Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Never Go Away

愛よ消えないで もう u um
I need you ずっと捜してた
『CITY HUNTER~愛よ消えないで』 (小比類巻かほる)

Oh Love, pease don't go
I need you / I've searching for you
"City Hunter ~Oh Love, Don't Go Away" (Kohiruimaki Kahoru)

Another non-Japanese review! I think that three of them on a row is usually my limit: I always come back to Japanese fiction. The only times when there are more than three reviews of non-Japanese books in a row is when I read the books and write the reviews as a series on purpose, like with the Drury Lane novels earlier this year.

The first disappearance mystery in the English town Winchingham ("Wincham" for the locals) involved a Miss Janet Soames. She had eloped with her husband-to-be, a Mr. Philip Strong, and were to stay for one night in Winchingham and marry the following day. The wedding however never happened, because Philip Strong quite suddenly and impossibly disappeared from Janet's eyes. The second disappeareance mystery starred a Mr. Stokes and his lovely secretary. The two were busy with their own disappearance act, with company money, when their car decided to stop running. Posing as a married couple, Mr. Stokes and the secretery book rooms in the Welcome Inn, just outside Winchingham. Here the 'couple' come across a room that appears just as as easily as it disappears, and even the police can't make any sense out of the mystery of the disappearing room. Finally, a Mrs. Prattley, invited over to Winchingham by a gentleman friend, becomes witness to an awfully curious murder in cul-de-sac near a rivier, but when she brings the local beat cop, they discover the whole street is gone. Lancelot Carolus Smith of the police has quite a lot to solve in Norman Berrow's The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947).

Last time, I wrote about Norman Berrow's The Footprints of Satan. I got that book together with The Three Tiers of Fantasy. I read The Footprints of Satan first, because the cover was more attractive in design, but I now discover that The Three Tiers of Fantasy was not only written earlier, it is in fact the first book in the Detective-Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith series, about the fairly open-minded police inspector who has to deal with a lot of strange going-ons in the otherwise 'normal' town of Winchingham.

Perhaps I should have left more time between reading the two books, because reading them one after another makes it too obvious what Berrow's strengths and weaknesses are. The Three Tiers of Fantasy shares its pros and cons with The Footprints of Satan, which is a bit disappointing. Once again, the book's strength lies in its atmosphere: the build-up to each of the disappearance acts is great and unique enough, and as we go from the disappearance of a man, to a disappearance of a room to the disappearance of a whole street, there's definitely build-up over the course of the whole book too. Berrow loves to play with suggestions of the supernatural, and each of the three 'tiers' feature some background story that ties it with the unscientific. The feeling of repetition is also strengthened by the character of Melrose, who has the same function as Ms. Pendlebury in The Footprints of Satan: 'an expert in psychic and other supernatural phenomena' who 'helps' the investigation with err... insightful opinions.

But once again, the puzzle plot is very simple. Berrow has a great knack for building up the suspense and the mystery, but when it comes to actually taking away the illusion and having to explain them himself, he shows not as much imagination as with the build-up. Each of the three mysteries is basically solved by the most obvious solution anyone would think of. These are very safe solutions: they are the solutions most people would think of because they are the most practical, the most feasible. It's the reason why I have trouble writing about the solutions of this novel. They work, okay, but I can't help but shrug at them. The gap between how much imagination Berrow shows when he writes the set-up, to how much he shows during the solution is rather significant, and it makes his books feel a bit more disappointing than they should. For they are decent mystery novels. Only the good parts are skewed towards the build-up.

That said, I once again have to stress that Berrow's stories are very plotted very well. The Three Tiers of Fantasy has more than enough hints for any reader to solve the mysteries and in terms of fair play, I'd say that few even try to play the game as fair as Berrow. In that respect, I really love reading his stories, as between the lines you can feel how he wants the reader to solve the problem and give them a good feeling, like a teacher teaching a child to solve a problem. Yet, it never feels belittling or anything like that. It's simpy the wish of a writer who wants to see a reader solving the mystery he created, rather than just baffling the reader. The only 'problem' is that Berrows solutions in the end are too simple, and thus offer not nearly as as much satisfaction as you'd be led to believe from the build-ups. I think that even a bit more complexity to the puzzle plots would have given me much more satisfaction, especially if you consider how well the rest of the stories are plotted.

This review of The Three Tiers of Fantasy is basically the same as my review of The Footprints of Satan, but I guess it couldn't be helped, because those books do share the same good, as well as the same bad points. It wouldn't be right, nor fair, to say that you can enjoy Berrow's books if you don't expect too much from them, but they do have some problems. Still, I did enjoy The Three Tiers of Fantasy in general and I might read some more Berrow later.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Walking Into The Sunset


"You can think whatever you want. If you believe you can convince your readers, write it down in one of your novels. Even if the police or courts won't accept it, it might work as fiction."
"A Study in Vermillion"

Lately, it seems I've only been writing reviews once a month. Though I usually write 3, 4 reviews in one or two days then, so I average out on one review a week (which is the schedule I want to keep on this blog). It's really been a while ago since I wrote my last review, though it shouldn't really be noticable for the readers.

Oh, and the disclosure message: I translated Arisugawa's The Moai Island Puzzle.

Criminologist and university teacher Himura is often asked to help with police investigations, but it's rare for him to be asked for help by one of his own students, especially as his professional assistance to the police is a secret. Akemi has developed a strange phobia for the color of deep, intense orange (vermillion), which means she can even pass out by looking at the setting sun. The origin of this phobia comes from her association of the color with several family tragedies in the past. She hopes Himura can solve a murder that happened in her own personal circle three years ago, to which Himura agrees. And it appears there's something going on, because Himura has only started when one very early morning, he and his friend Alice (a mystery writer) are asked to go to a certain apartment room in a flat (known as the "Ghost Flat") near Alice's home. There they find the dead body of Akemi's uncle, and clues indicate that this new murder might be related to the murder Himura was asked to investigate. The investigation quickly shows that one person is suspicious. No, it even seems like this person was the only one capable of committing the murder, thanks to the testimony of both Himura and Alice, but Himura thinks there might be more behind this in Arisugawa Alice's Shuiro no Kenkyuu ("A Study in Vermillion", 1997).

The drama Himura Hideo no Suiri was broadcast early this year, based on Arisugawa Alice's Writer Alice series. From the first episode on, it was clear that the series would also include an adaptation of Shuiro no Kenkyuu, with early appearances of Himura's students, including Akemi, so I decided to quickly read the original book, before the drama adaptation would appear on TV. Note that this review is posted now, even though I read the book late January...

Whereas I think all of the books in Arisugawa Alice's Student Alice series are really complex, and also fun mystery novels, I have found the books in the Writer Alice series to be less consistent in quality. Shuiro no Kenkyuu is one of the books I personally didn't really like. The book is split in two parts: in the first part, Himura and Alice are investigating the murder on Akemi's uncle in the empty apartment room. Evidence and testimony point to one person at first sight, but after some good sleuthing by both Himura and the proper authorities, a sorta surprising reveal is made. I say sorta, because I actually already saw the same trick used one in Detective Conan already (though this book pre-dates that Conan story). It has ties with the impossible crime, but saying more might spoil what's going on. Then again, the trick itself isn't really surprising, considering the elements you're given and that's why I thought this part was very slow: this trick would've worked much better in short story form, rather than as part of a longer story, especially as its links to the second part are superficial at best.

In the second part, Himura and Alice finally get around to investigating the murder that happened three years ago (as asked by Akemi) and it's here where the story takes on a Five Little Pigs-approach, with Himura and Alice questioning the people who were involved with the incident in the past. I thought this second half was weak at best. Unlike Christie, who mostly focused on psychological evidence, Shuiro no Kenkyuu focuses on an interpretation of physical evidence to arrive at the solution. This is certainly not surprising as Arisugawa is obviously inspired by Ellery Queen who so often used physical evidence to point to the murderer. However, Shuiro no Kenkyuu's line of reasoning is fairly weak compared to the impressive feats Arisugawa has already shown in earlier books (for example, Kotou Puzzle). In the end, the book focuses much more on the motive of the murderer, which is nearly impossible to 'deduce' from the facts and goes deep into the human drama more often found in Higashino Keigo's work. Which can work, but not in this way, where it's not intertwined with the complete work. In Shuiro no Kenkyuu the human drama motive really appears out of nowhere.and it makes the whole narrative feel disjointed.

In my mind, I associate the Student Alice series with the closed circle trope, set in isolated locations like islands or little villages. As a counter, I associate the Writer Alice series with the city and indeed, a lot of the (short) stories are set in Osaka, Kyoto and other urban settings. But despite my 'gut feeling', Himura and Alice do actually appear often in isolated settings in the novels, like in 46 Banme no Misshitsu or Sweden Kan no Nazo. And I enjoy those stories actually a lot better than the novels in the series set in 'open' settings, like Dali no Mayu or Shuiro no Kenkyuu.

As the time I'm writing this, the TV drama Himura Hideo no Suiri still has some episodes to go before Shuiro no Kenkyuu, but I guess that the selection for the book is an understandable one. Human drama is obviously something they want in drama shows, as it attracts also viewers not especially into mystery fiction. Personally, I thought the book was just a mediocre entry in the series. Arisugawa has written much better mystery novels, also within the Writer Alice series, so I wouldn't recommend this as a must-read.

Original (Japanese) title(s): 有栖川有栖 『朱色の研究』

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

It Walks By Night

I hear your footsteps
What a spooky sound 
I hear the stairs creak 
I'm in trouble now
"Foot Steps" (Kitadai Momoko) 

To be honest, I loved the thumbnail of the cover of today's book a lot better than the illustration at full size. The composition of the cover is great, but the actual drawing is a bit rough. 

Having recently lost his wife, Gregory Cushing decides to visit his old uncle Jake in Steeple Thelming, who lives a simple life mostly consisting of his books, his faithful donkey Boomer and frequent (and somewhat excessive) visits to the local pub. One morning, after a snowfall, Greg and other locals discover a most curious set of footprints left in the snow: The prints of a bipedal being with hooves appear out of nowhere, goes up the gardens of several of the houses of the villagers, crosses fences and walls with ease, takes a walk on somebody's roof and ends at the foot of a dead tree. It is said that in a faraway past, a witch had been hanged from this very tree, but there's a very dead body hanging from the tree this time also. Who might have commited suicide, or have been hanged there by the mysterious walker. Imaginative minds quickly associate the seemingly supernatural being who made the hoof-marks with a certain ruler of Hell, and even Detective-Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith is not really sure what to think initially in Norman Berrow's The Footprints of Satan (1950).

Norman Berrow was born in the UK, but moved down under soon after his birth, where he eventually became a fairly prolific impossible crime author. This is the first time I read anything by him, but I have to admit: when I first heard he was from New Zealand, I was expecting a story set there, so I was a bit surprised when I realized that The Footprints of Satan was set in a quaint little English town. Ah well, at least the donkey Boomer is named after a boomerang (because he always finds his way back).

The Footprints of Satan is a novel in the Detective-Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith series and at least preceded by The Bishop's Sword (as several references are made), but can be read perfectly standalone. On the whole, I think The Footprints of Satan is an okay story. Its biggest merit is definitely the atmophere: the way the story slowly builds to the appearance of the marks, the realization that these marks aren't natural and finally, the discovery of a dead body is great. The suggestion of the supernatural is done quite well here, with a fairly entertaining character who keeps ensuring everyone, including the police, the death was caused by the ghost of a witch, while she refers to fields like philosophy and history. On the downside, some might find the initial build-up a bit slow, because nobody dies until about a third in the book.

Though now I think about it, the characters in this novel were in general all quite funny. It's not slapstick comedy or really witty writing, but the banter between the characters is acutally quite amusing.

The puzzle of the mysterious prints is an alluring one that includes quite entertaining links with the devil, but if you look exclusively at the puzzle element, I think a lot of readers will realize it's also a very simple one. In fact, the very first idea I got in my head about the whole case, including the identity of the culprit, turned out to be correct. It's basically the first solution most people would come up with given this particular impossible crime situation and there is little to make it really unique. In that sense, I'd say that The Footprints of Satan was a bit disappointing as it took the easiest way out of the situation, though I have to say that the book is also very fairly clued (which also showed me I was on the right track as I was reading it) and there's definitely nothing unfair going here.

Disappearing footprints in the snow is of course one of the better known versions of the impossible crime in mystery fiction, so in a way, doing a story on the trope means you 'challenge' all those who have tried before you. Mystery fiction might not be academic research, but it'd be nice if in terms of puzzle plot, The Footprints of Satan had shown a bit more inspiration, because while it's a competently constructed puzzle (that is: a puzzle consisting of a problem, its solution, and clues leading up to the solution), it lacks a bit of punch. Of course, not all mystery stories need to feature shocking solutions. I've enjoyed many mystery stories that were very "nice" to the reader, where you could feel the writer was leading the reader in the correct way because they simply wanted someone to solve their story, but The Footprints of Satan is like a kid on school that does okay, but could've done much better, as the initial set-up is quite compelling.

I quite liked the map on the back of Ramble House's edition of the book by the way. Apparently, the map is not part of the original book, but an addition by Ramble House, but it's definitely appreciated. Less a fan of the missing page (two sides) in the middle of the book (a POD mistake, I guess).

To recap: The Footprints of Satan's puzzle plot is a bit on the easy side, but depending on how much you value that over atmosphere and characterization, I think that a lot of readers can enjoy this simple, but fairly amusing novel.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Famed Author To Live In Wrightsville

'Country looks good, by jake,' murmers Mr Queen enthusiastically. 'Green and yellow. Straw colors. And sky of blue, and clouds of white' -bluer blue and whiter wite than he recalled ever having seen before. City - country; and here they met, where Wrightsville station flings the twentieth century ito the astonished face of the land.
"Calamity Town"

I 'finished' reading the Ellery Queen series last year, but I have not reviewed all of the books on the blog (you can find the reviews either through the Ellery Queen tag, or in the library). Reviewing all the books here is certainly not a goal of mine, but I might reread some books and post a review on them once a while. Like today.

In order to get some peace and quiet, as well as inspiration to write a new book, Ellery Queen decides to move to Wrightsville: your typical New England town where everybody wishes you good morning by name, and life is simple. Using the brilliant fake name Ellery Smith, Ellery rents a furnished house from John and Hermione Wright, the oldest family of the town. He is the president of the Wrightsville National Bank, she is the top hen in Wrightsville society. Ellery is told that the house was originally intended as a wedding present for daughter Nora Wright and her husband-to-be Jim Haight. Jim however ran away from Nora and Wrightsville the day before their wedding, three years ago. After that incident, a potential buyer for the property had a heart attack right before the deal was sealed, so the house was given the name "Calamity House" by the people of Wrightsville, as it was reponsible for so many tragedies. Ellery becomes close to the Wrights, and especially Pat, Nora's younger sister, and gladly gives up his house when Jim sudenly returns to Nora, who quickly marry and move into their new home. However, Ellery and Pat discover that Jim might have deadly plans for his wife and despite precautions, Ellery can not prevent that a murder is commited under his watchful eye, even if the victim was an unexpected one. Can Ellery help his friends in Ellery Queen's Calamity Town (1942)?

Ah, Wrightsville, one of the most important places in Queen history. Wrightsville first appeared in Calamity Town, but Ellery Queen (both the character as well as the writers) grew fond of the simple town and would revisit the place several times in his career as writer and amateur detective in both novel and short story format. The place was also featured once in the TV series (The Adventure of the Chinese Dog). There are several reasons why Wrightsville would become so important, but one of them is definitely that Wrightsville, as a fictional town, simply works well as a setting. The opening chapter of Calamity Town paints a quaint little New England town that sounds nice to live in. The buildings described, the people and the relations portrayed: they all make up for a believable setting that. Calamity Town is often praised for its characterization, which is debatable I think, but one cannot deny that the town itself is done memorably. It kinda reminds of Dr. Sam Hawthorne's Northmont. And if you think about it, that's not strange. Queen novels have often featured memorable settings: the Roman theater, the French Department Store, the lone mansion in The Siamese Twin Mystery, the Spanish Cape. Sure, these might be smaller and slightly more specific locations, but setting has never been a problem in Queen's stories in my opinion and Wrightsville is a great example.

Wrightsville, as a whole character on its own, is also memorable because the way it changes over the course of the story. Whereas Ellery first comes to enjoy Wrightsville, he also starts to notice cracks in the perfect picture when the murder is committed and he sees how Wrightsville as a community basically starts to shun the Wright family, being the source of a scandal. Later stories also show darker sides of the model town, though I remember that being more like Cabot Cove (a setting for crimes to happen), than a portraying Wrightsville as a whole.

Calamity Town, together with Wrightsville, also stands symbol for a transition in Queen's style of plotting. The overly complex deductions and fantastic murder settings of his early novels (especially the "nationality" novels), were replaced with simpler plots with, well, more 'living characters' and less of random Suspect X, Y and Z. Like I mentioned, I don't think Calamity Town is especially impressive when it comes to characterization (save for Wrightsville itself), but in comparison to the earlier Queen novels, things certainly look a bit more human. The interaction with the town and its inhabitants also makes Ellery (the character) much more human and there is little of the pompous bibliophile from the earlier novels. By the way, the Dutch translation of the book features the title De Verliefde Detective ("The Detective In Love"), which also highlights a change in the character that started with The Four of Hearts.

But is the change a good thing? To be honest, I thought the mystery plot of Calamity Town was way too simple for an Ellery Queen novel. I want overly complex puzzle plots that focus on combining all kinds of hints and facts together to form a logical prison around the suspect when I read Ellery Queen. I don't want an Ellery Queen who literally takes months to solve the kind of murder he'd solve in minutes in earlier novels. I doubt seasoned readers of the genre will have any trouble figuring out who the murderer is in Calamity Town and even people without that much experience should figure out that a certain piece of misdirection really shouldn't be that misdirecting. It is a very minimalistic mystery plot and one that doesn't feel "Queen-like" per se. A novel like Ten Days' Wonder, also set in Wrightsville, for example, features a plot that one can distinctly recognize as Queen, but that is less so with Calamity Town. Because of that, I actually forgot most of this book. This is the second time I read the book, but I noticed I had forgotten most of it. The plot is just rather nondescript compared to other novels in the series.

For the Queen reader, there are some interesting points. On one hand, some familiar characters don't appear at all in this book, save for short references. With the move to Wrightsville, we also lose sight of Inspector Queen, who hadn't appeared in all of the previous books, but was certainly a character who appeared in most of the books. Also, it's pretty interesting to see Ellery so deeply involved with the stars of the drama so early on: in earlier novels, Ellery usually only arrived at the scene after the crime was commited, or very shortly before it.  Here, Ellery has been cultivating relations with everyone for a long while and thus has a personal connection to the whole ordeal. Very different from the 'detective coming from the outside' role Ellery used to have. On the other hand, the circumstances in which the murder is commited are very Queen-like: in a (relatively) open space with a lot of people around. It's been like that ever since The Roman Hat Mystery, but in Ellery Queen stories, the murders are often commited in fairly public places, or the corpses are discovered in such places. In that respect, Calamity Town does have a Queen-like feature, even if its scale is a lot more limited than in older books.

In general though, Calamity Town is very well-regarded as a detective novel, though as you can guess, I am not of the same opinion. H.R.F. Keatings for example had in his Crime and Mystery: the 100 Best Books for example, while the book also ranked in at 90 in the most recent edition of Japan's Tozai Mystery Best 100 for non-Japanese books. So obviously, your mileage may vary from mine on this book. There is a Japanese film based on this book, Haitatsu Sarenai Santsuu no Tegami ("The Three Undelivered Letters" 1979) by famous director Nomura Yoshitarou (Suna no Utsuwa, among others) which is supposedly quite good, though I haven't seen it yet. Considering that Nomura has done a ton of mystery films emphasizing human drama with a larger society backdrop (a lot of Matsumoto Seichou film adaptations for example), the choice for Calamity Town is an understandable one though.

Anyway, I don't think Calamity Town is the classic so many appear consider it to be, though I have to admit that the characterization of Wrightsville is done quite well in the book. The thing is: when I read Queen, I am not reading it for characterization or 'real' characters. That is an extra. I want complex puzzle plots that challenge me on an intellectual level. And in that respect, Calamity Town is not particularly rewarding,

Friday, September 2, 2016

Any Old Port In A Storm

グッと飲んでパッとやってtry try try
たまにゃはずして feel so good (feel so good)
万が一 金田一 迷宮入りする前に

Gulp down some drinks and go wild / try try try
You gotta let go sometimes / feel so good (feel so good)
Just in case Kindaichi can't solve the case
"That's Guts!" (Ulfuls)

Hey, Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files R") are released around the same day again! Though looking at the preview, it appears this was just luck, as the release dates will be off one month again the next time.

Last time I wrote a review of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R, I said I wasn't sure whether I'd do a single review of volume 10, because usually stories in this series are longer than one volume. So I was quite surprised to find out that Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R 10 consisted mostly out of shorter stories featuring the young high school detective Kindaichi Hajime, grandson of Kindaichi Kousuke. The volume starts with the final chapter of The Case Files of Sommelier Akechi Kengo, which started in the previous volume. Hajime and childhood friend Miyuki are hired as part timers for a private wine drinking party held at a fancy restaurant, because the usual staff all got sick. While Hajime is washing dishes in the back, waitress Miyuki is surprised by the arrival of Superintendent Akechi. The sommelier of the restaurant is also sick, so he asked his old friend Akechi to fill in his position at the party, because Akechi holds a Wine Expert license of the Japan Sommelier Association. The wines are part of a private collection, and the owner has invited business friends over. Near the end of the night however, one man dies because of a poisoned glass of wine. But how could he have been poisoned? Everyone drank from the same wine bottles, and it was Akechi himself who poured all the glasses.

This is the second time Superintendent Akechi's starred in his own story in the R series. It's a short one, but the story has an interesting theme once you realize that the writer of the manga, Amagi Seimaru, is also the writer of the manga Kami no Shizuku ("Drops of God"), a series about wine that actually influenced interest in wine and sales of wine in Japan. Amagi Seimaru is only one of the many, many pen names Kobayashi Shin (a former comic editor) uses by the way, and he writes Kami no Shizuku under the name Agi Tadashi.

The story makes good use of knowledge about wine, and while I usually dislike mystery stories that hinge on the use of trivia, the hinting is actually done well enough so people who don't know anything about wine can still solve it. It can even be a bit too obvious, because this story features the 'let's compare all the Xs and pick the odd one out', a device very often used in this series. Usually, it's just one element of the complete problem solving, but because this is a short story, it kinda stands out. Overall though, this is a decent story.

Sommelier Akechi Kengo's Case Book is followed by The Black Ghost Hotel Murder Case, which is not a very long story either. Hayami Reika, the popular idol, is shooting her new film The Black Ghost Hotel, and they need some part-timers, so she thought this was the perfect opportunity to get Hajime over to her place (little did she know that Miyuki was also reading Hajime's chat apps). Both Hajime and Miyuki gladly take the jobs and make their way to an old hotel in Hakone, where the film is being shot. The hotel is the perfect shooting location for the film, because it has its own rumors of a dark figure haunting the hallways. But by now, employers everywhere really should learn to not hire Hajime and Miyuki, because it always ends with murder. The first shoot, of a scene of the lead actress playing the piano, goes horribly wrong when there's a power failure, followed by a chandelier falling on top of the actress. And this wasn't the ghost's only victim...


Usually, a Kindaichi Shounen story is about twelve chapters long. This one was six chapters long. It felt as a very concentrated Kindachi Shounen story because of that, as it did have all the usual tropes you expect from the series. From a 'spooky backstory', to multiple murders which kinda seem impossible and red herrings. Though, to be perfectly honest, the ghost story about the dark figure haunting the hotel was absolutely useless. Gather all the panels in which the ghost is mentioned and you might have one whole page. Perhaps. It's basically not present. I did like the rest of the story though. The chandelier murder is pretty neat, though I do think it needed one extra hint to really make this a good story. I guessed what was going on, but to be really fair to the reader, the story really did need one extra hint to have all the necessary steps included within the story, especially as it's also related to the second murder (which was okay, but not particularly well-hinted at).

Hmmm, now I think about it, this volume did not have any real impossible crimes. The chandelier can be seen as one, but it is not presented as such, which is the same for the sommelier story. It's pretty rare for this series to not feature impossible crimes! 

The volume ends with the first chapters of a new story, but I did not read them, as I want to read the whole story in one go, when the next volume is released (assuming it ends in the coming volume).

Overall, Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R 10 is a decent volume, but nothing particularly outstanding. I already mentioned in my previous review of the series, but despite having the same amount of pages, there happens a lot less in this series compared to Detective Conan, because of the way it's paneled. To be honest, this volume feels only like half a Detective Conan volume in terms of content, but it's amusing enough.

Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸(原)、さとうふみや(画) 『金田一少年の事件簿R』第10巻

Monday, August 29, 2016

Summer Memories

step by step あせることなんてないのさ
case by case わらわれたってかまわない 
「Step by Step」(Ziggy)

Step by Step / There is no need to get impatient
Case by Case / I don't mind getting laughed at
"Step by Step" (Ziggy)

If you just stop and think about it. Detective Conan is a detective series that has been running (basically) non-stop for over twenty years. According to the official Detective Conan website, the last story included in this volume is the 277th story in the whole series! (And there are more chapters that have not been collected in a volume yet). It's amazing how many mystery stories Aoyama Goushou has written (and illustrated) and while not every story is an instant masterpiece, the overal quality and consistency is actually very impressive. Few mystery writers come even close, and that's assuming there iseven such a person around.

While Detective Conan 89 was overall a very amusing volume, it did not feature any stories that were related to the larger storylines of the series. Detective Conan 90, released mid-August 2016, is perhaps the mirror image of the previous volume. It is again an entertaining volume with mostly short stories that have neat ideas in terms of mystery plot, but this volume definitely has something to do with the main storyline. In fact, almost all stories included in this volume have to do with Conan's everlasting quest of fighting the Black Organization who turned him into a child. The volume starts with the remaining chapters of The Message Cut Out With Scissors, which started in the previous volume. A man was found murdered in the annex building of his home, with a pair of scissors in his hand. The pair of scissors are an invention of Dr. Agasa, and the man is called by the police to see if he can help, with Conan and Okiya tagging along, because the case has some similarities with the mysterious murder on Haneda Kouji, who was erased by the Black Organization seventeen years ago. Conan and Okiya suspect the man who discovered the body, but there is one problem: no murder weapon was found, and he could not have brought one with him, as he had been searched before entering the annex. The solution is pretty smart, but the execution is not flawless. The way the murderer left hints and rather incriminating evidence behind is rather silly, especially considering he basically pulled off an impossible crime perfectly, only to make such a elementary mistake after the deed. The hints that should guide the reader to the solution are also rather vague, and incoherent.

In The Unexpected Neighbor of the Spirit Detective, Mouri Kogorou is challenged by a Spirit Detective for a TV program, claiming he can summon the spirit of Haneda Kouji and reveal something new in this old murder case. Conan, Kogorou and the TV director however find the Spirit Detective murdered in his hotel room, and chase a shadow who jumps from the balcony to the next room. Conan is surprised to find high school detective Sera Masumi staying in the room next door, while Sera is trying to keep the Unknown Girl hidden from Conan. Sera joins the investigation, and the result is a story that is just so-so in terms of mystery (it's sorta an impossible crime story, but it's all rather obvious, especially as we're already in the 90th volume of the series), but the story offers enough other thrills as Conan starts to get on the trail of the Unknown Girl.

In the previous stories, Conan and Okiya discovered that the high-ranking Black Organization member Rum was involved with the murder on Haneda, and that Rum used the name "Asaca". The word "Asaca" is also the title of a new song by musician Hado Rokumichi. The Truth Behind The Betrayal starts with Okiya and Conan heading out to attend an open rehearsal of Hado, hoping to find out more about Asaca, but the Black Organization is also aware of this mention of Asaca, as both Amuro and Vermouth (in disguise) are present at the rehearsal too. Hado however is found dead in the concert hall, hung high up in the air, but none of the suspects appear to have been able to pull the body that high up. Okiya, Conan and Amuro all investigate the murder, and Amuro is getting more and more suspicious of Okiya's true identity. The mystery of Hado's murder is rather disappointing though: in its most basic form, the solution makes sense, but Aoyama makes it unneccesary complex with trivia, that make the whole story less satisfying.

The volume ends with the first chapters of The Legend of the Nue of Yadori Village, which has Hattori, Kazuha, a Nue (a chimaera-esque youkai), the hunt for the Tokugawa treasure and an old hotel somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Yes, it's fun.

I haven't been reading this series from the very start, but I have been following the series 'real-time' for quite some years now, and I never could have guessed back when I read this series for the first time that we'd get this far. Detective Conan 90 was nothing particularly special as a collection of mystery stories (though never really bad), but it was definitely exciting with its ties to the overall story. At this rate, we'll definitely hit 100 volumes, but I have a feeling that this series will move a bit faster the coming volumes.

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン』第90巻

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Last Letter

拝啓 この手紙読んでいるあなたは どこで何をしているのだろう 十五の僕には誰にも話せない 悩みの種があるのです
「紙 ~拝啓 十五の君へ~」 (アンジェラ・アキ)

Greetings. You, who are reading this letter, where are you and what are you doing now?
I am fifteen, and I have worries I can't talk about to anyone.

If I write a letter to my future self, I'm sure I can confide it all to myself.
"Letter ~ Greetings To A Fifteen Year Old You~" (Angela Aki)

I wonder if, and how the concept of pen pals has changed the last ten, fifteen years, with e-mail and nowadays smartphone apps making asynchronous communication move closer back to synchronous communication...

While cleaning out his old room in his parental home, 33-year old Takanori, nickname Max, finds a box with old letters. Fifteen years ago, in his senior year in high school, he had a penpal called Fumino Aya. She lived faraway in Matsue, capital city of the Shimane prefecture and was like him in her senior year. Their correspondence suddenly stopped after ten letters, but Max discovers an eleventh, unopened letter inside the box. The letter however contains a surprising confession: Fumino Aya wrote in her last letter that she had killed a person and that she would need to pay for her sin. Feeling guilty about only reading this letter now, Max decides to go to Matsue to find out about this ghost from the past. And ghosts are what he finds, because he discovers that there had been a Fumino Aya living in Matsue, but that she had died 25 years ago! So who was his penpal? The only way to find Aya is through her classmates she mentioned in her letters by nickname, but things don't go easy for Max in the 2016 videogame √Letter (PS4/Vita).

√Letter, pronounced Root Letter, is the first game in the Kadokawa Game Mystery series. Follow-up titles have not been announced yet at the time this review is written, but the Kadokawa Game Mystery series uses a so-called star system. Characters are treated like actors in live-action productions, and will appear in various titles in different roles. In √Letter for example, Fumino Aya is played by the fictional actress AYA, and she will presumably also play different roles in future games.

The game is a very old school command-style adventure game, with some minor visual novel elements. In the game, you will be moving around Matsue in search of Aya's old classmates, in the hope of finding out who your penpal was and what happened to her and who she killed. Each chapters starts with the protagonist reading one of Aya's old letters, where she talks about her life and her friends. Using the hints in these lettters, you try to identify her friends and have them tell you the truth. Problem is these friends are obviously hiding something and you need to prove who they are and their link to Aya in order to proceed. As the story goes on, you uncover the truth behind Fumino Aya.

As an adventure game, √Letter is nothing special. In fact, it is very, very classic in set-up and even feels outdated. Talk to a character at A, get told you need to go to B, do an action there, go to C. It is a one way road, and the only diversions on the way are the confrontations with Aya's friends at the end of each chapter, when you need to prove their identity. These segments however are incredibly badly designed, being more vague than should be. But they also feature a "Think" option that in turns tells you the answer, giving you the choice of either guessing without a clue, or being told what to do. These secions also feature a strange timing-based dialogue-gimmick that is supposed to represent tension or something but fails horribly. The game adds some minor visual novel design choices, as it features multiple endings which depend on the choices you make throughout the game. You read one of Aya's letters at the start of each chapter, and you 'reminisce' on what your reply was to each letter of hers. The kind of replies you choose throughout the game decide which of the five endings you will get.The endings are all varied, with a completely different tone to them (from horror to thriller), but only one of them can be considered the 'true ending.'

The game was made with cooperation of the Shimane prefecture. Most of the locations featured in the game are real, and there is even an in-game travel guide explaining these locations. Because of that, √Letter does reminds of travel or topographical mystery ficton.

So I have to admit that √Letter was quite a disappointment as a game, but the story itself was entertaining. The story moves at a slow pace, and suspension of disbelief is kinda needed (it takes Max just a few days to locate Aya's friends based on their nicknames?), but overall, the mystery surrounding Aya really did get me curious. In terms of mystery fiction, there are two mysteries: the overall story of who Max' penpal Fumino Aya is and what happened to her, and the minor mysteries of having to find Aya's friends and proving who they are. While none of these mysteries are really asking the player to think and deduce on their own (the game doesn't even allow for that), but the presentation does make you want to dig deeper in everyone, even if some of the "twists" are rather obvious. Depending on which ending you got, the story can also turn into supernatural horror or even science-fiction, though the true ending is a realistic one.

What was especially well done was the characterization. Each character is shown twice to the player: once through the eyes of Aya, fifteen years ago, and the way they have become now. Usually, there is a gap between what Aya's friends wanted to become when they were young, and what they actually did become in the present day. Both their younger and their adult sides get the proper attention and because of that √Letter feels like a mix between the teenage school drama and a 'normal' adult drama, with people looking back at their lives and rethinking what has happened to them. People who like Solanin for example might find √Letter interesting. I think also that readers who can appreciate the human drama in Higashino Keigo's works will be pleasantly surprised.

I think you can already guess from the above, but I do think that √Letter did not need to be a game. It could have worked as good, perhaps even better in a different medium, like a TV series. The game features some very nice character and art designs by Mina Tarou (Love Plus) and a soundtrack which is a bit limited, but has some great themes. But these are elements that are not game-exclusive. Only the concept of multiple endings is game-like, but even though only the true ending can be considered a satisfying end to the story, so even then it appears this could've worked in all other mediums.

Overall, I'd say that √Letter is a game that could've been much more. The story and the concept behind the game are good, but the translation to a game-format is simply too bare-bones, making the game slower, and perhaps more boring than should've been. I had a reasonably fun time with it, but I can definitely imagine people being less forgiving than me with this game. So it's off for a somewhat troublesome start for the Kadokawa Game Mystery series, though I hope they will release more.

Original Japanese title(s): 『√Letter』