Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Two-Way Murder

"I remember now," she said, "what that German word is. Doppelganger!" 
"At Bertram's Hotel"

I seldom read summaries before reading the actual book, so based on the title, I was actually expecting this to be set in Europe and be about twin castles....

Nihonmatsu Kakeru has become the newest member of the Sealed Door club, a somewhat private university club, originally only created to investigate rooms that have been sealed and kept locked in houses, usually because of some kind of history behind it. Practically speaking though, it's just a group of friends hanging out, with rather unique characters like Narumi, who considers himself a Great Detective, Sakie, who might or might not have paranormal powers, Oomaeda who can open any lock and moodmaker Yui. One day, they are visited by high school teacher Toomine Yukihiko, who wants the members of the Sealed Door to come with him on his visit to Himuro Ryuukan, the grandfather of Himuro Ryouka, a girl in his class, but who has not appeared at school for a year now due to bullying. Last year, he visited Homuro Ryuukan's home too, when Ryouka had only missed a few days, and was told she'd return to school soon, but she never came back. But now he has received a letter signed by Ryuukan, telling him to come and that he'll be able to meet with Ryouka again. Toomine thinks Ryouka might be held captive in her grandfather's home, and therefore wants people of the Sealed Door club there so they can find the room and get her out. Ryuukan also happens to be the president of the famous mystery club Next Door,  which self-publishes its material, one of the members being the famous mystery writer Aoyama Masayo, and Narumi agrees to come with Toomine right away the next day in his own car, while the others, under the guidance of Sealed Door president Godou Satoru, will arrange for a van so they can go together the next day. When Toomine arrives at Ryuukan's large manor, which lies near the sea far away from town, he learns the other members of Next Door are also invited here, as well as three girls from his school who were some way involved in the bullying of Ryouka. Narumi initially wants to sneak around to look for Ryouka, but is soon captured... but then the members of the Sealed Door lose contact with him.

The rest of the Sealed Door change their plans and hurry to the Ryuukan residence, but when they arrive there they find it completely empty. They then get a phone call from Narumi, and they learn something shocking. Narumi and all the others have been moved to an exact copy of the Ryuukan manor, but with shuttered windows, and no door out or stairs up or down. They have no idea where they are, or why there are here. While they are calling, they both stumble upon something horrifying: in the "real" manor, Godou finds two decapitated bodies in the bathroom, while in the same bathroom in the "second" manor, Narumi finds two cut-off heads: those being of one of the high school students, as well as of the taxi driver who drove her there. To preserve Narumi's battery, they decide to call again later while both sides look for clues, but when the next call comes, another death has occured at the second house, and it appears the murderer should be one of those in the sealed house, but who? Can the members of the Sealed Room find the second house and open the closed circle in Kirisha Takumi's Doppelgänger-kyuu - Akazu no Tobira Kenkyuukai Ryuuhyoukan he ("The Doppelgänger Palace - The Sealed Door Club Goes to the Ryuuhou House", 1999)?

Kirisha Takumi made his debut as a professional novelist by winning the 12th Mephisto Award, leading to the publication of Doppelgänger-kyuu. While it is the first novel published, the book starts off right away with Kakeru realizing there's some kind of backstory to all the members of the Sealed Door club which they try to keep a secret for now, so that is something that might be explored in later novels. I had never read anything by Kirisha yet by the way, so this was also my "debut" with his work and going just by this book, I'd say Doppelgänger-kyuu is certainly not a perfect book, and a lot of it can be attributed to it being a debut novel, but there are mystery-wise definitely interesting elements, which make me curious to the rest of the series.

The oddest part of this book is definitely that this is a closed circle murder mystery... but also not. Early on, we learn Narumi and all the other guests at Ryuukan's house have been moved to a sealed copy of that house, and they get killed one by one. This is pretty standard closed circle fare, but unlike most, if not all, closed circle mysteries, this book doesn't really focus on the suspense of such a situation at all. For the narrative doesn't follow Narumi in the second house, it's completely focused on the rest of the members of the Sealed Door, while they are working with the police trying to figure out where the other house is where Narumi and the others have been brought to, and discussing the murders that have occured both in the real and the second house. So unlike Jukkakukan no Satsujin (The Decagon House Murders), which also has a dual structure where you follow a closed circle situation on the island, but also an investigation on the mainland, Doppelgänger-kyuu focuses mainly on what happens in the "safe area", while we only get occasional updates on what is going on in the second house via phone calls. The tone is therefore also surprisingly light, as there's more focus on the (mis)adventures of Kakeru and Yui as they bumble around (with good intentions) to find clues, rather than a focus on a tense situation where people get killed off one by one and people starting to suspect each other. We only get to hear about the closed circle situation second-hand, and we basically never even got a real look at all the characters in the second house before Narumi called the others, so we don't really know them at all: we constantly see the closed circle situation via a filter, hearing about events after they have happened, and that makes this a very weird experience to read, if you're familiar with closed circle mysteries. It doesn't help the people in the second house are.... completely stupid by not following Godou's instructions about sticking together and not go exploring the house alone, so you feel no sympathy for them whatsoever, even if one death in particular is supposed to be somewhat emotional.

The investigation in this novel therefore focuses a lot on the background of the crime, as we aren't really there "on the scene": why has everybody been taken away to a second house, and where is this second house? I liked the mystery surrounding the location second house, even if the solution wasn't that surprising (it's revealed about 70% into the book), though I think it could have used more clues: a lot of the revelation ushured in by Godou depends more on pure intuition rather than actually clues we had seen ourselves properly. Somewhat frustrating is that Godou keeps on telling the police they are completely wrong and looking for the second house in the wrong place, but he doesn't say why or what his thoughts then are until the very end! He doesn't even have a reason to keep quiet, as he's constantly saying he wants to save Narumi and the others, but then refuses to elaborate. One part of the misdirection is daring, but it comes a bit too close to the truth, and I think a lot of readers will figure it out tat that point. The mystery of the why is not as interesting, a lot of it is basically speculation based on flimsy clues/indications, and then we just get a revelation which feels a bit unearned. 

At this point, you'd think I hate this book, as you don't get to see a lot of the core mystery of the on-going murders in the second house, while the focal points of the investigation we do get to see, are the less interesting parts of the mystery. That said, on the whole, I didn't think this an awful book though, as they are, as mentioned, also interesting parts to the mystery. I definitely found the parts relating to identifying whodunnit quite clever, even if it's told in a rather roundabout manner. You'd think there'd a better way to lay down the hints for that revelation, but as it is now, it can feel a bit chaotic, even if there are some points about it that quite good mystery-wise. It gave a really good reason for some of the murders, and it also ties nicely back to one of the underlying themes of the book. But it is definitely an uneven book, that feels very much like a debut novel.

While most of the characters barely appear in the book, and the focus is on the Sealed Door members, even then some of them barely get anything to do. The banter between the various members of the Sealed Door is fun enough I guess, but obviously, it's not enough to carry a mystery novel. It's very much a main cast-character-focused mystery novel, but in this case, it seems it goes a bit too far, not giving the core mystery as much attention as it deserved, as I do think the actual events/happenings are interesting and make for a good mystery novel, but it is just told in a weirdly limited manner.

Is Doppelgänger-kyuu - Akazu no Tobira Kenkyuukai Ryuuhyoukan he a perfect debut novel? Not by any means. Its focus on a kinda rom-com between the core members of the Sealed Door somehow mean it also focuses less on the mystery than you'd expect from... a mystery novel, and while there are clever parts and clues in the book, a lot of it is told in a rather meandering manner. But going by what I have read here, I do think Kirisha might be able to pull a tighter mystery novel, so I'll definitely read more of this series!

Original Japanese title(s): 霧舎 巧『ドッペルゲンガー宮 《あかずの扉》研究会流氷館へ』

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Murder by Matchlight

目覚めろ くすぶるheartに火を付けろ 
Wake up, oh sleeping hero
Light the fire in your smouldering heart
"Light the Fire in Your Smouldering Heart" (Kageyama Hironobu)

The title of this book (named after the title story) is really simple as a term, but it does sound cool for some reason...

As is common in Japanese police structures, whenever a crime is reported to the police, the local detectives will first take charge of the scene, but it's Prefectural Police Headquarters which will eventually take over the investigation: the detectives assigned to the Prefectural HQ are the the people who get sent across the prefecture to deal with crimes like homicide, and because of that, they obviously have more experience to deal with such investigations than a police detective from a local station.  Inspector Katsura belongs to the First Division of the Gunma Prefectural Police and has an excellent track record when it comes to solving crimes, though he is seen as an outlier: while he follows the rules perfectly and always utilizes the correct channels to get whatever he needs, he's also seen by his superior as someone who is a bit too brilliant for his work: Katsura is excellent at directing his team of detectives in order to obtain whatever information he needs to solve the case, but his detectives simply aren't as smart as him, as more often than not, Katsura will be able to solve crimes long before his subordinates even suspect what their boss had been thinking about all along. In Yonezawa Honobu's short story collection Kanenbutsu ("Combustible Substances", 2023), we follow Katsura as he solves five various cases his team has to handle, from a murder at a ski resort to a series of arson.

Sooo... this book probably has a good chance of being translated, right? Because after Yonezawa's success with the Hyouka series (specficially, its anime adaptation), his mystery fiction had been a bit neglected in the English translation sphere, but the critical success of his Kokuroujou led to it being translated as The Samurai and the Prisoner. Kanenbetsu is the first time Yonezawa has attempted to do a police procedural, but it was extremely well-received among mystery fans in Japan, ranking very high (or taking the top spot) in all the major end-of-year mystery rankings of 2023, so that should attract the attention of publishers, right? I know it attracted my attention when I saw it on all those lists, and as I enjoyed Kokuroujou enormously, I knew I had to read this one fast too!

As I started reading this book, I couldn't help but be reminded of Yokoyama Hideo's Daisan no Jikou ("The Third Deadline"), one of Yokoyama's best-known works and similar to Kanenbutsu, a police procedural short story collection. While both books are definitely police procedurals, I do have to say Kanenbutsu has a lot less attention to internal politics than Daisan no Jikou, so if you're not into that, you might still enjoy Kanenbutsu. I do think Yonezawa succeeded in presenting Katsura as the silent great detective within the format of a proper police procedural. The tone of these stories is very subdued and business-like: we get dry depictions of the crime scenes, characters are always introduced with age and current occupation, we never hear about the private lives of Katsura and his subordinates (thank you!), and the flow of each story is very, very deliberate, with Katsura doing every single thing step by step: sending a detective to check up on witnesses, have a detective contact some business, keep his boss up to date and ask for help for formalities when it comes to contacting other divisions in the police... At the same time, Katsura is definitely the great detective: while part of his brilliance comes from how meticulously he does his job, the sparks of inspiration he gets from seeing even the smallest clues definitely leads to the feeling of catharsis you get from "normal" puzzle plot mysteries when all the clues come together at the end, and I also like the book a lot for having a varied portfolio of crimes for Katsura to handle.

The book opens with Gake no Shita ("Beneath the Cliff"), where four men and women have gone missing one afternoon during a snowboard outing away from the regular course of the Kouge Ski Activity resort: one of their party didn't join them as she was still a beginner, but when they didn't return long after dinner, she and the pension owner decided to inform the authorities. When the first two men are found however, the rescuers stumble upon a surprising scene: the two men were found beneath a cliff, seemingly having fallen off, but one of them has been stabbed to death. Katsura's team is brought in to investigate the case, but they learn from the rescue unit there were no footprints leading away from the cliff when they first arrived there, which seems to prove that the other (alive) man must have killed his comrade. But this second man heavily injured his arms when he fell, making it impossible for him to hold a knife, and even more important: there's no sign of any weapon at the scene. Given the man, like the victim, couldn't move away from the scene, the weapon must be beneath the cliff if he's the murderer, but if it's not there, does it mean someone else did it?

While at first you might think this might be a whodunnit, you soon notice that, like with basically all the stories in the book, this is more a howdunnit or even whydunnit. The "most likely suspect" is usually the person to grab in these stories, but in this case, the most likely suspect is also the least likely person, for he couldn't have handled a weapon he doesn't even have, right? I think taken in a void, the solution to this impossible crime isn't very surprising, but Yonezawa does a great job at hiding it beneath the format of a police procedural, showing how Katsura moves step by step to eliminate other possibilities until he arrives at the one solution, how surprising it may be, that is possible. In the type of puzzlers I usually read, I think this solution wouldn't be overlooked for so long, but it works here because of its far more realistic approach, and I think it's a good showcase of showing how you can incorporate "more outlandish" murder schemes, and show them how not an eccentric brilliant detective, but the police would arrive at such a solution.

In Nemuke ("Drowsiness"), Katsura's team is not given any time to sleep, when Taguma Ryuuto, one of the major suspects in a murder-robbery, gets involved in a traffic accident in the middle of the night. Taguma was riding his van outside of town, tailed by two of Katsura's detectives. Because of construction work along the road, the car of the police detectives was stopped for a few seconds, while Taguma proceeded to the next crossing, when there's a big bang: Taguma's car was rammed by another car. The drivers of both cars are taken to the hospital, and after being awakened by his subordinates in the middle of the night to inform him of this turn of events, Katsura sees this as an opportunity, as if he can arrest Taguma for causing the traffic accident for driving through a red light, he could use that to also pump him on the murder-robbery. The following morning, hs team starts gathering witness testimonies from the people at the construction site, the corner convenience store and people living around the crossing, and Katsura soon gains multiple testimonies that say Taguma's van drove through a red light, but there's something bothering about the whole deal, but what? A rather interesting story, because indeed, you don't really know what's bothering Katsura so much even though it seems like an open-shut case, until he reveals why there's something wrong about it all. This is a great story for this particular format: I can't even imagine this working in those closed circle, logic-focused mystery stories I often read, but here, as a police procedural? Yes, it works, and while it might not be completely fair, I think it's surprisingly well-clewed, considering the twist Yonezawa is going for is really quite unique, but it really only works in this realistic setting.

Inochi no On ("A Life Debt") opens with the discovery of a cut-off human arm along the walking trail of the Kisuge Plains. It is clear from the state of the arm it's been here for more than a day, but it's still recognizable as an arm. The police is notified, naturally, and they start a search for the rest of the body along the plains. They slowly do manage to gather the victim part by part, finding legs and a torso and eventually... a head! The teeth are still intact and the man is soon identified as Nosue Haruyoshi, who had been reported missing by his son. Nosue's business was going to fold soon, so he had been lending a lot of money from a man whom he had saved several years ago: Nosue had found the man and his daughter below the mountain track they had fallen off, and the daughter was bleeding heavily. Nosue had carried the daughter to safety by himself, while getting help for the father too, who was of course indebted to Nosue. The last few years, he had lent Nosue a lot of money to keep the business afloat, but now it seems Nosue had went too far... But would someone really kill the man whom he and his daughter owe their lives? A cut-up body is the most "great detective puzzle plot mystery"-esque this collection gets, and the solution... is surprisingly close to the kind of solution you'd expect from such a story! As usual with these stories, Katsura soon focuses on the main suspect and during his investigation, things do seem to point to this man, but there's still some nagging feeling that not all is right. But what is it that lies behind it? I like the motive behind cutting the body up and leaving it along the Kisuge plains, as the goal sounds like contradictionary at first, but it really isn't, and it's pulled off really well here.

The title story Kanenbutsu ("Combustible Substances") deals with arson, a type of crime you don't often see in mystery fiction. For a week or so, somebody has been committing arson across town by setting fire to garbage bags which have been left outside at the disposal area on the streets early, in the evening before garbage day. The first incident was fortunately discovered by a passerby early, who then "borrowed" a bucket and hose from a nearby house to extinguish the fire himself, but since then, more fires have been discovered at garbage disposal areas, all with the same MO: setting fire to a flyer, which is then stuck into a bag of kitchen waste. Katsura's team is usually tasked with identifying a culprit after a crime has already been committed, but this time they need to find the culprit, but also prevent the culprit from starting a fire with deadly outcome, so every night, detectives are watching garbage disposal sites that are scheduled to be emptied the following day, making note of every suspicious person coming nearby, while at the same time, Katsura is also cooperating with the local fire department to learn more about the aronist's MO and checking up on known arsonists. But as Katsura learns more about how the arsonist is choosing their targets and committing these crimes, he feels something isn't quite right about this arsonist, but why? This is again more a story that focuses on whydunnit, as the identification of the main suspect is done via very, very mundane police work. The whydunnit is quite nice: there are a few seemingly contradictary actions taken by the culprit which are discovered while Katsura conducts his investigation, but the solution he proposes offers a very nice explanation for that, and because these stories are all very dry on the whole, the ironic twist at the end felt surprisingly hard.

The final story, Honmonoka ("The Real Deal?"), has Katsura and his team on their way back after a succesful arrest armed murderer, when there's an incoming call for available units to go to a nearby family restaurant, as someone has barricaded himself inside the restaurant. Upon arrival, Katsura speaks with a local detective and a restaurant staff member, and he learns the manager suddenly cried out for everyone to run from his office, an alarm bell went off, and that at least all the four employees made it out safe, as well as a few dozens of customers who were inside at the time. The manager himself however is nowhere to be seen, and suspected to be still inside as a hostage. When the hostage-taker shows his face near the window, a local detectives recognizes him as Shida Naoto, someone who had run into the police a lot when he was younger, though he supposedly settled down now with a wife and child. However, what attracts even more attention is the pistol-like object Shida was holding in his hand. Is it a real pistol, or a fake one? Katsura is ordered to stay put, gather information and try to ensure the hostage remains safe while the tactical unit prepares for deployment, but what can he do from outside? A fun story, as it's so different from the rest again! Katsura slowly reconstructs what was going on before the alarm went off by talking with the employees and some customers, and must try to assess how dangerous the situation is. But how is he going to do that? The puzzle of determining whether Shida's pistol is real, and finding a way for the tactical unit to enter the premise safely to subdue Shida seems a bit detached from the reader for the most part as a puzzle, but more mysteries follow in close succession as the story nears its climax, and they result in a story that is surprisingly satisfying as a puzzle too, and in terms of clewing and plotting, this might be the trickiest of the whole book.

Overall, Kanenbutsu is a really solid short story collection, and I do think Yonezawa really managed to pull off a nice fusion. I am quite surprised to see how formal this is as a police procedural, as you really see Katsura needing to file in requests to get information from other organizations, or you see it reflected in the way detectives from Prefectural HQ are seen and treated as "guests" at the local stations, but at the same time, the plots do deal with the type of twists you'd expect from puzzle plot mysteries, accompanied by proper clewing. I don't think the book is as memorable as Kokuroujou in general, but it's still a very good read, and recommended material!

Original Japanese title(s): 米澤穂信『可燃物』:「崖の下」/「ねむけ」/「命の恩」/「可燃物」/「本物か」

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Dread Journey

私は 私は あなたから旅たちます
At eight exactly, taking the Azusa 2
I will, I will, depart away from you 
"Azusa 2" (Karyuudo)

Yes, I know, reading a random Nishimura Kyoutarou novel is always just like doing a gatcha game. The chance on getting an SSSR is really small, and most of the time you'll just get a C. As he wrote over 650 novels during his lifetime, most of them focusing on the so-called "travel mystery" subgenre, it's not surprising most of his output is very formalistic, with very fast-paced and light stories, featuring elements of the Croftian school, with alibi tricks using trains, airplanes and other means of transport, with stories set across various locations and areas in Japan. That was in fact the reason why I picked today's book. 

I came across Nishimura Kyoutarou's Tokkyuu Azusa [Alibi Train] Satsujin Jiken ("The Alibi Train Azusa Express Murder Case", 1986) while I was looking for a mystery novel involving the Azusa Express and the city of Matsumoto, and not surprisingly, Nishimura had written a book about it because I am going to guess he wrote a book about every limited express in Japan that ran during his lifetime. The book opens with Inspector Totsugawa's subordinate Kusaka Junichi receiving a call from someone he had never expected to hear from again: once upon a time, he was all ready to marry Keiko, but she disappeared (with his money and an engagement ring) and with that, Kusaka learned a lesson. He's stunned when he hears her voice again at work, but it's what she says that puzzles him. She asks him to lie for her if he is asked what he was doing on a certain day, and he's to say he took the Azusa Express 7 with her to visit Matsumoto. As a police detective however, Kusaka can't promise her he'll lie, even though she says her life depends on it. When later Kusaka is called by a mysterious person who asks him about the day, Kusaka is indeed unable to lie for Keiko. Soon after, the dead body of Keiko is found in a park in Tokyo and she was seemingly tortured before her death. Realizing his refusal to lie led to her death, Kusaka confides in Totsugawa, and they soon realize Keiko had wanted Kusaka to provide her with an alibi for that day by saying she had been on the Azusa 7. They identify two major robberies that occured on that day in Tokyo for which the Azusa Express would have served as an alibi, but for which of these was Keiko trying to gain an alibi, and why was she killed?

Okay, so reading random Nishimura is a gatcha, and this one is definitely just a C pull.

Totsugawa's investigation rather swiftly allows them to identify which incident Keiko was involved with: a bank robbery. If Kusaka had lied about having gone to Matsumoto in the Azusa with Keiko, she'd have a perfect alibi for that time, but Kusaka didn't, and now his former fiancée is dead. But then another suspect in that robbery ends up dead, making it clear someone is killing off the people in the gang. Is it someone in the gang trying to make their own share larger, or is something else going on. Another mystery is the fact the other victim actually had been investigated by the police before, and he could provide an alibi... as he had been riding the Azusa Express during the robbery. So why do all these clues point at the Azusa?

Well, for no other reason but that it's in the title. I picked the book hoping it'd at least give me a glimpse of the Azusa Express and the city of Matsumoto, but I was rather surprised by how irrelevant they are for the story. For some reason, we have like seven or eight different times we see characters board the Azusa, but you don't get many scenes inside the Azusa, and you see even less of Matsumoto itself, even though they are all heading to that city! So if you were ever considering to read this book because of the title, I'd recommend find something else.

Ultimately, the idea of having multiple people pick the Azusa as an alibi is an interesting concept to get the mystery going, but the reason provided for why specifically Azusa is so meaningless and simple, it really feels as nothing but an excuse so Nishimura could use the Azusa in the title. The story then shifts to the question of who is killing the gang members, and the thing evolves into a surprisingly large conspiracy-level plot that goes far beyond just the bank robbery, but that's also a reason why the titular Azusa Express feels so underutilized in the book, as the train is basically only relevant in the very first chapters of the book, and afterwards, the investigation is about something else. And... I didn't really like, as you may have guessed. The book reads more like a suspense thriller, with especially the latter half having Totsugawa directly facing a diabolical enemy whom he tries to outsmart while the lives of people are at stake, and at that point, it's just so far removed from what I expected this book to be. I mean, the Azusa train isn't even used for an alibi trick, Keiko wanted to use the train for one, and the "trick" was just by having her former fiance lie! The big plot Totsugawa stumbles upon is interesting in concept, but it isn't an idea that is a good facilitator for a mystery story per se.

So yeah, Tokkyuu Azusa [Alibi Train] Satsujin Jiken is quite disappointing overall. It's barely a mystery story, and I think I could've even forgiven than somewhat if the book had actually focused on the Azusa and Matsumoto more because I wanted to read the book for that reason, but even that it couldn't provide. So definitely not one of Nishimura's highlights. He's definitely written better novels than this one, ones that are true puzzle plot mysteries, so you can ignore this easily.

Original Japanese title(s): 西村京太郎『特急「あずさ」(アリバイ・トレイン)殺人事件』

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

The Red Bull

"Come along, my friend! You want to see the Bull's Head, yes?" 
"Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars"

While this post won't be posted until 2024, I read this book in 2023. I tend to prefer shorter books, but I think read like three or four of these 1000+ pages books in just a few months last year...

After a strange arson incident at the Pasteur Laboratory, Nadia Maugars learns via her father Inspector Maugars and his subordinate that her old friend François Duval, who works at the laboratory, is back in Paris. They lost contact after he moved abroad, where he researches viruses. His return however is not one to be happy about: he had to return to Paris, because he is suffering from a newly discovered virus, which he had been researching and for which there is no treatment yet. Nadia visits François at the hospital, and he asks her to bring a report he had been working on regarding the new virus to his co-worker Pierre Madocq, who is currently in Athens. The thing is highly confidential, so he wants her to personally hand it to Madocq and he also gives her enough money to buy tickets tomorrow, and to stay in Greece for a while after she's done so she can have fun there. Nadia brings her friend Yabuki Kakeru, a Japanese student of philosophy and her tutor in Japanese, along, because she fears his life is in danger in Paris, as his arch-nemesis is in Paris. When they arrive in Athens, Nadia is surprised to learn Madocq is not there, but on Minotaur Island, a small private island off the coast of Crete. She's sent off to Crete ahead, while Kakeru has to make a phone call, and at Crete, she runs into another old friend: Constant, who disappeared a few years ago after getting too involved with the extreme left-wing student movement, but has now become a published philosopher. Nadia convices him to come along too, as Kakeru is not here now. When Nadia arrives at the village near Minotaur Island, she learns there are more people slated to go to Minotaur Island, including a doctor from Sweden and a few Americans, who are all invited by a "Laurence Bloom", even though the island is the property of one Paul Alexander, of the pharmaceutical company Biocross. On the day Nadia and the others are to arrive at the island however, a fellow guest of Nadia's hotel is found dead, having dropped off a cliff. The victim's name Dedalus reminds Nadia not only of Joyce's Ulyesses, but also the Deadalus myth (even though it's Icarus who fell), and it already gives her a bad feeling. Meanwhile, Kakeru has also caught up, but Kakeru told her to pretend to not know her, as for some reason, he's pretending to be the assistant of one of the other invited guests, a philosopher. When they arrive at the Deadalus House on Minotaur Island, they find a grand manor built in the style of a Minoan palace, with a big courtyard with ten bull statues. Nadia manages to hand the report to Madocq, who acts as the host as neither "Laurence Bloom" nor Alexander are present yet, but she quickly realizes the other guests have all been invited her for a secret reason, which nobody wants to tell her about. As the boat back to Crete won't go until the following day, she and Constant are offered to stay for the night too, but after dinner, one of the guests is found dead: the man seemingly fell of the balustrade on the third floor, falling right on top of the horns of one of the bull statues below in the courtyard. It could be an accident, they think, but when they discover one person on the island has taken off in the island's only boat and they learn the phone line's been cut, they suddenly realize this is really close to And Then There Were None. And indeed, one by one, people are killed on the island, but by whom and why? That is the question in Kasai Kiyoshi's Oedipus Shoukougun ("Oedipus Syndrome", 2002) 

It's been many years since I read Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu ("A Locked Room for Philosophers", 1992) by mystery author, critic and philosopher Kasai Kiyoshi. That was the fourth book in the Yabuki Kakeru series, starring Yabuki Kakeru, a Japanese student of philosophy who solves baffling crimes and mysteries through phenomenology, i.e. the analysis of structures of experience and conciousness and who because of that, usually doesn't start solving a case until the end because he needs to see the whole structure in order to analyse it. It was also the first time I read a fiction book by Kasai (I had read a few of his critical works on mystery fiction), so it took quite a while for me to get started on my second. Interesting to note it also took Kasai ten years to follow up on Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu with Oedipus Shoukougun. I didn't pick Oedipus Shoukougun because I wanted to read things in order or anything like that by the way (I still haven't read the first three books in this series). In fact, I wasn't even planning to read a Yabuki Kakeru novel in particular. I had been looking for Japanese mystery novels inspired by Greek mythology, so I ended up finding this one. Like the previous book though, Oedipus Shoukougun seems to be written really like the fifth installment of an on-going story, and especially in the opening chapters there are segments that are probably spoilers for earlier adventures.

One thing to mention right away however is that 1) this book is long (more than 1000 pages), and that 2) Kasai likes to write about a lot of topics that are not directly related to the mystery plot. Depending on how much you can stand the latter, this can be a very interesting book, or an extremely long-winded one. I personally tend to fall in the latter category, and I certainly didn't enjoy the book as much as I perhaps could have, because there's just so much chatter about topics that didn't really interest me, but your mileage may vary there. In a way, it's very similar to the writing style Shimada Souji also has in his Mitarai Kiyoshi novels after the first few ones or something like Alcatraz Gensou, where he just starts writing about whatever topic that happens to be interesting him at the moment in a book, making them bloated works. In Oedipus Shoukougun, Kasai's pet peeve is of course philosophy, and characters will sometimes have extended discussions on philosophy. It's a topic that doesn't interest me personally, so I found these parts extremely tedious, but I guess some people will like it. Still, I think some of these discussions don't really make sense. There's a part where the closed circle situation on the island has been going on for a while, and they fear there's a murderer on the island. While some of them go search the house to see if it's safe inside, two others remain outside to wait for the clear sign. And what do these two do? They have a philosophical discussion. Topics range from sex to why a society condems murder, and there are also other discussions regarding the gay community and other topics, but I didn't really like the constant derailing that much, especially as they are only tangentially relevant to the core mystery plot (and certainly didn't need to take up such a large part of the narrative).

Because of the above, it also takes ages for the plot to finally move to Minotaur Island and to have the And Then There Were None-inspired plot to be set in motion (I have books that were shorter than the whole first section of Oedipus Shoukougun). Oh, for some reason this book also makes numerous references to how their situation resembles "a certain famous mystery author by a British novelist" and even spoils that book, but it never actually says the title. The same with the Ulysses references. Anyway, once it gets started, the plot becomes a bit smoother. After the first death, the caretaker disappears from the island with the boat... but is surprised by the storm raging outside, which overturns the boat. Which effectively traps everyone here on the island. But the following day, the murders continue, with more people being pushed down into the courtyard and other attacks being made on people. There's even a simple locked room mystery near the end, though that gets resolved pretty soon after it pops up. Overall though, the murders are fairly straightforward, and it's more a question of "Who could've committed these murders alibi-wise ?" For all the set-up regarding the Minosian palace, bull statues and other references to Greek mythology though, it's a bit disappointing these elements weren't played stronger, as the few links there are, are rather weak and not extremely important to the plot. 

There are clever parts in the mystery plot but I think they kinda get buried by the amount of other things going and being told to the reader, and overall, I thought that as a closed circle murder mystery, Oedipus Shoukougun was just okay, with the potential for being a lot better had it been trimmed down and been focused more. A person obtaining a perfect alibi because of what he saw was done really well for example, and while not every part of the motive of the murderer worked for me, I think one part, the specific reason for why the closed circle was created, was an inspired move: it invokes a certain famous book perhaps, but here it is implemented in a far more natural way in-universe. Some of the clues pointing to the murderer were quite subtle too, allowing for Queen-like deductions, but I do think that due to few likeable characters and the constant derailing because Kasai wants to talk about something, the book overall feels tedious as a mystery novel, especially considering the enormous page count. If you just look at the mystery plot itself, it's a decently constructed story, with a few memorable moments, but it's not mind-blowing or anything.

For people who like their mystery novels to be a bit more pure literature-like though, I guess Oedipus Shoukougun might be interesting? It will certain tick those boxes better than a "straightforward" mystery novel. For me, this mode doesn't really work that well, and just looking at the core mystery plot, it's a good closed circle mystery with some genuinely good ideas, but in its current form, it just doesn't quite manage to capture me. So a book that will choose its readers, I think.

Original Japanese title(s): 笠井潔『オイディプス症候群』