Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Designs in Crime

I will well and faithfully serve Her Majesty and Her Heirs and Successors according to law as a police officer, I will obey, uphold and maintain the laws of the Colony of Hong Kong, I will execute the powers and duties of my office honestly, faithfully and diligently without fear or favour to any person and with malice or ill will towards none, and I will obey without question any lawful orders of those set in authority over me.
"Hong Kong Police Oath"

I myself have also worked on books with titles that aren't straight translations from the original source title, but with slightly different titles, but sometimes, the change in titles of translated versions seems rather... extreme, and there's not even a hint of the original title left. What's even more vexing is when the original title can't even be found on the copyright page....

In the five decades of his life that Superintendent Kwan Chun-dok had dedicated to the Hong Kong Police Force, the man had acquired the reputation of having the best mind in the whole force, with his colleagues referring to him with nicknames like the "Crime-solving machine", "Eye of Heaven" or "Genius Detective". Kwan had seen it all: from the 1967 leftist riots of those who opposed British colonial rule, to the showdown with the two Shek brothers, the most wanted criminals in the late eighties and the uprise of technology and information as weapons used by the underworld in the new millenium. Even after the official end of his career, Kwan Chun-dok remained retained by the Hong Kong Police Force as a consultant, as his analytical gifts were too precious to give up. And even on his death bed, Kwan seems to be invaluable to the Hong Kong Police Force. As Inspector Lok seeks the help of his mentor one last time in what seems to be an unsolvable case, we also turn back in time to see some of Kwan's past exploits in Chan Ho-Kei's 2014 novel 13.67, which has been released in English as The Borrowed.

How susceptible are you for hype? Chan Ho-Kei's 13.67 from Taiwan was published last year in Japanese, and it was extremely well received with both mystery readers and authors, and saw loads of authors like Ayatsuji Yukito heap praise upon the novel. Seeing the title pop up all the time of course piqued my interest, and I learned the book had already been available in English for about two years with the completely different title The Borrowed, while it was also available in various European languages (often with the title Hongkong Noir). It was also then that I realized that I actually already had a book lying around by Chan Ho-Kei, the Hong Kong-born, but Taiwan-located author who also goes by the English name Simon Chan. The Man Who Sold The World (2011) had won the second Soji Shimada Award and my own take on the book was that it was an okay, but not exceptional mystery novel that did had an interesting, not-often seen setting with Hong Kong, so while I was not completely sold on Chan's mysteries, I was still planning to read 13.67/The Borrowed some time. And some time is now.

And to start with the conclusion: this is indeed a great interlinked short story collection! The original title 13.67 refers to the five decades worth of Kwan's adventures the reader is presented with: the first story is set in the year 2013, and each subsequent story jumps back in time, to an earlier period in Kwan's long career, until it ends back in 1967, in the formative years of Kwan as a detective. This plot device of the reverse chronology really gives this book its flavor: the first time we see Kwan, he's in his dying days, but we do learn about his reputation. Each following story jumps back in time and in his career, telling us more about him and his working methods. It's also neat to see characters or references pop up as we go back in time: in the 2013 story for example, we see Inspector Lok as a capable detective who would make his mentor proud, but as we return back in time we see how he was in his rookie days. Or what at first seems to be an off-hand reference to some exploit in Kwan's past career suddenly turns out to be the subject of the next story in real time. As we jump back in time, we also see Hong Kong change of course, and technological advancements are also rewinded, resulting in interesting, differing conditions per story.

What makes The Borrowed really a satisfying read is how it really succeeds in marrying the social school of mystery fiction with the classic puzzle plot. The reverse chronology is a way for Chan to show the tumultuous history of Hong Kong: sociopolitical issues like (Western) British citizens living in Hong Kong, the 1997 Handover of Hong Kong and the aforementioned 1967 Leftist Riots play an integral part in the stories, and they provide unique backgrounds and motives. But while Chan does delve into these unique socio-historical issues to Hong Kong, he doesn't forget to actually plot and clew a proper mystery. While the presentation of these stories are definitely set in the social school's distinct realism, the actual core mystery plots are what you'd expect from classic puzzle plot stories, with ingenious tricks used by criminal masterminds and a great police detective in the form of Kwan who calmly analyzes all the clues available and reasons his way to the solution.

The Borrowed is brimming with variation, as Chan skilfully uses the changing time periods of his stories to write different type of mystery stories. The opening story for example, The Truth Between Black and White, has Superintendent Kwan bed-ridden and in a coma when Inspector Lok gathers all the suspects of what seems to be an-inside-job-made-to-look-like-robbery inside Kwan's hospital room. As Kwan himself can't directly communicate anymore, a special device that can read brain waves is attached to his head, allowing the man to move a cursor to either YES or NO on a display. What follows is a unique kind of armchair detective story, as Kwan has to lead Inspector Lok's investigation while only being able to indicate YES or NO. While the scale of the conclusion of this murder case is a bit big for an opening story I think, it serves as an interesting introduction to the character of Kwan.

And as I said, one thing this book definitely offers is diversity. Prisoner's Honour (set in 2003) for example deals with what might become a gang war between two rivaling triads and the attack on a female pop singer enjoying the patronage of one of the triad bosses. While this might sound like some hardboiled gangster movie story with the police desperately trying to keep things in control, the conclusion provides a surprisingly logical solution to the problem. The fifth story, Borrowed Place (set in 1977) on the other hand deals with the kidnapping of a British child for ransom money, while the finale story deals with some bomb terrorists in the 1967 Leftist Riots. Both stories too are good examples of stories that you wouldn't immediately connect to a properly clewed puzzle plot mystery based on the premise alone, but that do manage to scrath that itchy craving for logical puzzle plots perfectly.

The best stories are the two in the middle: The Longest Day (1997) starts with the escape of the convicted Shek Boon-tim during a hospital visit. It was Kwan who got him in prison years ago, but it seems Shek was intent on sullying Kwan's last day before his retirement. While the Hong Kong Police Force is busy looking for the feared criminal, Kwan's disciple Lok is also busy working on a series of acid attacks in Hong Kong, with an unknown person throwing acid at unsuspecting shoppers from flat building roofs. The deductions of Kwan of how Shek managed to escape his guards and then elude the police chasers are properly clewed, while he also manages to make sense out of Lok's case. The Balance of Themis is set in 1989 and also involves the Shek brothers. In 1989, the (then Royal) Hong Kong Police Force was staking out the Ka Fai Mansions, as they knew younger brother Shek Boon-sing was hiding in a room there with two other accomplices, awaiting the arrival and orders of the gang's mastermind Shek Boon-tim. But somehow the gang found out they were being observed, and in the subsequent shoutout in the building, not only all three criminals were shot dead, but also six innocent bystanders, and policemen were also injured. Not only had the stake-out turned into a total failure, it appears there was a mole within the police, as in the following investigation, a handwritten note was found in the gang's hang-out that warned the criminals to flee at once, turning this into an Internal Affairs matter. The story has some neat "historical" touches (the uses of pagers by the criminals!) and the way Kwan deduces who the mole was and how they were involved with the whole plot is great, leading to more than a few surprises.

So I'm happy to say 13.67/The Borrowed turned out to be a very satisfying read. Chan manages to provide a lot of variety within this volume, both by using the unique setting of Hong Kong throughout various periods to present a stage that probably feels fresh to a lot of people, but also by writing clever puzzle plot mysteries that are firmly set within these changing time periods: the mystery plots not only utilize the time period both as a 'background' for flavor, but also by addressing issues that are unique to the time. The result is a novel that keeps on surprising the reader until the very end. I think the book's also very accessible for a variety of readers: I myself really focused on the puzzle plots, but with its focus on the police force and the Hong Kong underworld, there's also plenty here for people who like police procedural or hardboiled mystery fiction, and the unique background of Hong Kong is certain to entertain people who enjoy the socio-cultural aspects of mystery fiction.

Original Taiwanese title: "13.67"

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Black Coffee Rag

「オレは今、オレ自身の2つの問題で精いっぱいさ。コーヒーはなぜ、黒いのか? そして‥‥なぜ、ニガいのか‥‥?」
『逆転裁判3』

"Right now, I have my hands full with my own two questions. Why is coffee black? And why... is it so bitter...?"
"Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Trials and Tribulations"

Coffee is something I don't see as much as a tasteful beverage, but more like a practical drink for its caffeine. Ice coffee however is a completely different story, as I love that.

Famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is asked by the famous scientist Sir Claud Amory to come by his house as he is facing a problem he himself can not solve. Amory had created a formula for a new explosive, but then he discovers that someone in his house has stolen it, probably to sell to a foreign agent willing to pay much for it and he needs Poirot's grey cells to figure out who did it. By the time Poirot and Hastings arrive at stately Amory manor though, it's been too late: Sir Claud had been poisoned through his black coffee. Was it the thief of the formula who murdered the man, or was there another person intent at taking the inventor's life? Hoping to at least help Sir Claud in his death, Poirot decides to investigate the manner of Sir Claud's demise, as well as of the theft of the explosive formula in Charles Osborne's Black Coffee (1998).

Black Coffee was originally a play written by Agatha Christie herself in 1930 featuring her famous creation Poirot. The play was not very well-known among Poirot fans, but in 1998, Charles Osborn wrote a novelization of the play, giving Black Coffee new life. When I first heard about this book, I have to admit I was not very interested, as it was "just" a novelization by someone else, and even though the source material was by Christie herself, I have to admit I was never that much a fan of the other plays by her I knew (like The Mousetrap or the other Poirot plays). Of course, now we're several years later and as I know all the other Poirot stories now, I thought that perhaps trying Black Coffee out could not hurt (yes, I know, I didn't exactly go in with really high expectations).

That said though, there is very little to say about Black Coffee, as it is an incredibly simple story, and even in novel-form you feel it was made for the theater. The whole set-up (Poirot being called to find a thief/murderer among a small household) reminds a lot of the Poirot short stories The Under Dog and The Incredible Theft, and Black Coffee is basically simply another variation on that theme. In terms of scale, Black Coffee is also barely a short story worth of plot, so that strengthens the similarities between these stories. As a mystery story, Black Coffee is nothing special at all, which is once again something this story shares with the Poirot stories mentioned, as I suspect few view them as the highlights of the Poirot short stories. Christie for example makes use of a device in regards to the whereabouts of the formula that was probably already old and over-used when this story was written and most of the rest of the tale consists of Poirot asking people questions that don't seem to lead anywhere. Black Coffee is definitely not Christie gold.

I can't compare the novelization to the original play, but you definitely can tell that this story was originally a play. Most of the story takes place inside the room where the murder took place, with all the characters moving in and out of the room to suit the plot. Of course, every time a person is all alone in the room, they'll act suspiciously for no apparent reader but to show the reader they're suspicious, I guess the novelization is probably faithful to the play in this regard, and it shows it respects the source material, but I had definitely preferred some more variety. This is a novel, so you don't need to incorporate every element of the play, especially if it's something that probably only exists because of the limitations of a medium. One might say that the final solution with Poirot works better if the whole story is set in the same room, but I don't think the effect is weakened that much if we'd see even a bit more of the outside world, and in any case, the prologue is in fact set outside the room (in Poirot's apartment to be exact), so I don't think it would've hurt that much.

I had hoped I'd be able to write something more substantial about Black Coffee, but there's so little I can say about it. Black Coffee is a full novel, but the core plot mystery is just barely enough for a short story in truth, as it's quite simple and nothing special, and certainly not something I'd consider a Christie classic (and she has written some great short stories!). The novelization is also, I suspect, quite faithful to the original play in being mainly set in one location, but this again strengthens the feeling of this being a short story being dragged out to a full novel. had this been a short story, Black Coffee would've been a mediocre effort of a mystery story. As a full novel, it's simply tedious and nothing special, and not even Poirot and Hastings can save it.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Wrong Shape

As I peruse the mystery blogs and the comments on the posts, I have noticed a trend among both bloggers and commenters that seems to suggest that most people seem to prefer the full-length novel over the short story. For me, it is quite the opposite. If I had to choose between the two forms, I'd definitely go with the short form. We're not talking about specific novels or short stories here by the way, I am merely talking about the format, so yeah, I might miss out on reading specific titles, I find that in general, I enjoy the brief form better when it comes to mystery fiction.

If I had to word my motivation, which is probably what I should do on a blog, I'd say it's because as a consumer of mystery fiction, I usually focus mostly on the core mystery plot: what is the mystery, what is the solution, and what is the logical thinking process behind the route from mystery to solution? If you read the reviews on this blog, you will notice that most of the time, I will be talking about the core plot. What were the dynamics behind that locked room mystery? Was the solution a complete original, an original variation on something familiar, or perhaps an uninspired rehash? Was the perfect alibi trick really possible done like that? Was the everyday life mystery alluring enough without being too out-of-the-ordinary? Was the clewing adequate enough for the reader to have a fair chance, or was there perhaps an incredibly subtly hidden, original clue? Was the logical process leading to the solution doable, and adequately clewed, or was it only possible if you had knowledge of a super-obscure piece of trivia, or was the jump from the clues to the solution too big? It's these things that I look for when consuming a mystery story in whatever medium it may be, and my memories of stories also tend to focus on that: "Oh yeah, that was that story where the murderer, victim, detective and witness all turned out to be the same person!" or something like that. Characterization and atmosphere are elements that can add to my enjoyment of a mystery story, but there are relatively low on my priority list.

Short stories, due to their limited format, usually excel at focusing at the core mystery plot. They need to be word-efficient, and there is no time for the plot to be moseying around for philosophic moments, scenery-chewing or over-endulging in side-plots. There has to be a mystery, there need to be clues, there needs to be a solution. By the time that's all in, a short story is usually already almost done, and then it's up to the author to carefully add in some salt and pepper, or perhaps remove a bit of the garnish to finish up their dish. So for someone like, the short story is ideal, as its priorities are the same as mine as a reader.


There are of course mystery plots that don't do well in short story form, as they need the extended runtime to perform best. To be as cheeky as to refer to a work I translated: The Decagon House Murders's core plot wouldn't have worked in a short story form, as the misdirection that is set-up in this novel really needs the runtime to have full effect. But in general, I think that if we reduce a mystery novel to its core mystery plot, you'd find that most of them would work as well, or even better in short form, if we're talking solely about presenting a mystery story. Many novels have a core mystery plot, like some trick or a concept, that would also be wonderful for a short story, but which are then extended with subplots, or uninspired red herrings and misdirection. You might have a locked room mystery for example, and that one suspect who acts all suspicious and whom the police investigates thorougly until they find out he not only had a grudge with the victim, but that he's also a stage magician and after a chase and a shoot-out and more, we find out at the end that this suspect had nothing whatsoever to do with the locked room mystery and that nothing of his subplot mattered to the core plot. In these cases, the core plot really doesn't need all the subplots to work properly, and could perhaps fit in a short story.

Another thing that happens often is that there's a second or a third murder, and that usually wouldn't fit in a short story naturally. But these subsequent mysteries are seldom really connected to the core mystery plot, when seen abstractly. To get back to my hypothetical locked room mystery, perhaps it is followed by a second locked room murder, with the victim being someone who happened to witness the murderer doing something suspicious. In this case, the two murders might connected at a story-level (motive), but they aren't necessarily at a mystery-plot level. Unless the first locked room murder trick must produce a witness for it to work for example, the two locked room murders could work independently, in different stories. Earlier, I reviewed Mitsuda Shinzou's Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono and the Detective Conan episodes titled Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken, and praised them as fantastic examples of synergy in mystery stories: both stories consisted of multiple impossible murders, but what made them exceptional was that in both stories, these were not discrete events at the mystery plot level: each seperate mystery was intertwined with the other, and they needed each other to actually work. Seperating them was impossible, as they were connected at the core. Nikaidou Reito's monsterous lengthy novel Jinroujou no Kyoufu has quite some fluff, as it's four-times-seven-hundred pages long, but now I think about, a large number of the impossible murders that occur there also only work because of the existence of the other murders. This concept of synergy however is not common in mystery fiction. Usually, you only have seperate modules placed one after another, that can easily be disconnected as there's no real link between the previous mystery or the next mystery. So often when I read a novel, I feel the core mystery plot (in this case, the locked room mystery) could've been reduced in short story form (perhaps spread across several stories) just as well.

Ironically though, I feel that the type of mystery stories that I like best don't do as well in short story form. I know prefer locked room mysteries (and other impossible mysteries),but I often think those often work better in short story form. In comparison, I usually consider the Queen-esque, ratiocination-based whodunit stories the pinnacle of the genre, but they usually don't fare as well in short form. As I explained in a post on clues in mystery fiction, these type of mysteries usually want you to identify a large number of characteristics of the culprit, and then have you scavenge the text to see which suspects answer the description. Such mysteries have you for example deduce that the murderer was right-handed, that they had to know about a certain fact before a certain moment and they had to have access to the murder weapon, and then you search for clues that show what the dominant hand is for each suspect, and whether there's a part that proves they knew about the fact or not, etcetera. As these stories are not as focused on mechanics like locked room mysteries, but more on contextual clues, these stories thrive by having longer texts, as they help the misdirection and possibilities for clewing. There are of course also short stories that focus on ratiocination in this style (like for example Aosaki Yuugo's shorts), but in general, I think the real masterpieces of this style work better in novel form. An interesting example of both these points might be The Moai Island Puzzle (yes, shameless self-promotion here): I can easily imagine the locked room mystery of this novel as a short story, but the other mystery core (which is solved through a long deduction chain based on characteristics and actions) works because all the clues are spread across a long text.

The second point of irony here is of course that this post on short stories has become far longer than I had planned. There's still some more I'd want to talk about, like the interlinked short story collections (where the short stories are linked by an overall storyline) as seen in videogames like Gyakuten Saiban /Ace Attorney or in the works by writers like Awasaka or Yamada, but perhaps that's something for in the comments. Anyway, I'd love to hear some thoughts on the short VS long form for mystery fiction!

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Go Your Own Way

運命のルーレット廻して
アレコレ深く考えるのはMystery
「 運命のルーレット廻して」(Zard)

Turn the roulette of destiny
It's a mystery why I think so deeply about everything
"Turn the Roulette of Destiny" (Zard)

In my review of the very amusing 3DS mystery game Detective Pikachu, I talked about the trend of episodic videogames: a videogame that is like a single episode of a longer series. An episodic game is considerably shorter than the usual videogame (and also cheaper, of course), but also a part of a larger, contineous series. These games are therefore released in a more frequent schedule than conventional videogames. This format is somewhat similar to the serialization of novels as an ongoing service with a limited schedule, but with key differences: episodic videogames can stand on their own for the most part, while installments in serializations are usually not standalone and simply excerpts from a longer story. An episodic videogame is ideally both vital part to the whole series, but should also feature its own storyline that is mostly resolved within that particular episode.

Buddy Collection is an episodic mystery videogame developed by Narutorikku. At the time of writing this review, the first two episodes of five have been released on PC, iOS and Android (for free!), but last month, an enhanced version of the first episode was also released on the Nintendo Switch (not free!), with the new extended title Buddy Collection if - Shukumei no Akai Ito- ("Buddy Collection If -The Red String of Fate-", 2018). The game starts with the female protagonist awakening in the hospital, suffering from amnesia. The girl, Nagisa, is told she's a student at a special high school for detectives, with the curriculum not only including theory classes on various topics of use for detectives, but also practice classes where the students get to work on real cases (you need to earn credits to be able to take on real cases). Nagisa lost her memory while investigating a case, but that was not the only thing she lost, as she also lost her "buddy": the school works with a buddy system, where two students have to work together on cases, but her buddy has disappeared now. While Nagisa belongs in the Special A Class, she is now moved to the E Class so she can recover from her ordeal. Her first school assignment is a three-day "camp" to practice on closed circle murders: she and three other E Class students are locked up in a special underground complex made for these classes, and they are to role-play a closed circle murder situation, with their teacher playing the victim in what appears to be an impossible murder. The students are assigned roles and have to deduce who the murderer is and how it was done, while the teacher plays the game master when not playing dead. However, the next morning the students find their teacher has really been murdered, hanging high up in the sky from red threads from the ceiling of the underground complex, precisely like the scenario in their role-playing game. With the doors to the surface being locked, the player has to take up the role of Nagisa, wisely pick out a new buddy and find out who the murderer is.


Buddy Collection if - Shukumei no Akai Ito- is marketed as a lite-otome & mystery novel game, which probably needs some explaining for some readers here. First of all: a novel game (also known as sound novel or visual novel) is basically a digital Choose-Your-Own-Adventure: you are mostly reading a linear story, but once in a while, you'll be presented with choices, which lead to branching storylines. In order to reach the end of the game, you need to find the correct route (combination of choices), as a wrong choice/branch storyline usually leads to a game over screen. The novel game genre has a long history with mystery games and I have reviewed a few of them here on the blog (for example Kamaitachi no Yoru, 428, Machi and Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P). In Buddy Collection if - Shukumei no Akai Ito-, you'll be solving the case through these CYOA-esque choices, with some choices/branching storylines leading to vital clues or evidence (or you missing them by making the wrong choice) and sometimes you have to decide on your next step. While it sometimes can feel a bit like random guessing, as you never really know where a certain choice will lead you until you actually select one, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Buddy Collection if - Shukumei no Akai Ito- actually does a good job of giving the player a good chance of making it through the game alive in one go if they pay attention. The correct choices are quite logical, and it never feels like you need to make a random choice that surprisingly turns out to be the good one.


I also said this game is a lite-otome game: otome games are story-driven videogames targeted towards women, that usually focus on a protagonist developing a romantic relationship with one of the eligable characters (within the context of the story). These games usually take hints from various game genres, like simulation games (gotta level up those parameters to impress the guy you want!) or novel games (making certain choices to develop the relationship). Buddy Collection if - Shukumei no Akai Ito- is very lite-otome, as early on in the story, Nagisa has to choose a new buddy from one of the three other E Class students. This leads to three Buddy Routes, where you mostly interact with your chosen buddy and where you learn a bit more about their personalities and background stories. These three buddies also each have their own working styles, so the mystery plot also changes slightly depending on which buddy you choose, though all three routes will eventually bring you to the same conclusion. Basically think of it of having to choose between Watson, Hastings or Goodwin at the start of the story, with the ending being the same, but the way towards the conclusion being slightly different because of the different personalities. It bring some replayability to the game, as once you have chosen a particular Buddy Route, you won't learn much about the others, inviting you to try the other routes too.

As a mystery game, Buddy Collection if - Shukumei no Akai Ito- is a short, but ultimately fairly satisfying experience. The mystery plot is a bit simple perhaps, especially as some of the choices you have to make to proceed in the story are bit obvious (Choice 1: Expected. Choice 2: Not Surprising. Choice 3: OBVIOUSLY SIGNIFICANT CHOICE), but the story is adequately clewed and due to some of the characters' personalities, things become far more exciting that you'd first expect. But as this is an episodic game, there are also quite some issues that aren't resolved within this episode, as they'll be addressed in subsequent episodes (for example, the mystery of how Nagisa lost her memories in the first place is left unanswered, and even the motive for the culprit in this first episode is still rather ambiguous, suggesting it will be explained later).


This enhanced version on the Switch added the word If to the title, indicating it was more than a simple port from the original (free) version on PC/iOS/Android. Buddy Collection if - Shukumei no Akai Ito- adds a new short storyline, with two new buddies. This storyline titled Detectives VS Culprits is a parallel world to the main storyline (it happens instead of the main storyline) and has the students participate in a variation of the Werewolf/Mafia party game, with two students playing the "Culprits" who have to kill a detective each night, and each day, the Detectives, including the Culprits who pretend to be Detectives too, have to execute someone they suspect is a Culprit. The Culprits win when they outnumber the Detectives, and the Detectives win if they execute all the Culprits. It's a short and entertaining story that shows some of the characters from the main storyline in new ways, but it's also a really mean storyline, in the sense that unlike the main storyline, it is intentionally designed to trip the player up at every corner. The game actually warns you before you begin, but it's basically throwing many, many choices at you that almost all lead to a game over screen, so it's quite difficult to find the correct route here (especially as I encountered a recurring game bug that either froze the game or booted me back to the title screen at a certain point in the story).

While those bugs late in the game were quite annoying, I did have fun Buddy Collection if - Shukumei no Akai Ito- though, even if it was a very short-lived experience (two, three hours?). The mystery plot, while simple, betrays the love of the creators for the mystery fiction genre, and this first episode hits just the right notes of both providing a story that can stand on its own, but that also invites you to play the other episodes to find out more about the overall storyline. I for one hope the other episodes will be released soon too.

Original Japanese titles(s): 『Buddy Collection if -宿命の赤い糸-』

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Comic Book Mystery

"In a few minutes, this famous cartoonist will be dead. Who killed him? Was it the ambitious lettering man? The layout expert? The background artist? The figure specialist? His disillusioned secretary? Or was it someone else? Match wits with Ellery Queen, and see if you can guess who done it!" 
"The Comic Book Crusader"

My own earliest experiences with the mystery genre were through visual media. Series and direct-to-TV films like Scooby Doo! Where Are You?, Agatha Christie's Poirot and the four animated adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes novels are some of my earliest memories of the mystery genre. And while I did read mystery novels by writers like Christie and LeBlanc before, I only really started reading mystery fiction after I started with mystery manga like Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo. So for me, there has always been a very intimate link between mystery fiction and the visual format, and I absolutely love it when mystery fiction makes full use of its medium. Mystery fiction in the form of comics (manga) and animation for example are fantastic in bringing certain clues, like colors or intricate floorplans, or insane murder tricks that are difficult to reproduce in real life, with the amazing Detective Conan episode Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau as a good example. It's for this reason that I have always kept a good eye on various puzzle plot mystery comics, as I am quite aware of the possibilities they offer over the written word in regards to our favorite genre. In fact, I think of the regular mystery bloggers around here, I'm probably the one who looks at these things the most often.

For people interested in mystery manga however, an amazing book and absolute must-read has been released recently. Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi ("Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar", 2018) collects a series of very informative columns by mystery critic Fukui Kenta, originally written for publisher Tokyo Sogensha's Web Mysteries! web magazine. The columns have been edited and updated for this book release, so even those who have read them will find this book very informative. In the two-hundred or so pages of this volume, Fukui presents an incredibly comprehensive history of mystery manga published in Japan, spanning the period from after World War II until the present. As for the question of how comprehensive this book is: Fukui introduces over 800 different titles within this volume, so you are absolutely sure to come across a manga title you never heard of.

Fukui's "seminar" on mystery comics traces a chronological line of mystery manga in Japan, focusing on publishing history. The book is roughly divided in two halves, each comprising of two sections. The first half focuses on comic adaptations of mystery fiction both domestic and foreign. Fukui's story starts with the earliest comic adaptations of Edogawa Rampo's Shounen Tantei Dan series in the fifties, of which there were quite a lot. The many Rampo titles mentioned here not only show the popularity of Rampo's series among the younger public, they are also the first in a long line of novel adaptations. Of particular interest is the part on the comic adaptations of Yokomizo Seishi's work, in particular the novel Yatsu Haka Mura. While I was already quite aware of a "Yokomizo Boom" in the 1970s, when his work's popularity suddenly exploded with pocket re-releases and the live-action film adaptations by Ichikawa Kon, I had no idea that the Yokomizo Boom started with comics! Apparently, the immense popularity of comic adaptations of Yokomizo's work was what convinced publisher Kadokawa Haruki to publish pocket re-releases of Yokomizo's novels in the first place, and what led to Inugamike no Ichizoku becoming the first theatrical film produced by the then brand-new Kadokawa Pictures, which is still one of the four major film studios to this day. Fukui continues tracing the release history of various authors and titles, domestic and foreign, from these earliest successes to the present. Interesting notes of interest include for example the TOMO Comics Masterpiece Mystery series, which included adaptations of books like Crispin's The Moving Toyshop or Futrelle's The Thinking Machine, the part on popular adaptations of contemporary works like Yonezawa Honobu's Classic Literature Club (Hyouka) series and the part solely devoted to Sherlock Holmes and Lupin adaptations. Note however that few of these were monster hits though. The 70s ~ early 90s in particular saw many releases that... just were.

The second half of Fukui's seminar focuses on original mystery manga, and is roughly divided in two parts: the period before the mega-hit series Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, Detective Conan and QED, and after. The section on original mystery manga before the 70s does not provide many surprises: I already knew that many series back then weren't really about solving a mystery, but more like spy stories, with the "detective" acting as an agent fighting crime. Examples cited are for example Tezuka's work (like Chief Detective Ken-1). The period from the 70s until the mega-hits is interesting though, and it makes so much sense in hindsight. Apparently, mystery manga series with longer runtimes started mostly in the magazines aimed at female readership, with for example Puzzle Game☆ High School as one of the longest running mystery manga ever (with the original series running from 1983 until 2001, and spin-offs/sequels still being published today). These female-oriented magazines also published many one-shot mystery stories. As I mentioned, this makes quite a lot of sense in hindsight, as the 70s and 80s were also the time when horror manga genre for girls really exploded, and the horror and mystery genres have always been very close. For those interested in the history of mystery manga, I think this pre-Kindaichi Shounen/Conan/QED period holds many interesting titles, and I definitely dotted down some titles I want to read.

While the other "lectures" (chapters) in Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi are all focused on either time periods or themes, Fukui dedicates three chapters to three specific titles. As mentioned, Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, Detective Conan and QED together symbolize the watershed moment for mystery manga in the early 1990s (some years after the shin honkaku movement started in literary world). Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo was the first classically-styled mystery manga series with a built-in Challenge to the Reader, which also became a big hit with live-action adaptations (the first drama series starring KinKi Kids' Doumoto Tsuyoshi and Tomosaka Rie was a big hit on TV). Detective Conan was created as a direct answer to the success of Kindaichi Shounen and became even bigger, reaching incredible audience numbers (Detective Conan: The Crimson Love-Letter was 2017's best grossing Japanese film. Not just animated or mystery: the best grossing domestic film in general). Personally, I never really got into QED and its spin-offs, though I'm aware of its popularity (you don't run for as long as QED if it were just an average series). Even so Fukui manages to point out interesting points for someone like me, like how author Katou studied architecture in college and how he uses that in his plotting. Spin-offs and related titles are also discussed in their respective chapters by the way, so series like Tantei Gakuen Q, Magic Kaito and CMB are also discussed.

The remaining lectures focus on original mystery manga after the watershed moment. Not all of these were big success of course: magazine Shounen Jump's direct reaction to Shounen Magazine's Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo & QED and Shounen Sunday's Detective Conan's immense successes as mystery manga was the short-lived Karakurizoushi Ayatsuri Sakon, but that never really made a lasting impression. An interesting point made is how in the late 2000s and early 2010s, we saw the uprise of mystery manga with detectives with very specific fields of specialty, like Kuitan (food) or Reizouko Tantei (refrigerators). Fukui also looks at mystery manga with specific themes or audiences, like mystery manga aimed a younger public, or those that mix science-fiction with the mystery genre. Of particular interest are the lectures on "logic game" mystery manga and manga created by mystery authors. The latter is obvious, as we have many authors who write novels who nowadays also write for comics (like Ayatsuji Yukito and Sasaki Noriko's Tsukidate no Satsujin). The 'logic game' mystery genre is one that has really boomed the last decade or so, with Death Note and Liar Game being excellent examples: mystery manga that focus on characters trying to outsmart each other using clearly defined 'game' rules. Mahjong and gambling manga also fall within this genre, as these series too often revolve around surprising use of game rules to outwit the opponent.

If I had to voice a complaint about Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi, it'd be that the book focuses very closely on publication history, meaning that most titles mentioned in this book are really only mentioned  (and perhaps followed by one short sentence saying whether it's good or not). Many sections of this book are just lists of titles, so those who want to learn more about certain titles will have to do some digging themselves too. As Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi is about publication history, it does help if the reader has some rudimentary knowledge about manga publication history in general, because some trends and connections are more easily recognized. The book itself doesn't provide much context if you're not familiar with that. Don't expect this book to explain what kashihon are for example and what they meant for the Japanese manga market in general, as it assumes you know. The Japanese comic industry also has some major differences in terms of serialization and publication practices if compared to for example the European or the US comic industry, and being aware of the characteristics of the Japanese industry naturally helps when reading Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi.

That said though, it is undeniable that Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi is a seminal work for this genre. An amazing amount of titles have been researched for this book, and by categorizing these titles by release year and original publication magazines/lines, Fukui manages to point out trends in the development of the mystery manga genre in Japan, with the genre responding to both internal and external stimuli. The indexes are a godsend too, as they are divided in both titles and authors. The comprehensive framework sketched in Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi makes this a must-read for anyone who wants to seriously write about the topic of mystery manga and I myself can't wait to read new, exciting research on this topic built on the foundation laid out in Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi.

Original Japanese title(s): 福井健太 『本格ミステリ漫画ゼミ』 

Friday, May 11, 2018

番外編:The 8 Mansion Murders Released

I really should stop doing announcements of upcoming announcements, because it always leaves me with next to nothing to say with the actual announcement...

So yeah, I have little to add to my previous post, but to say that Takemaru ABIKO's The 8 Mansion Murders (original Japanese title: 8 no Satsujin) is now finally available as both a trade paperback and e-book, translated by me and published by Locked Room International. The previous shin honkaku mystery novels brought by LRI were obviously inspired by Agatha Christie (The Decagon House Murders) and Ellery Queen (The Moai Island Puzzle), while also having their own, distinct voice: The 8 Mansion Murders continues that trend of building on the context of Golden Age mystery fiction, but within a modern, setting as the impossible murders committed with a crossbow within a curious 8-shaped house invoke clearly the spirit of John Dickson Carr, which is even emphasized with a genuine Locked Room Lecture. The 8 Mansion Murders is also by far the funniest novel I've translated until now, but don't let the comedy fool ya! Publishers Weekly said in its starrred review the book is "one of the funniest and cleverest novels of its type to hit the English-language market in years."

ABIKO was the third author to debut from the Kyoto University Mystery Club, after Yukito AYATSUJI (The Decagon House Murders) and Rintaro NORIZUKI ('The Lure of the Green Door') (ARISUGAWA Alice was also a student in Kyoto, but he was at Doshisha University). ABIKO's career in the mystery genre expands beyond novels, as he was also the mastermind behind the epoch-making Kamaitachi no Yoru videogame for the Super Famicom in the mid-90s, changing the form of mystery games (an English-language localized version titled Banshee's Last Cry is available on iOS/Android). The Starship Damrey (3DS) and 428 - Shibuya Scramble (first English release in 2018) are some other games he worked on that are available in English, but The 8 Mansion Murders will be the first time one of his novels is published in English translation.

For those who have read LRI's earlier releases of (shin) honkaku mystery novels: you probably know what you can expect, so why wait? For those who haven't yet: I actually think this is the most accessible one until now. Like with the other novels, there are a lot of references to classic mystery fiction, but the banter of the characters in The 8 Mansion Murders is really funny to read and the main impossible mysteries are a blast.

And that's it for today's service announcement. I hope you'll enjoy The 8 Mansion Murders!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Good Medium is Rare

 "Nothing is impossible," declared The Thinking Machine with equal emphasis. He always spoke petulantly. "The mind is master of all things. When science fully recognizes that fact a great advance will have been made."
"The Problem of Cell 13"

I've reviewed a couple theater mystery productions now, but still haven't seen one live....

Divine Dragon Village is a small community in the mountains on the verge of extinction because of its rapidly greying population, but also because it might be literally wiped away from the map because of talks of a dam being built nearby, which would lead to the flooding of the village. The one thing that keeps it alive now is a small filming studio, where the popular live-action series Psychic Academy Sigma is being filmed. Prosecutor Mitsurugi Reiji, police detective Itonokogiri and the energetic thief-in-training Mikumo are invited there by Mitsurugi's friend Yahari, who works at the studio as an assistant-director. The discovery of the body of the director puts a hold to the filming, but an initial investigation quickly leads to a suspect. Actor Asukai, who plays the lead Psychic Teacher admits he's the murderer, but there is one, enormous problem to this conclusion. The body of the director was found in the morning at the studio, but they have proof she was killed last night at the shrine high up in the mountains where the village treasure, the Dragon's Scale, is kept. However, the only path that leads up to the shrine was blocked last night due to a landslide following a heavy rainfall, so how was the body moved from the shrine down to the studio if the road was blocked? Asukai claims he used his psychic powers of teleportation to move the body, but Mitsurugi refuses to accept this supernatural explanation and tries to figure out how the body was "teleported" down the mountain in the stage play Gyakuten Kenji -  Gyakuten no Teleportation ("Turnabout Prosecutor - Turnabout Teleportation", 2016).

Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney is a comedic mystery adventure game series starring a defense attorney defying unsurmountable odds in crazy trials that started in 2001. A spin-off game Gyakuten Kenji ("Turnabout Prosecutor") was released in 2009, starring the popular character of prosecutor Mitsurugi Reiji (known in the localized games as Miles Edgeworth), who'd investigate crimes himself on the scene to find his suspects. The spin-off was followed by a sequel in 2011, a manga series, and even a musical version performed by the all-female troupe Takarazuka. Gyakuten no Teleportation is a stage play (not a musical), performed by the same troupe that brought the two stage plays Gyakuten no Spotlight (2014) and Saraba, Gyakuten (2015) based on the main Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney series.


The story of Gyakuten no Teleportation is based on an unused plot idea originally conceived for the second game, though it is difficult to say how much of it has been changed for Gyakuten no Teleportation. Anyway, it does feature an interesting mystery plot, as we are soon introduced to the suspect who gladly confesses to the crime, but who could not have done what he says he has done: teleporting a dead body from a mountain down to the studio in the village. What follows is a plot that mainly revolves around looking around at the crime scene and finding clues. This is similar to the games the play is based off, so that is something for the fans, but the story can feel a bit slow at times, as there are few plot developments until the finale, with most of the time being spent on exposition on locations/character backgrounds, making it feel like the main problem of teleportation is being pushed aside for something that could've been presented in a more direct, concise manner. The mystery of the teleportation trick is a bit crude, but adequately clewed, though there is a missed chance of presenting a truly great clue to the audience: I was convinced that they'd reveal a certain clue in the finale, as it appeared everything was pointing towards that, only to find out they totally ignored a chance to come up with a memorable clue. There is a great piece of misdirection going on though, one which worked perfectly with the medium of the story.

Of the three stage plays, I think the first made best use of its medium as it was a stage play about a murder happening during a stage play, and while this one is somewhat similar in idea (a murder that happens in a studio with actors), I thought this play was less... ambitious? The things they do with the props and other theatrical "tricks" are similar throughout the three stage plays, but whereas it was exciting and new in the first play, it's just not as original anymore when you see it performed for the third time with nothing new. There are also some points about the plot that don't seem to synergize well with the medium: the way the locations are connected is for example fairly important to the plot, but on stage you only see discrete sets without really showing how the previous set is connected to the other in geographical terms.
 

The live-action film and the Takarazuka musicals were made to appeal to a wider audience, but the stage plays have always been more directly aimed at existing fans of the franchise, so generally, the acting is usually a lot closer to the original games, with many of the quirks and motions of the actors being lifted straight out of the game. This works for these fan-oriented productions, though even as a fan of Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney, I never disliked the more serious, darker tone the live-action film had, even though I always hear people complaining how it was not EXACTLY like the original games. People who do want their live-action productions to be very, very much like the games, they need to seek out these stage plays, because these productions are very clearly made to appeal to that audience. There is also more interaction with the actors and the audience (talking about their favorite characters), and there is ad-libbing going on too, so these stage plays have more at-home feeling.

Gyakuten Kenji -  Gyakuten no Teleportation is a good mystery stage play though, that manages to combine a faithful adaptation of the source characters and atmosphere to a decent mystery plot that the audience can also solve themselves. If you have never seen any of these, you're in for a treat, though in terms of production, this play is not very different from the previous ones, so it might feel a bit underwhelming.

Original Japanese title(s): 『逆転検事 逆転のテレポーテーション』