻

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

The Hand of God

"The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death."

I have to admit, I had heard of the term "Dance of the Seven Veils" before, but never knew it came from Salome!

Set in the Taisho era (1912-1924), Yuuki Haruo's Salome no Guillotine ("Salome's Guillotine", 2024) starts with the Dutchman Cornelis van Riemsdijk receiving a letter from the Japanese painter Iguchi Sakuta. Van Riemsdijk hails from a prominent family in the Netherlands, but during his father's generation, the family had some financial problems, forcing them to sell some of the art they owned. An antique table clock Cornelis was fond of had been sold to Iguchi Chuujirou, a Japanese friend of Cornelis' father. Cornelis later became a succesful investor, and now many years later, hopes to buy the table clock back from Iguchi Sakuta, the grandson of Chuujirou. Iguchi doesn't own the clock himself anymore, but is able to contact the current owner and arranges for the clock to be sold back to Cornelis van Riemsdijk during a visit to Japan. To discuss things, Van Riemsdijk visits Iguchi, who has his friend (and reformed burglar) Hasuno interpret for him. During his visit, Van Riemsdijk asks to see some of Iguchi's own art, and stowed away in his atelier, Van Riemsdijk is surprised to see the painting of the back of a woman in an orange dress. To Iguchi's great surprise, Van Riemsdijk tells him he has seen a painting with the exact same composition in the United States recently. Iguchi has never publically revealed this painting, so he doesn't understand how this could be, until he learns the other painting was found among the belongings of Yanase, a wealthy art collector who disappeared to America a few months ago: while Iguchi wasn't too close to Yanase, a lot of the other artists in the artists' assocation Iguchi belongs to did know the man well, as Yanase often borrowed money to artists in need. Iguchi then remembers that while he had been working on his painting, he had one day invited the members of the artists' association to his home, and that was the only time anyone could've snuck inside his atelier to take a look at his painting and plagiarize it. But why would anyone do that? Another mystery is the fact that behind scandalous pictures of a woman were found hidden in the frame of the plagiarized painting in America. Van Riemsdijk does like the painting however, and says he'll buy the painting if Iguchi can prove his painting is the original, and that the other is the plagiarized one.

Iguchi thus suspects one of his fellow artists must have plagiarized his painting and starts poking around together with Hasuno and his niece Mineko, an indepedent girl growing in modern Japan. It is at this time, Iguchi learns some of the members of his artists' association are involved in the forgery of art pieces. Suspecting the plagiarizing painter might be one of the forgers too, he tries to learn who they are, but then the investigation into that of theft, changes to one into murder: first Mineko happens to witness the murder of a woman in an abandoned shack in the outskirts of Nakano, soon followed by the murder on one of the artists outed as a forger. What binds these two deaths together, is Oscar Wilde's Salome: the woman Mineko saw, was dressed as Salome and the murdered artist's body was positioned in a manner to invoke King Herod. While Iguchi and Hasuno continue their investigations, more murders occur, but how are the plagiarized painting and the murders all connected?

I have to admit I was surprised when I first learned of the title of this book. In 2022, Yuuki Haruo published the excellent Hakobune ("The Ark") and in 2023, he published another book with a biblical theme: Jikkai ("The Ten Commandments"). I had expected this year's book to be something like Revelations, so imagine how puzzled I was when I saw the third book was... based on a play based on an episode from the Bible. I read Jikkai last year by the way and already have the review written and scheduled to be published in a few months, but as Salome's Guillotine is a fairly recent release, I decided to post this review first. That doesn't really matter story-wise by the way: while the three books all have biblical inspirations, the stories themselves are not connected at all (Salome's Guillotine isn't even set in the modern day, like the other two books). 

Pre-publication edit: Oh, and between me finishing this book and this post being published, I also learned that Salome's Guillotine is in fact not even the first book starring the pair of Iguchi and Hasuno! After reading this book, I picked another book by Yuuki from the to-be-read pile, which to my surprise starred the painter and burglar too. Turns out Salome's Guillotine was the third one already. So once again, I managed to read a series out of order...

Both Hakobune and Jikkai had very clear and easily understandable story concepts, the first about a group of people trapped in an underground shelter, and the second about people trapped on an island and being controlled through a set of rules, but Salome's Guillotine is very different. I have to admit at first I wasn't too charmed by the somewhat chaotic way the plot unfolded: the initial mystery is "finding out who the plagiarizer" is, but then we learn about forgeries, and then we have a plotline about Mineko just wandering about and stumbling upon a murder scene: a lot happens in the story of Salome's Guillotine, but often scenes seem to come out of nowhere, and the connection between one scene and another sometimes seems non-existent, with some events feeling incredibly random (the Mineko part for example). Even the obi (the strip of paper Japanese book often have with some marketing slogans on it) has trouble presenting a clear story, saying the book is a tale of "The death of a brilliant artist, the secret of a stage actress, cases of plagiarism and forgery and mitate murders (murders made to resemble/themed after something)." Compared to the very focused storytelling of Hakobune and Jikkai which you could explain with one sentence, Salome's Guillotine just felt disjointed. That said, it did invoke the feeling of a Taisho/early Showa-era detective novel like Edogawa Rampo would write, with mysterious or adventurous events happening in rapid succession to tell a more sensational type of story and considering this book is set in that period, I assume this storytelling style was chosen intentionally, but depending on the reader, it might feel like it takes a long time before the story starts to really focus. At the same time, this story is far more open than Hakobune and Jikkai, being set in the city of Tokyo and spanning a far longer period, so it doesn't feel so claustrophobic, and I did like that a lot, as you see more characters going about doing their business.

What is interesting is that mainly Iguchi and Mineko do try to present a lot of deductions and theorizing throughout the novel despite the seemingly disjointed events, (Hasuno is more the "I'll tell you when I am sure" type). Because so much happens, their deductions often focus on specific events, allowing for different types of deductions. We have some segments that rely on physical evidence and Ellery Queen-style of deductions, focusing on questions how people would use certain objects. Other parts, we see the detectives focus more on matters like the alibi of each suspect, or in some cases, even the psychology of the suspects. None of these parts usually allow them to point at one specific suspect with absolutely certainty, which can make these reasoning parts feel a bit "useless", but overall, the book does a good job at keeping the mystery reader engaged as it does attempt to show the reader how each part could be a part of the (admittedly rather large) picture.

Halfway through the book, I felt Salome's Guillotine was really the kind of book that could stand or fall depending on the conclusion and how it'd tie everything together, but I was already relieved when I arrived at the start of the conclusion and realized based on the page count Yuuki was going to use almost twenty percent of the total page count to explain everything. And he really did manage to present a great conclusion to the story! Books with such long denouements often tend to be in the Ellery Queen school, as they go over every event, presenting long chains of deductions and showing how each event serves as a clue to the solution, and this process usually ends up being the main focus/the most impressive part, but that's surprisingly not exactly the case for Salome's Guillotine. While it still utilizes some of these Queenian chains, the most memorable aspect of this book is absolutely the motive for the murders, and the way the motive forms the connecting tissue to all the seemingly disjointed events that occured throughout the story. It is a brilliant motive that seems so obvious in hindsight as it is dangled right in front of you throughout the whole novel, but at the same time hidden expertly, making so much of the events feel random at first. What is also impressive is that the motive is proven through Queenian deductions, something you don't really often see. While I think the underlying cause for the motive of the murders does require some guessing on the part of the reader, overall, Yuuki did a really fantastic job of explaining everything through motive.

And it also makes the very end of the book feel even more gruesome. The book's title Salome's Guillotine gains a whole new meaning once you make it to the end...

Salome no Guillotine is definitely one of the more memorable reads of this year. While the story is not as straightforward as Hakobune and Jikkai, the book offers an interesting adventure set in artsy circles in the Taisho era. While the book feels a bit chaotic at time, it all comes together in a surprisingly, but extremely satisfying manner just in time before the blade of the guillotine comes crashing down. 

Original Japanese title(s): 夕木春央『サロメの断頭台』

Friday, May 10, 2024

The Secret of the Knight’s Sword

Meeting you with a view to a kill
Face to face in secret places, feel the chill
"A View to a Kill" (Duran Duran)

This is actually the first post I have written in over four months...

Detective Conan manga & movies:
Part 1: Volumes 1 ~ 10
Part 2: Volumes 11~20; The Timebombed Skyscraper (1) / The Fourteenth Target (2)
Part 3: Volumes 21~30; The Last Wizard of the Century (3) / Captured in Her Eyes (4)
Part 4: Volumes 31~40; Countdown to Heaven (5) / The Phantom of Baker Street (6)
Part 5: Volumes 41~50; Crossroad in the Ancient Capital (7) / Magician of the Silver Sky (8) / Strategy Above the Depths (9)
Part 6:  Volumes 51~60; Private Eyes' Requiem (10) / Jolly Roger in the Deep Azure (11)
Part 7: Volumes 61~70; Full Score of Fear (12) / The Raven Chaser (13) / Lost Ship in the Sky (14)
Part 8: Volumes 71~80; Quarter of Silence (15) / The Eleventh Striker (16) / Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17)
(You will find the links to the reviews of volumes 70, 72~76, 78, 82~104 and the films Quarter of Silence (15), The Eleventh Striker (16), Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17), Dimensional Sniper (18), Sunflowers of Inferno (19), The Darkest Nightmare (20), The Crimson Love Letter (21), Zero the Enforcer (22), The Fist of Blue Sapphire (23), The Scarlet Bullet (24), Bride of Halloween (25) and The Black Iron Submarine (26) in the library or via the Detective Conan tag)
High school student detective Hattori Heiji is attending a major kendo tournament in Hakodate, Hokkaido and he hopes to confess his love to his childhood friend Kazuha while they're in Hakodate, as Hokkaido features several spots with beautiful scenery, perfect for such an occassion. However, at the same time, the wealthy Onoe Takuzou, an Hakodate inhabitant, has received a notice from the notorious phantom thief KID, who declares he'll steal his two antique wakizashi swords, which were once gifted to Hishikata Toshizou of the Shingengumi. While wondering why KID is after the sword, as he usually only targets jewels, Hattori and Conan (high school student detective Kudou Shinichi who has been turned into a child and is hiding his identity) manage to fend off KID. However, Onoe's attorney's dead body is later found in the city, with a characteristic X-slash across his chest. Based on his belongings, the gang deduces the attorney had illegally brought another Japanese sword back from Dubai to Japan on orders of his employee, which now has been stolen. They eventually learn the swords were all made by swordmaker Higashikubo Eitatsu. Onoe Keizaburou (Takuzou's grandfather) had more sets of swords created during the war, as he was a high-ranking supplies official and rumors have it he hid a treasure somewhere in Hokkaido, with the swords serving as a clue to its whereabouts. Besides KID himself and the murderer, who is seen wearing a fox-mask, more parties appear on the scene who seem after the treasure, starting a race against the clock to see who can first obtain all the swords and find Onoe's treasure in the 2024 theatrical film Detective Conan: The Million-Dollar Pentagram.
Wait... a Detective Conan film review... in this time of the year? Yes! This is the first time since 2012's The Eleventh Striker where I didn't need to wait for the home video release, but got to see it in the theatres again! First time I saw a Conan film in 4DX too by the way, and while I do complain about the recent films being so more much action-focused at the expense of the mystery plot, I do have to admit watching the modern films in 4DX is a lot of fun!

Detective Conan: The Million-Dollar Pentagram is the 27th Detective Conan film and marks a return of mystery writer Ookura Takahiro as the screenwriter for the film. I wasn't too big a fan of the mystery plot of his Detective Conan: The Fist of Blue Sapphire (2019), but I consider Detective Conan: The Crimson Love Letter (2017) as one of the best Conan films overall, especially mystery plot-wise, and at the very least, one can definitely say Ookura has an excellent grasp on the characters, often inserting very fun character interaction scenes throughout his films. Like The Crimson Love Letter, Detective Conan: The Million-Dollar Pentagram focuses on the relationship between Hattori and Kazuha, with the film providing a conclusion to a storyline that has been running in the manga for some years now, with Hattori trying to confess his love to Kazuha at a memorable spot. For the character-focused fans of the franchise, The Million-Dollar Pentagram has a lot of great moments, from seeing Hattori finally confronting KID after their first clash in 2019, to the "big secret" of KID which the trailers have been talking about (Thought to be honest I.... don't like the reveal... I really don't) and some cool cameos. What I do appreciate about this film in general is that like The Crimson Love Letter, it's so much more accessible than some of the previous films, which built too strongly on the complicated character relations in the series. With so many character being (double) spies, having their own agendas and complicated pasts, some of the films would demand a lot of a viewer with nil knowledge of Conan, while this film keeps things relatively simple, with a murder mystery/treasure hunt plot, plus a simple rom-com plot of "boy wanting to confess love to girl", and not expecting you to remember that in volume XX, this and that character discussed this together. The previous two films (Black Iron Submarine and Bride of Halloween I both described as films that do "... things I hadn't expected a Detective Conan film to do, but also didn't do a lot of things I expect, or at least hope to get from a Detective Conan film." In that sense, I felt The Million-Dollar Pentagram was much more like a conventional Conan film, being universally easier to see for a wider audience.

As a mystery film however, The Million-Dollar Pentagram is really not especially memorable. While technically it is a murder mystery, the plot is mainly focused on the treasure hunt aspect, with all the parties trying to figure out 1) what Onoe's treasure was and 2) where the treasure is. While fortunately, the treasure hunt isn't reliant on one of those wordplay riddles you often see in the series, the actual puzzle-solving aspect of this film isn't really interesting, and you'll probably just be passively watching everything unfold, rather than really trying to solve any of this yourself. The mystery of the murderer is fairly simple too, partially due to a very small pool of viable suspects, and while there's a very minor piece of misdirection I feel is executed quite well on screen, I won't be recommending this film on its mystery merits. Fortunately, I was watching this in 4DX, so I did physically enjoy all the outrageous clashes between the various parties while chasing after the treasure!

Still, I do wish we have we get a more mystery plot-focused film soon again... I really loved The Crimson Love Letter, as I think it struck a great balance between the plot and the modern focus on action. As always, we already got a sneak preview/teaser of next year's film at the end of The Million-Dollar Pentagram, and while it honestly could go anyway, the teaser did suggest a focus on a set of characters that usually come with pretty robust mystery plots...

I happened to have been watching the 2008 Gegege no Kitarou animated film before this film, where they did a lot of local tourism PR by having Neko Musume visit various places briefly in the film, and I did think The Million-Dollar Pentagram felt a bit like a PR film at times. When the Conan films are set in Tokyo, they are usually set in fictional Beika, or use fictional landmarks like Touto Tower and the Bell Tree Tower instead of the Tokyo Tower and the Skytree. This film however features a lot of real Hakodate (and Hokkaido) landmarks, and with modern visuals, these sights are presented photo-realistically, as compared to the more drawn style we see in the earliest Conan films. Not really a bad thing per se, but seeing a hyper realistic Hakodate in this film did feel a bit weird as usually, real-life locations are drawn in a more stylized fashion in the television anime series.

Oh, and while not really related to this film, but I might as well mention it here: I did visit the special Detective Conan 30th Anniversary exhibition that's travelling across Japan now. Pretty interesting to see the original drawings and all of that. While it is understandably very character-focused, so not especially interesting for those who are only interested in Conan for the mystery stories, there were some fun displays for the mystery fans too, like this showcase of the various murder weapons used. Would be fun to see more of these mystery-focused exhibitions. Imagine how fun it'd be to visit sets of murder scenes of famous mystery stories!

Anyway, Detective Conan: The Million-Dollar Pentagram is a film that is probably best enjoyed by long-time fans of the series, who want to see characters like Hattori and KID interact with each other (and the conclusion to Hattori's attempts at confessing his love to Kazuha), while also being somewhat involved in a murder mystery. The film is better enjoyed for its action scenes than the mystery, but at the very least, it's a lot more accessible than its immediate predecessors as it does work as a standalone rom-com too.  That said, I do hope next year's entry will be a bit more substantial mystery-wise.

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵コナン 100万ドルの五稜星』