Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Long Shadows

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" 
"Lacon: Or, Many Things in Few Words"

I like reading short story collections, I hate writing posts about them as there's usually a lot more work involved...

Last year, I reviewed three of the four books written by Kagami Masayuki published during his lifetime. Kagami was an active writer in a very short period of only about ten years, unitl 2013, when he died young in his early fifties. In that period however, he became known as a specialist in locked room murder mysteries, who was very strongly inspired by John Dickson Carr. In fact, his series detective Charles Bertrand was directly modeled after Carr's own Henri Bencolin, both sharing the same background as Parisian magistrates, sharing the same appearances and also having an American narrator. The books I read by Kagami were definitely the stuff Carr fans would love, not only in terms of tone and the type of tricks used to create locked room mysteries, but also because they were full of Carr references, a lot of them I, to be honest, didn't get exactly because I haven't read that many Carrs in general, but you could feel Kagami's love for Carr everywhere. In 2022, almost a decade after Kagami's death, publisher Koubunsha released the big tome Kagami Masayuki Mishuuroku Sakuhinshuu which also carries the English title The Uncollected Works of Masayuki Kagami. As the title suggest, the book collects the short stories Kagami wrote in his lifetime which had originally been published in magazines or anthologies, but had not been published as their own standalone release yet. The book collects these ten stories, but very interestingly, these stories actually form a wonderful cohesive collection. Basically only one story doesn't fit with the rest of the selection in terms of theme, which is amazing considering these stories were only collected together in one book because Kagami passed away and these were "left behind."

The book opens with Waga Tomo Henri ("My Friend Henri"), which is technically Kagami's debut work: while his first published novel is Sougetsujou no Sangeki ("The Tragedy at the Twin Moon Castle"), he already had a few short stories published irregularly in anthologies in the years prior.The story is set in 1900 and narrated by Nicolas, a student studying at Haverford College. His friend Henri is from France studying there, while the twins Alexei and Ivan are from Russia. One evening, Alexei, Nicolas and Henri are hanging out in one of their rooms in their dorm, when they hear a bang from the room next door, which is the room of the twins. They go the room, but find it locked. When they finally manage to break open the door, Ivan is lying dead in the room, having been shot. They find the sign "I" next to Ivan. They of course try to warn the campus guard, but then they learn a professor has also been just shot to death and it turns out, near the professor's body was left the message "II". How could the murderer shoot two persons at about the same time, of which one victim was in a locked room? A technically sound story, though I am very indifferent about the coded message, and I can't say the solution to the locked room shooting and the way the murderer managed to kill both men in a very swift manner are very surprising: you are likely to have seen variants on the same ideas elsewhere before, but the story is constructed in a competent manner and fun to read. It's not a big surprise who Henri is, but interestingly enough, a character from this story will also appear in many other stories in this collection, acting as connecting tissue between the various stories.

In Angoumei Matryoshka - Ulyanov Ansatsu Shimei ("Codename: Matryoshka - The Order to Assasinate Ulyanov") starts with a spy discovering a plot by the secret police Okhrana to murder the revolutionary Ilyich Ulyanov. Apparently, an assassin code-named Matryoshka has already been installed in the close circle around Ulyanov. While the spy manages to escape, he is fatally shot and can only convey the presence of the assassin, and their background in German espionage missions before he dies. Meanwhile, Ulyanov, his wife and a few trusted friends are staying in a safehouse, but who of them is in fact Matryoshka? When suddenly one of the people falls from the top floor window while burning, it seems Matryoshka has finally struck, but why was their target not Ulyanov? I like the idea of how Matryoshka is identified (the specific clue), as it's the kind of clue I like very much and wish I'd see more in mystery fiction, but it feels very detached from the impossible elements of the story (there's no synergy). The room from which the victim fell, was locked, but there was one sleeping person in the same room. Physical evidence seems to indicate this person was truly lying in bed sleeping while the victim was killed, set on fire and pushed out of the window, but why would Matryoshka go such lengths to kill someone who wasn't even the intended target? The answer to how the murder was committed, could have been clewed a bit better perhaps, and a diagram of the whole house would probably have made the thing a bit more convincing in terms of character movements, but it's an okay story.

Taru no Ki Sou no Higeki ("The Tragedy of the House of Barrel Wood") is set in Manchukuo (the Japanese puppet state located in Northeast China and Inner Mongolia) and is about a Japanese man Tooru (a big fan of mystery fiction) and his Russian girlfriend Natasia, who are going to spend Christmas Eve together. They are going to visit a museum in Lüshun during the day, while returning back to Dalian at night to visit Tooru's old friend Fedorov. Tooru and Natasia have a nice day in Lüshun, but after the museum visit, Natasia isn't feeling well, leading to them taking a train later and Natasia returning home after arriving at Dalian, while Tooru visits Fedorov alone to explain how they'll have dinner together another time. When he arrives at Fedorov's home, which is built with the crooked wood from barrels, he sees a set of footsteps in the snow leading in the house, but none out. He enters the house, where he finds Fedorov dead, having been stabbed to death! But there is nobody else in the house, though he does spot a set of clothes and a mask in the garden, but no footsteps, as if the murderer just vanished in the sky. The reader with some knowledge of Japanese mystery fiction will probably recognize the name Tooru, Manchukuo and Dalian immediately, so the "twist" about who Tooru is and why a lot of the elements of this story feel so familiar, will not be a big surprise, but as a historical pastiche, this is pretty good! Yes, this story does feel very close to a certain famous Japanese impossible crime story, but this story can get away with this because it is a pastische, giving a good reason for why it feels so familiar, and it has a few original elements too that are really fun if you know your Japanese mystery fiction. This is most of all a fun story, despite a rather tragic background story that cleverly ties into some of the earlier, but also later stories.

As the title suggests, Touya ni Shisu Onitsura Keibu Manshuujidai no Mihappyou Jiken ("Death on a Freezing Night - An Unpublished Case of Inspector Onitsura In His Manchukuo Period") is an Inspector Onitsura pastiche, based on the police detective created by Ayukawa Tetsuya. Onitsura worked in Manchukuo in the earlier days of his career (like in Ayukawa's debut work Petrov Jiken), and it's always cool to see this unique setting again, as the state doesn't exist anymore as it was. The dead body of Stefan Milovski is found in an empty house in Dalian. The businessman had gone missing a few days and his assistant knows right away who killed him: Stefan's twin brother and his mother. Apparently, the twins had been seperated soon after birth when their parents had to flee Russia. Because they couldn't take care of both children, they gave away one of the twins to a woman: Rosa became the mother of the boy she'd call Rubin. But while Stefan became a successful businessman with the help of his parent's money, Rosa and Rubin always had trouble making a living. Recently, they learned about Stefan and started asking for money, claiming half of the money Stefan made thanks to his parents' money, belongs to Rubin too. Stefan refused however, which may have been the motive for murder. When Onitsura examines Rosa and Rubin's alibis for the night of the murder however, he learns they were in a completely different city, to attend to the wedding of Rosa's niece. Onitsura is convinced they did it, but how could they have committed the murder in Dalian while being hours and hours away by train? It's an Onitsura story, so of course it's an alibi-cracking story with an emphasis on train tables! A bit easy to guess due to the presence of one certain plot element that is probably going to make the reader immediately suspect *something* has occured using that. While Kagami does add a few nice pieces of misdirection, you can't help but shake the feeling the main trick is telegraphed so early, the elements of misdirection just don't do enough.

EDS Kinkyuu Suiri Kaiketsuin - Kaiki Suirika ("EDS: Emergency Detective Solution Hospital: The Strange Deductions Department") is the weird exception of this book, the only story that is not a historical work with pastische elements and the one story that is not in any way connected to the other stories via crossover characters. The EDS is a "hospital" where the "Holmeses" (doctors) also have to detect the curious deaths they oversee. In this story, the Holmes-on-duty examines a woman who called the emergency lines because her boss cut her arm off. When the ambulance arrives there, they find the woman bleeding heavily, but also her dead boss. He has bruises on his neck that appear to have been inflicted on him by a hand squeezing his throat. When the ambulance people talk to the woman, they learn her boss was crying something about a cut-off hand roaming around the house, which had been attacking him: he also cut the victim's arm off because he was surprised by her and thought she was the hand. What is going on and why is there a hand walking around? This is almost a horror story, and the solution is incredibly silly. But I think it works in this volume, as the rest of the stories are so.... serious? Like, the other stories are very serious, straightforward takes on classic locked room mysteries, Carr's work in particular, so this story brings a lot of variety. I like the idea of the EDS too, I wish there had been more of these stories (I guess this story has some traits of the Department of Queer Complaints, but it's not really like that...)

Tetsuro ni Kieta Dantouri ("The Executioner Who Disappeared On The Rails") is the big Carr-Kagami crossover story: Dr. Fell is travelling with a new friend in a train, when he sees Superintendent Hadley travelling in the same train. Hadley and his subordinate Ames are tailing Jacqueline Midget, a key figure in a smuggling ring which uses the old routes from the international master criminal Baldwin, who was arrrested some years ago by Charles Bertrand (and who would play a vital role in Kagami's second novel Kangokutou). It seems that she's finally become aware the police are after her, so Hadley and Ames followed her on the train, fearing she's trying to escape abroad. Hadley and Ames have taken the compartment next to her, in the middle of the carriage, while the remaining car is occupied by a third traveler. Because Jacqueline has remained in her compartment the whole evening, Hadley has come to the dining car to get something to eat, while Ames is watching her. But then Hadley is informed something has happened: Jacqueline is dead and decapitated. Ames had been standing on the outer deck smoking, when he saw someone come out of Jacqueline's compartment and enter the toilet. He called out for the conductor, who was in his room in the carriage, who indeed saw someone enter the toilet. Because the doors in this car lock from the inside, Ames had to ask the conductor to open the deck door for him. But when they look in the toilet, they find it empty. Fearing something had happened, they enter Jacqueline's compartment, where she was found dead and decapitated. But where did the murderer go after entering the toilet, as the train was still moving at high speed? This is probably one of my favorite stories of the volume. Partially because of the crossover elements (it's a pretty impressive Carr crossover), but as an impossible crime, it's quite memorable too. While I do think it's a bit too technical/string-and-needley for my taste (it's just hilarious imagining what the murderer would have needed to prepare beforehand and how...), the construction of the mystery is great, and I really like "that prop" that was used to actually commit the murder. The story is also enjoyable without any knowledge of the crossovers taking place here I think.

Ungadoori no Shounen ("The Boy In the Canal Street") is set in Amsterdam just briefly before World War II. A girl who calls herself Hannah becomes friends with a young American boy, Ted Smith (son of Patrick Smith, the chronicler of Charles Bertrand), playing on the Prinsengracht in the centre of Amsterdam, when they see a policeman asking them about whether they saw someone pass by here. They learn a murder has occured in a nearby trade company, Koster Trading, located in one of the Amsterdam canal houses. Ursula is friends with both Hannah and Ted, and tells them her brother was killed. During business meeting with a new business partner, Ursula's father was talking with this man when they thought it was strange Emil (Ursula's brother) wouldn't come down. When they went up to his room, they found it locked and when they looked inside via the window above the door, they saw he was dead, having been hit on the head. But how could the murderer have done that in a locked room, especially as Hannah and Ted never saw someone leave the house? The trick is simple, but I really love how it makes use of something that is very specifically something typically Amsterdam. The story also becomes a rather surprising crossover, as I think a lot of people will soon recognize names like Hannah and Margot in this time setting, and I honestly had never espected to read a mystery story that would do a crossover with that person...

Sei Alexandria Jiin no Sangeki ("The Tragedy at the St. Alexandria Chapel") is actually the very first Kagami story I ever read over a decade ago, as it was included in an anthology I have. Set in Russia, it's about the death of a priest in the St. Alexandria Chapel who was hung from the very, very high ceiling. While I can appreciate this story more now, as I know see how this story ties back to the other stories in this collection, I'm still not a very big fan of it because it's just... mechanical as a locked room mystery, and even with the diagrams, it's pretty hard to understand what really went on there.

Kubitsuri Hanji-tei no Kimyou na Hanzai - Charles Bertrand no Jikenbo ("The Curious Crime at the House of the Hanging Judge - The Case Files of Charles Bertrand") is the one Charles Bertand short story that hadn't been collected in the short story collection, though it feels like it should have been part of it too, as this story too makes direct references to supernatural beings being responsible for a murder (in this story, poltergeists) like the other stories in that book. Charles and Pat are in England, when they learn about two curious deaths that happened nearby one week ago. Alfred Harbottle was a judge known for a lot of hanging sentence, hence his nickname of the Hanging Judge. He recently married a much younger wife, Catherine. As devouted believers, the whole family of Alfred, Catherine and his son of his deceased first wife, Jonathan, attend the service held a the chapel on the manor grounds each Sunday, but this week, Alfred was feeling sick, so he remained in bed. After the service, the butler, Catherine, Jonathan and the priest remained. They were ready to leave, when Catherine returned to the altar because something had been left there, but the next moment, all three witness swear a dagger just appeared out of nowhere, plunged into her throat! The dagger was a relic of the Harbottle family, which had a special design and said to defeat the enemies of the clan. Grieving for his poor wife, judge Harbottle blames the dagger for the death of his wife, and he decided to lock himself up in one of the rooms of the chapel, together with the dagger. For three days, he remained cooped up in the room, with food being delivered to this room, but on the fourth day, he didn't open the door. They broke the door open, which they also found sealed with tape on the inside, and in the room, they found the judge lying dead in his bed, the dagger plunged into his throat too! Has the Harbottle dagger turned against the people it was supposed to protect, or is there foul play at hand? The answer to the murder on Catherine is of the kind I generally don't like, and this is no exception. It could work with some exceptional clewing, but here it feels kinda cheap, even with the set-up and explanation to how it was supposed to work. The murder on the judge, of which the door was taped down, is a bit more interesting. While I am kinda indifferent about the dynamics of how the murder was exactly committed (this kind of trick is used a bit too often in this collection), I do like the exact use of the dagger, it is the type of "technical" explanation that didn't quite work for me in the previous story, but I think is much better in this one.

Jeff Marle no Tsuisou ("The Memoirs of Jeff Marle") is a direct sequel to Carr's own It Walks by Night, the very first Henri Bencolin novel. Which... I have not read. In fact, I have not read any Bencolin stories... While the book does not spoil the murderer of that book directly, it does touch upon several story elements that sounded important to me, so perhaps some readers will prefer to read this after reading It Walks By Night. Set after the book, it chronicles how Jeff Marle (friend of Bencolin and narrator of the stories) and his fiancée Sharon receive a threatening letter from someone from their past, whom they believed had passed away already.  They are instructed to visit at night Fenelli's former gambling establishment where the events of It Walks by Night occured. In one of the rooms there, which was locked from the inside and which Jeff and Sharon had to break open, they find the decapitated corpse of Fenelli. But there is no sign of the murderer in the room, so Jeff quickly calls for the police (while making sure Sharon locks herself up in one of the rooms to be safe). When the police arrives, it turns out there was another person in another room of the house: a Japanese tourist who learned about the earlier murder that Bencolin solved and became interested in the place. While the Japanese man might not be involved with the murder (and yes, like many of the stories here, if you have some knowledge of pre-war Japanese mystery fiction, you might realize who this historical person is based on his name...), there are other mysteries that complicate the matter, like the sighting of a flying decapitated head... I have to admit I couldn't enjoy this story completely because I kept wondering whether the things that were said about It Walks By Night were vital spoilers or not, I think the idea of a straight sequel makes so much sense for Kagami: his work is so full of Carr, and specifically Bencolin references, and he has already written stories directly based on Carr stories before, so why not do "straightforward" fanfiction? It's also one of the better impossible crimes of the volume, with pretty clever clewing about how the decapitation came to be (especially regarding misdirection about some characters' motivations) and with smaller elements like the floating head adding some depth to the mystery. I might have enjoyed the story better if I had known It Walks By Night, but it's a good mystery nonetheless.

Anyway, this was a pretty big volume so this post is quite a bit longer than my usual posts. I can defnitely recommend Kagami Masayuki Mishuuroku Sakuhinshuu/The Uncollected Works of Masayuki Kagami though! It provides a good insight in the writings of Kagami, and because it's easier to purchase now because it's still in print, whereas the books printed during his lifetime are already out of print, it is the go-to book now if you want to try out his work. Nine of the ten stories are also somehow connected with characters popping up in several stories (one character even gets their whole life fleshed out over the course of several stories), and that makes this more than just a collection of random stories. You also get a good idea of Kagami as a locked room mystery specialist, as basically all stories involve an impossible crime, and most of them are historical works too. At this moment, I have read all of Kagami's work except for his third novel, which, as mentioned, is a bit expensive on the used market, so I won't be reading it soon. I think I still like his first novel the best, but on the whole, he was certainly a very fun author to read, especially if you like John Dickson Carr, and he's dearly missed!

Original Japanese title(s): 加賀美雅之『加賀美雅之未収録作品集』:「わが友アンリ」/「暗号名『マトリョーシュカ』 ――ウリャーノフ暗殺指令――」 /「『樽の木荘』の悲劇」/「凍夜に死す 鬼面警部満州時代の未発表の事件」/「EDS緊急推理解決院 怪奇推理科」/「鉄路に消えた断頭吏」/「運河通りの少年」/「聖アレキサンドラ寺院の惨劇」/ 「『首吊り判事』邸の奇妙な犯罪 ――シャルル・ベルトランの事件簿」/「ジェフ・マールの追想」

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

No Thanks, Masked Manx

"I haff tvelve metchsteek."
"Fuck you!"
"Professor Layton And The Perpetual Torment" (Penny Arcade)

Man, these Sugimoto Ichibun covers remain gorgeous. And creepy.

Ootori Chiyoko was not only a silver screen actress famed for her beauty, she was perhaps even better kwown for her many, many husbands. By 1960, she had already married four times, and gotten divorced four times. While she and her first husband Fuenokouji Yasuhisa had one daughter together, Misa was mostly raised by her grandmother Fuenokouji Atsuko. This meant Chiyoko was quite free to pursue new men, and in 1960, she had already set her eyes on her next husband: businessman Asuka Tadahiro, who in turn is also quite in love with Chiyoko. In 1960, Chiyoko and Asuka are both in Karuizawa, the popular resort town, but they are not alone. Not only are Misa and Atsuko also staying in Karuizawa, but also Chiyoko's third and fourth husbands: Maki Kyougo and Tsumura Shinji. Last year, the same faces were also gathered in Karuizawa, but with the extra inclusion of Fuenokouji Yasuhisa. He however passed away then, as he had drowned in a pool after a night of drinking. It happens however Chiyoko's second husband Akutsu Genzou has also passed away the year before that in a traffic accident, which leads to some speculation about whether the deaths of Chiyoko's exes are really just accidents. These suspicions explode when this year, her third husband Maki Kyougo is found dead in his atelier in Karuizawa, having taken cyanide. Asuka decides to hire private detective Kindaichi, who happens to be staying in Karuizawa with a friend, to investigate the case, because the police are suspecting Chiyoko has something to do with the deaths of all her husbands. Kindaichi quickly points out it is very likely Maki's body might have been moved in the atelier, meaning he was murdered somewhere else, and the biggest clue they have are a bunch of matches of which about half are broken and the other half not, but what do these matches indicate? Is there some murderer who wants to kill off all of Chiyoko's husbands, or is there some other connection between these mysterious deaths in Yokomizo Seishi's Kamen Butoukai ("Masquerade", 1974)?

Kamen Butoukai is one of the later Kindaichi novels by Yokomizo Seishi, only followed by Byouinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie and Akuryoutou. Its birth was also quite troublesome. It had originally been planned and announced as a direct-to-novel release with the slightly different title Kasou Butoukai, but it was never actually released. Then it became a serialized novel in Houseki starting in 1962, but the following year, Yokomizo had to pause the serialization due to health problems. By then however, the Japanese mystery scene was already focusing more on the social school mysteries like those of Matsumoto Seichou, and Yokomizo seemingly lost interest in writing the Kindaichi Kousuke novels, which were basically the anti-thesis to the social school novels, being gothic, fantastical mysteries with a lot of theatrics and drama. But after the success of the manga adaptation of Yatsu Haka Mura, the re-releases of his Kindaichi novels as mass market paperbacks which ignited a genuine "Yokomizo Boom", he got interested again, and in 1974, Kamen Butoukai was finally finished via a direct-to-novel release. Twelve years is quite a long time to finish a book!

But as the book was started in 1962 and the social school boom had already been on-going, you can definitely feel some of that must have influenced Yokomizo, and this book (like the previous novel Shiro to Kuro) feel surprisingly "modern" compared to the more famous Kindaichi novels, which are all set soon after World War II, instead of 15 years later. While the war does still play a role in the book (the Fuenokouji clan is former nobility, the war had affected not only Chiyoko's career but also her bond with Misa, as Misa and her grandmother had to evacuate Tokyo during the bombings, meaning they lived apart for a long time), the world does feel less weighed down directly by the war, and while this story doesn't take place in the city, Karuizawa is still a very popular resort town for more rich people, again quite different from the isolated mountain village or island you'd be familiar with from the more famous Kindaichi novels. Especially for those who have read many of those, this book will feel strangely refreshing.

That said, the book does still follow the usual tropes of a Kindaichi novel, being very focused on digging into complicated family relationships with hidden histories, and these relations being strongly connected to the motive behind the deaths. Very "obvious" tropes like the dying message are used far less often usually. The meaning behind the matches is actually pretty ingenious, but completely impossible to guess before Kindaichi explains what it means. Even if you know what the clue is actually indicating, you can't possibly ever tie that piece of information to the matches, even if in hindsight, it makes sense. In fact, the piece of information it refers to, is something I have seen in quite a few mystery stories, and I think it is used pretty clever here. There is another clue indicating the same thing in this book that on a creative level has much better potential, but it used in a very weird manner, basically showing you the clue, and immediately telling you what it is, which takes away so much of the surprise, as it would have been much better if we had been first shown this scene, and only later been told what it actually meant. Now you get a very vital clue about 70% in the book, while the solving doesn't actually occur until the 90% point. The thing it indicates is used cleverly though: while it used in conjunction with something else that seems a bit obvious and tropey, these two elements work together well to create some misdirection, and I do like it as a clue on its own. It just could have been presented to the reader in a somewhat different manner to make the revelation feel a bit more surprising, and also earned.

Yokomizo does a good job at weaving a complex web of people moving about in Karuizawa around the time of the Maki death and how people's actions will influence other people's actions, though some parts feel a bit odd. The book actually opens with two people committing a love suicide together, but Kindaichi stumbles upon them and calls for help, though he sadly only managed to save one of them. The way this prologue becomes connected to the deaths of Chiyoko's exes is quite forced, and some might even think it feels cheap, as it basically forces one character to behave in a certain way because... the book needed them to do that, but also give them some kind of motivation for doing so, but it doesn't really work.

There are some nice Christie-esque twists in the plot, that worked really well here. In a way, the book feels very much like a Kindaichi novel, but at the same time, it also subverses a lot of the tropes, like via the more modern setting as mentioned, but also the role of Chiyoko in the book. Even the final confrontation with Kindaichi will feel somewhat familiar, though I think this is one of the better times in the series, as the actions of this culprit were really horrible and created a huge tragedy, but in a very different way than in other Kindaichi novels, while still very rooted in reasons that, in a roundabout way, seem to make sense from their point of view. I don't think this one is an absolutely must read (Yokomizo himself did rank it no. 7 out of his personal top 10 Kindaichi novels he wrote), but it is quite fun to read especially if you are already familiar with the better-known books (that follow the classic tropes).

So I wouldn't recommend Kamen Butoukai as anyone's first meeting with Kindaichi, but if you have read a few already, you might find this book very refreshing, set in a very different time period like Shiro to Kuro, and with some elements that feel almost subversive for the series. Not A-tier material, but a solid B. Despite me saying it feels subversive at times, this is still however very clearly a Kindaichi Kousuke novel, and there's plenty to recognize here (the complex human relationships!) and if you like that part of the series, you'll be satisfied with this book too.

Original Japanese title(s): 横溝正史『仮面舞踏会』

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Mr. Monk and the Miracle

Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus
"Il nome della rosa"

In a way, a game based on this particular book is kinda fitting, as a contextual framing story...

A few weeks back, I reviewed Umberto Eco's Il nome della rosa, which had a really memorable setting with its monastery harboring secrets and a labyrinth-like library. And I was obviously not the only one, as there are multiple games based on the impressive book. Murder in the Abbey is a 2008 game by Spanish studio Alcochofa Soft, based in turn on the 1987 game La Abadía del Crimen, a game which actually started out as an adaptation of Eco's work until they couldn't get the rights, and it was apparently quite popular in Spanish-speaking terrorities at the time. I haven't played La Abadía del Crimen myself, but as for Murder in the Abbey, it is certainly very, very clear it was also inspired by  Il nome della rosa. The game starts with the monk Leonardo of Toledo travelling with his apprentice Bruno: Bruno is to study at the Nuestra Señora de la Natividad Abbey, so once delivered there the two will part their ways, but on their way to the abbey, a boulder nearly falls on Bruno. When the two arrive at the abbey, they learn the abbot has need for Leonardo's abilities as a problem-solver: the gatekeeper has recently passed away in a tragic accident, but was it really an accident? The abbot even fears the death might perhaps be the devil's work. Leonardo sets out to investigate the curious death, but he is hindered by the fact he's not allowed in the famous library of the abbey, which is said to hold a wealth of knowledge, but only the abbot, librarian and his assistant are allowed to enter the library, and even copyists only get their materials supplied via the libarian. While Leonardo and Bruna poke around the abbey however, they learn the gatekeeper might have had information about the library that led to his death, and then more monks are murdered at the abbey. Can Leonardo solve the mystery of the murdered monks in Murder in the Abbey?

This game was re-released in 2019 as The Abbey: Director's Cut with apparently some puzzles changed/added, and that's the version I played. The Abbey: Director's Cut is a point and click adventure with a rather attractive visual style, using nicely designed 2D abbey backgrounds with cartoony 3D characters which have rather animated facial features. While Il nome della rosa could be quite funny, The Abbey: Director's Cut is a bit more comedy-focused, though it can be rather surprisingly dark like its inspiration, and it's at those times the art style can clash a bit with the topic of discussion. Discussions on burning heretics don't come across as serious the way these characters are designed and animated...

The atmosphere in this game in general is really good though, and you really feel like you're wandering around some kind of medieval abbey harboring a lot of dark secrets. While there's not that much variety in the locations within the abbey, and all the characters save for Bruno are middle-aged men (for obvious reasons), the game does a good job at characterizing all these monks. A lot of attention has gone to the character writing, with surprisingly in-depth conversations about the church, their views on their beliefs and all kinds of references to political on-goings outside the abbey: it's here where the game really feels very much like Il nome della rosa, presenting a rich world within the abbey, but outside it. This part is also elevated by some voice actors: the voice actor of Leonardo is particular is really good at the part. But there are also voice actors who do a pretty iffy job, with Leonardo's assistant Bruno being the one you'll have to listen to the most unfortunately (and it doesn't help that Bruno is written in a very vexing manner on purpose; and while that leads to an interesting twist near the end of the game, the manner in which this was brought still didn't help the impression Bruno was really irritating as a character).

As a mystery game however, it has the same problem a lot of point and click adventures have when tackling a mystery story, and that the gameplay mechanics don't really allow for the player to solve story-related mysteries, and you are often simply busy with inventory puzzles to overcome an obstacle, which then leads to the story-related mysteries being solved for you via cut-scenes. As a point and click adventure, you'll be walking around The Abbey, stealing borrowing objects and talking to other monks in the abbey to gain information, and often you'll have to engage in fetch quests in order to gain the trust of a monk or be allowed access to certain locations within the abbey. So then you have to use your inventory items to solve a puzzle so you can get the object you're supposed to get, and then.... you'll get cutscenes or dialogues where Leonardo will make deductions about the case without your help. There is no mechanic to allow the player to deduce anything about the mystery, all they have to do is help Leonardo get past the obstacles/fetch quests, and afterwards, he'll engage with the mystery alone. And that's kinda irritating in these kind of adventure games. I'd rather see the opposite: skip the fetch quests for me, just give me a mechanic that allows me to engage with the mystery mentally! I don't want to be copying keys or retrieve a book for a monk so they'll translate something for me, allow me to investigate the corpse, ask me questions that allow me to deduce the truth behind the case! Especially, as I mentioned before, I do really like the setting and atmosphere of the game. As a point and clock adventure, The Abbey: Director's Cut also has some pretty infuriating pixel hunt segments at times, with very fussy hotspots, so be prepared to use a walkthrough.

The mystery story itself is... certainly not Il nome della rosa, even if a lot of cues are taken directly from the book. A lot of moments and story developments will feel extremely familiar, though the exact details behind the mysterious deaths in the abbey are not the same as Eco's book. As so much time of the game is actually spent more on fetch quests rather than actually engaging with the mystery itself, I have to admit some parts of the denouement fell a bit flat for me: had we been given more time to talk with each character about motivations/backgrounds etc. instead of constantly asking them about whatever fetch quest you were busy with, the reveal of the culprit and their motive might have made more of an impact, but with most of the mystery being solved automatically for you during cutscenes, it felt a bit lacklustre. 

As an adventure game, The Abbey: Director's Cut has pretty nice production values and in terms of atmosphere, it's really good: though a lot of it is very very directly inspired by Umberto Eco's Il nome della rosa, it's cool you're able to explore a mysterious abbey yourself, the world depicted in the game is really interesting. While as a mystery game, I can't help but feel disappointed the player is mostly relegated to doing fetch quests, with the mystery being solved by Leonardo himself in the cutscenes and there are some annoying pixel hunting parts, I don't think The Abbey: Director's Cut is a bad game by any means, though I'd not immediately recommend it to people as a mystery game per se. But if you liked Umberto Eco's Il nome della rosa and was curious as to how it'd work as a game, sure, this is fun. That is definitely the reason why I decided to play it, and in that regard, it didn't disappoint.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Mystery of the Samurai Sword

"For all who take the sword will perish by the sword."
"Matthew 26" (New Revised Standard Version)

Reading these books does bring back memories as while Spiral was far from the first anime I ever saw, it was one of the first series I encountered once I started to actually look for mystery anime series after Conan and Kindaichi Shounen.
Ayumu, piano and deductive prodigy, solved two murder cases that occured at his high school, but never had he expected to find himself dueling a teacher of his school. Kuromine Kiriko is one of the best swordfighters in Japan and now Ayumu, who has never even picked up a sword in his life before, is standing in a dojo, facing this terrifyingly cold martial artist. Ayumu is to win one point by hitting Kiriko in one of the vital points of Kendo, but how is a complete amateur going to win even one point against a swordmaster? The reason why Ayumu is in this predicament? The murder on Sakurazaki Kengo. Kengo and Kiriko had been Kendo-rivals since their youth and had been polar opposites. Kengo fought with passion and would overwhelm his opponents with his blazing energy, Kiriko fought calculated, striking with cold preciseness. Both also happened to enroll in the same dojo, and were the top students there. Jinpachi, the master of the dojo had to decide who would become the next master and inherit the centuries-old sword Yuugao. While it was clear Kengo, who was not only dating the master's granddaughter, but with his warm personality, was obviously the better "people's person" when it came to leading a school, Kiriko in the end was the better swordsman and out of the many duels between Kengo and Kiriko, it was usually Kiriko who became the victor. However, when the master had Kiriko and Kengo have one final duel to win Yuugao, Kengo managed to win, and with that, he'd became the next master. Seven months ago, Jinpachi handed Kengo the sword Yuugao. While Jinpachi had to go to the hospital afterwards, his granddaughter of course celebrated the occasion with Kengo, and even Kiriko stopped by to congratulate him. However, the following morning, Kengo's dead body was found in a burning car, a stake having been driven through his chest. The murderer was never caught, even though Himeko is sure Kiriko killed her brother. And now seven months later, Kiriko is set to receive Yuugao, as Jinpachi also passed away in the meantime and the dojo needs a new master. The police never managed to find evidence Kiriko killed Kengo, so Himeko at least want to damage his reputation as a swordmaster by winning a point on him, but Ayumu decides to look in the case, as he perhaps can figure out how Kiriko killed Kengo despite having an alibi, but he then finds himself having to fight Kiriko himself... Can Ayumu win this duel and prove who killed Kengo in Shirodaira Kyou's Spiral ~ Suiri no Kizuna 1: Swordmaster no Hanzai ("Spiral ~ The Bonds of Reasoning 1: The Crime of the Swordmaster" 2001)? 
Spiral ~ Suiri no Kizuna or Spiral ~ The Bonds of Reasoning, the mystery(-themed) manga created by writer Shirodaira Kyou and artist Mizuno Eita, was about Ayumu, whose brother Kiyotaka disappeared two years ago after a final phone call with Ayumu where he mentioned the phrase "Blade Children". At the start of the series, Ayumu, who like his brother is a prodigy in both the piano and reasoning, gets involved in a murder case that occurs at his school, but with the help of the school newspaper club president Hiyono, he manages to prove his innocence, only to learn that this murder involved the Blade Children. This spin-off book was the first of four to be released, and is set extremely early in the series. It basically has no connections whatsoever with the main series save for the presence of Ayumu and Hiyono and tonally, it's also fairly different, so it really feels like a spin-off.

While this is the first novel, I have already read the second and third ones because I don't read books in order, so I already expected this book to be a bit different in tone compared to the main series. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised by the media res opening scene where Ayumu faces Kiriko in a Kendo duel where Ayumu has to deduce his way to winning a point against a swordmaster. This is the type of "logic battle" we often saw in the main series, where Ayumu had to outsmart his opponents in life-or-death games involving bombs, guns or... a ball game, so this scene felt very much like Spiral. Like in those situations, Ayumu can actually logically deduce what to do in a Kendo duel, and while this sounds weird at first, he comes up with a very logical conclusion to what to do in this duel in order to win a point over Kiriko. It all makes surprisingly sense, and is cleverly clewed in a fair way, which you wouldn't expect for a sword fight, which makes it all the more fun. It also ties in well with the past problem about Kengo's murder, because if you figure that out, it gives you strong hints about Kiriko's actions in the duel, so those parts are really well integrated.
Like the other novels, this book consists out of one short novella (the titular The Crime of the Swordmaster) and two short stories, so ultimately, the main story isn't that complex. The Kengo murder is... okay, considering it's a short story. I think one part of the misdirection is a bit too weak, and once you realize what that misdirection was intended to do, you also know the how and why behind Kengo's death. So it's a bit short and straightforward as a mystery story. It also depends on a few characters acting in certain ways to have this mystery work in the first place, though I think the motivation for these characters is supported well enough. But as a perfect alibi story, it's fairly weak, and I think the way it ties back to the duel scene, is the more memorable part of this book.

The book also includes two stories which were originally published online, which focus on Ayumi's brother Kiyotaka when he was a police detective. The stories were originally published in two parts, a Problem and Solution part, so I suppose the idea was you had a week or something like that to guess who did it between the posting of the first and second parts. While they are okay short mystery stories, one about a woman being killed by a jellyfish stuffed in her mouth, and the other about a braindead woman who'd die anyway being stabbed in the heart, I don't think they really work well in this format of "guess the solution", because the type of mystery these stories are about aren't really that straightforward. Ellery Queen-esque reasonings where you cross off suspects off a list one by one work better for these kind of puzzle challenges I think. I do think the second story, about the stabbed braindead woman, was good as a mystery story, just not as one that is intentionally split up in two parts.

Overall, I'd say Spiral ~ Suiri no Kizuna 1: Swordmaster no Hanzai is a pretty decent first spin-off novel. While it is still quite different from the main series, I'd say that of the three I have read now, it comes closest to the tropes we know of the main series, so it feels the most as part of the Spiral world. As a mystery story, the second one is the best, but it also feels barely connected to the main series. Anyway, one more to go!

Original Japanese title(s): 城平京(著) 水野英多(イラスト) 『小説 スパイラル~推理の絆1 ソードマスターの犯罪』

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

In Search of the Black Rose

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet"
Romeo and Juliet"

This was the first non-Japanese book review scheduled for this year...  until I moved Lindongzhiguan up to the first post of the year. Oh well.

It is in the year 1327 when friar William of Baskerville and his apprentice Adso of Melk travel to a Benectidine monastery in Northern Italy, The monastery is to be "neutral grounds" where representatives of Pope John XII and the Franciscans will debate the theological discussion regarding the poverty of Jesus, as ever since the Franciscans proclaimed this point, they have been made a target by the Pope. When William arrives at the abbey however, they are informed that the monk Adelmo has passed away, having seeminly fallen from a tower of the library at the top floor of the aedificium, but as the windows were all shut, it is unlikely Adelmo committed suicide, as people seldom tend to shut the windows behind them after jumping down. The abbot of the monastery asks William, a former inquisitor, to investigate the case, and preferably, before the big discussion starts. William's investigations brings him contact with a diverse casts of monks who live in the monastery, from a blind old monk who despises laughter to a seemingly cooperative herbalist and a often-grumbling glazier, who all occassionally have their own theological discussions with each other or William. William's probings into Adelmo's life, who might not really have been celebate thanks to his fellow monks, also turn his attention to the library of the monastery. The aedificium is basically a fortress, and the library is at the very top. The library houses an immense treasure cove full of knowledge, with books and manuscripts collected from the entire world, some even considered heretical or of the devil, but too valuable to dispose off. Monks copy and translate manuscrupts in the scriptorium on the second floor, but the library itself is only accessible to the librarian and his assistant: monks have to apply for a manuscript, and it's only the librarian who can give permission, and who can even find his way through the maze that is the library, as the top floor is designed as a mystifying labyrinth filled with books and manuscripts. But soon, more curious deaths occur in the monastery, from a monk found hurled face down in a vat of pig's blood to a monk's brain being crushed with an orb. William soon detects a pattern between the deaths, but can he find the murderer in time in Umberto Eco's debut novel Il nome della rosa ("The Name of the Rose", 1980)?

Il nome della rosa is one of those books I had always been aware of, but never got started on. I knew the book took on the form of a mystery novel, but was also about a lot of other topics and themes, and certainly closer to "serious literature" than most of the fiction I read. I have not seen the film, but the idea of a medieval mystery set in a monastery sounded fun, even if I already knew it might not be the actual focus of the book. I have seen the book also mentioned in the context of "anti-mysteries" in Japanese fiction, like Kyomu he no Kumotsu or Maya Yutaka's work like Tsubasa Aru Yami and Natsu to Fuyu no Sonata, books that took on the form and tropes of a "classic" mystery novel, but also use it to discuss very other themes or even the flaws and trappings of the mystery genre itself. While those kind of books seldom end up as my actual favorite books, I do find them interesting and captivating to read once in a way, perhaps exactly because 90% of what I do read is straightforward mystery fiction. A friend of mine read the book a while back and was really enthusiastic about it, which brought the book to my attention again, and in a manner extremely fitting to Il nome della rosa, I happened to come across the book at my local little free library, so I picked it up without any hesitation, because I really needed to know what it was about.

And indeed,  Il nome della rosa is about a murder mystery, but also not. Though I'd say claiming it's not a true murder mystery at all, would be wrong: it is most certainly a murder mystery, and yes, while the book is also about a lot of other themes, especially theological discussions, those themes are used to support the murder mystery, and are definitely what elevate the mystery elements of the book. To turn it around: if this book didn't cover those themes and you had the bare-bones tricks and explanation behind the murders, you'd have a very average murder mystery, as a lot of it isn't really surprising or even original taken on their own. But Eco manages to weave these murders so very well with the background of the monastery, the monks and their motives and beliefs, Il nome della rosa becomes a very captivating work that thematically, is very impressive for a mystery novel.

Atmosphere is absolutely fantastic too. The medieval monastery really comes alive in the book, which is presented as a translation of translations of a manuscript originally written by Adso decades after the events, adding a cool book-in-book context. While the prose can a bit wordy (Adso must really be into doors to describe them in such detail), the presentation of how monks had to live in a monastery, how monks from various backgrounds (beliefs/schools) would interact with each other and of course the political struggles between factions of the Church are all very memorable. The actual theological discussion regarding Jesus' poverty for example is dense, but it's surprisingly funny if you make it through. The prose, interspersed with Latin phrases and where people often go monologuing or debating philosophical matters, is dense, and takes a while to get used to, and even then the book's not a very easy read, but it's also done to imitate the style of writing, so it's something you'll have to live with. I personally think that if the murder mystery plot was the absolute most important thing for this book, a lot of trimming would have been better without sacrificing on its themes, but understanding that is not what the intention was, I can let it slide. At the center of what gives this book its amazing vibe is the library: an almost magical place, which houses knowledge from all across the world, on the top floor of a fortress designed as a labyrinth. While I found the way the book leads William and Adso to investigating the library a bit too direct (there were no real direct clues leading to the library), the passages of them trying to make sense of the library are really cool. It's a bit disappointing the book isn't really trying to give the reader a chance to penetrate the secrets of the library themselves, and a lot of the mystery revolving around the library is sadly enough not synergetically connected to the murders, but as a atmospheric prop, it does its job very well.

As said, the mystery behind the murders taken on their own are not extremely complex or surprising. A lot of the deaths are incredibly straightforward (and William deduces the truth of some of them even before the readers gets any time to do anything), while a certain trick used for some other murders is unlikely to really catch any seasoned mystery reader off-guard, as it's... like the answer of one of those short one-page mystery quizzes you'd sometimes see. Yet, there's a lot to like here. I love the thematics behind the murders (the pattern that William picks up on) and the reason/explanation behind the pattern is also great: it fits perfectly with some of the themes this book handles and which had been slowly popping its head once in a while, and I like the sheer bombastic appeal of it. I have read other mystery stories that tackle the exact same pattern, that take it more seriously, but I think it works very well in Il nome della rosa, both in the "world of the book" as well as a major theme.

But it's definitely the motive for the crimes that works best in this book. As mentioned above, the characters (mostly monks) are all clearly defined by their beliefs and it's their actions that set things in motion. Sometimes it's the flaws of their beliefs, or flaws as them as a human being that moves things, sometimes it's their strength of their beliefs or strenghts as human beings which ironically sets the wheels of death in motion, but it's built-up to very convincingly in this novel. While I personally do think some of the dialogues (conversations/discussions) on philosophical questions go on longer than actually necessary, they do tie back to the mystery, making Il nome della rosa a very humanistic mystery despite it's very gothic, horror-esque apppearences. At the same time, it does definitely also touch upon anti-mystery themes, with William of Baskerville (obviously inspired by Sherlock Holmes) being both a brilliant detective, but also a flawed detective who certainly doesn't do everything perfectly in this novel. Readers of late Ellery Queen works or Maya Yutaka will definitely find a lot to like here, as the book does explore the theme of a flawed detective quite well, especially as it again ties back to themes that apply to most characters in the book. Other themes like the search for knowledge and truth, that of course are very important to mystery fiction in general, also become relevant, and all have great synergy with the motive behind the deaths. I mentioned earlier the library elements of the book didn't have much synergy with the mystery plot: in a way, the library is a symbol for the mystery, but it is surprising how the themes do really synergize well with each other and the deaths. Seen as such, Il nome della rosa is a great mystery.

I do think I liked Il nome della rosa a lot more already the day after finishing the actual book, though I already liked it then. While purely seen from a mystery perspective, I think some elements are just too longwinded, while elements like the connection of the library to the mystery and the tricks behind the deaths are a bit disappointing in their shallow execution, I think that overall, this is a very memorable mystery novel, as it is thematically very strong, and pulls off some things (the pattern!) mystery-wise precisely because it is because of these themes, and other books might have had more trouble with it. It's not the easiest book to get through and it is certainly not as straightforward as most of the mystery novels I usually read, but definitely worth a read.

And now I will bring this book back to the little free library so someone else may seek the knowledge herewithin.

Original Italian title: Umberto Eco " Il nome della rosa"