Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Captured In Her Eyes

"A foolishly foolish idea born from the foolish mind of a foolhardy foolish fool."
"Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Justice for All"

This book reminded me I once went to a film screening of a Film Club during the university festival of Kyushu University. I think there were two short films, and you were supposed to hand in a questionnaire after the screening. I can't remember a thing about the films themselves though.

The four members of the Classic Literature Club of Kamiyama High School are still working for their project for the school festival when they are invited to see a short detective movie made by the people of class 2-F for the school festival. The story is about a group of students visiting an abandonded mine town, and the murder of one of them inside a locked room in a theater, but the film ends right after the body was discovered. The girl working on the script collapsed due to stress, making it unable for her to continue, but the problem is nobody knows what her plans were for the ending, making it an unfinished detective story. And while several of the clasmates have suggestions for solutions, it's hard to judge which one was the originally intended ending. Irisu Fuyumi of Class 2-F however, known throughout the school as the "Empress" because she's extremely good at getting the right people to work on the right things, wants the Classic Literature Club to act as observers and evaluate the suggested solutions so Class 2-F can finish their film. But it appears that perhaps the members of the club are better fit to find the real solution in Yonezawa Honobu's Gusha no End Roll ("End Credits of Fools", 2002).

Gusha no End Roll is the second book in Yonezawa's Classic Literature Club series (also known as the Hyouka series, as the anime series is named after the first novel). It also carries the English subtitle Why Didn't She Ask EBA, a reference to Christie's Why Didn't They Ask Evans? The series falls under the everyday life mystery genre, which keeps itself busy with solving enigmatic events that might occur in the normal, daily life, as opposed to bloody murder. So more mysteries like "Why is that man on my bus always along for the ride for only one stop?" or "Why did that woman remain in her seat even though this is the terminal station for this train?". Obviously, it's more realistic for freshmen high school students like our four members of the Classic Litereature Club to be paining their heads about these kinds of problems, rather that of violent death.

Which is why it's funny that Gusha no End Roll is indeed about murder! A fictional one, mind you, but still. The idea of having the students detect the murderer in an unfinished mystery film is actually quite brilliant, as it allows for Yonezawa to involve his characters with a type of crime he usually wouldn't be able to. The unfinished film is set in an abandoned theater, with one of the students killed inside one of the backstage chambers which was locked. The only key available was in the manager's office next to the entrance of the theater, but to get that key you'd need to pass the hall and the hallway unseen, which would've been impossible as all students were wandering through the theater). This unfinished film is treated as a text in a historical or bibliomystery: the Classic Literature Club members, but also the students of Class 2-F use the film/text as the base for their deductions, searching each frame for a clue as to what the intended solution was. But like in a historical/bibliomystery, the text is not the only source for our detectives, and that is what sets it apart from a conventional mystery, as there is a layer "outside" the film world. While the script writer is out, the club members also interview other people involved with the filming, like one of the prop builders, to learn more about the fictional world, and about the script writer and how this film project came to be in the first place, all in the hopes of figuring out what the solution is supposed to be.

And as this is the second book I read in this series, I'm now starting to see patterns, and I can say that Yonezawa loves his multiple solutions. Hyouka already had a double-layered solution, but this one has like four or five solutions. Several involved members of the filming crew, like the assistant-director, suggest their solution to the locked room conundrum to the Classic Literature Club, all firmly based on both the "text" and their knowledge of the project circumstances (for example, the props that were prepared). These hypotheses, while grounded, are all rejected one by one based on small oversights made, though each hypothesis does add some new revelation to be used for the next. It has a Berkeley-like effect, and it's something you don't often see done this well in the everyday life mystery genre, so I could appreciate that. The solutions are also different enough to keep the reader entertained (the fake solution marathon can feel tiring at times if done badly) and it also invites the reader to read the "film text" carefully, as a lot of hints are hidden there, while the multiple solutions also show how wildly different each viewer can interpret (the importance of) a scene.

Oh, and as a side-note, the final solution is a lot easier to guess if you know your Holmes! If you're not that well-read, you might not understand a certain hint, but I think the true solution to what happened fits wonderfully with the whole theme of the book, giving true meaning to all the false solutions that came before it.

What is also interesting is that Oreki Houtarou, the narrator and main detective of the series, is shown to be a fallible detective once again. While he does get it at the end, he's not likely to get there in one step, and often falls in the trap of the false solution himself before he finally gets it. It fits his personality perhaps (he's not really a pro-active detective), but the often mistaken detective trope is not one you often see with younger detective characters, at least not seriously (as opposed to what you see in series like Scooby Doo!, where it's most definitely a source of comedy). There is something like a larger story playing across the books in the series with Houtarou's older sister trying to push her brother to be a bit more active, and the books are also slowly working towards the school festival it seems, so we might see more of Houtarou's growth in subsequent books in the series.

Gusha no End Roll is thus a very enjoyable entry in the Classic Literature Club series, as it introduces murder in a convincing and amusing manner in a series that is supposed to be about minor mysteries you'd encounter in your daily life. The result is a book that takes on very large themes in mystery fiction like the locked room mystery, text-based mystery solving and multiple solutions, but dressed like a school comedy drama. Can't wait to read the rest of the series!

Original Japanese title(s): 米澤穂信 『愚者のエンドロール』

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Undying Butterflies


I'll become a happy butterfly, riding on the sparkling wind 
I'll be coming to meet you now
"Butter-Fly" (Wada Kouji)

The first impression of most people who first meet Kindaichi Hajime (and that includes the reader), is that of a lazy, underachieving high school student, who usually only shows his brilliant mind as the grandson of the famous detective Kindaichi Kousuke when faced with an intellectual puzzle that challenges him, which usually means a series of gruesome impossible murders. While most of his adventures we know were set during his high school student days, there have been also mysteries for him to solve in other periods in his life: in some of the short stories, we've seen Hajime solving minor problems in junior high, while last month, a new Kindaichi Shounen series started its serialization, which is titled Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo (The 37-old Kindaichi Case Files) and obviously about his later years.

Last month however not only brought us the introduction of this middle-aged Hajime, but also a younger one: Kindaichi-kun no Bouken 1: Karasujima no Kaijiken ("The Kid Kindaichi Adventures 1: The Strange Incident on Crow Island") is the first entry in a brand new series of children's novels in the Kodansha Aoi Tori Bunko label. There have been originals novels in the Kindaichi Shounen series in the past already (I also reviewed a couple of them), but those featured the exact same setting as the original comics (high school student Hajime), and were obviously also written for the same audience. This new series is aimed at a younger audience and tells us about the adventures Hajime and Miyuki had as sixth graders. So while Hajime's still up for some crime solving, you don't have to expect mutilated corpses or decapitations here or what'd usually expect from Kindaichi Shounen. In fact, the obi for this book has testimonials from several "junior editors" of the Kodansha Aoi Tori Bunko label with the youngest being in fifth grade of elementary school, so that should give you an idea what the intended audience is. This novel is written by Amagi Seimaru, who is the series supervisor and the current writer of the comics series (and of the other novels), and the couple of illustrations included are also done by Satou Fumiya, which means it's the exact same duo working on this novel as on the main series, so at least 'feeling-wise', everything is exactly like you'd expect it to be from a spin-off of the Kindaichi Shounen series, even if aimed a younger audience.

(For those wondering: yes, Amagi is a very prolific writer. Not only does he writes the Kindaichi Shounen novels and the story for the comics, he's usually working on a lot of other series too at the same time. Amagi Seimaru is just one of the many pen names of Kibayashi Shin, and sometimes he's working as the writer of six or seven weekly serialized series under various names, and also stories for novels and games. He used to be an influential comics editor, which might explain how he's able to juggle so many series)

The set-up of Karasujima no Kaijiken is also quite familiar to fans of the series, sans the killings. Hajime, Miyuki and long-time classmate Souta are heading out for Crow Island as part of their club activities for the Fudou Elementary Adventure Club. Their teacher and supervisor of the club, Houjou, has brought the small group of children there to 'find a treasure', as an old riddle discovered on the island long ago seems to hint at the existence of a hidden treasure somewhere there. Due to its shape, the island's been named after not a crow, but after the Karasu-Ageha, a type of swallowtail butterfly of which the Japanese name translates to Crow Swallowtail Butterfly. The boat arriving at Crow Island is not only dropping the kids and their teacher off though, but also two groups of two men each, who are all apparently in the tourist industry, hoping to develop the island as a resort. One of these duos quickly leave the rest to explore the island, but later in the day, the kids witness one of those men being dragged inside one of the caves, and there they run into a giant, masked figure who seems to fit the description of the legendary Island-Dweller rather well, and they flee. Later, the kids witness a human skeleton on the beach, but it disappears in the few minutes it took them to get down, even though they took the only path there. Has a ghost taken those men, or is something else going on on Crow Island?

Karasujima no Kaijiken really can't be better described than as a Kindaichi Shounen story for a younger audience. The writing style is of course kept fairly simple to accomodate for the younger reading audience, and the mysteries are also much more simpler and less gorey: no locked room murders with victims of whom the limbs were torn off or anything bloody like that. Yet, the story set-up and characters are undeniably Kindaichi Shounen, from the 'treasure hunt' hook we know so well from other stories to the little moments that show how serious Hajime can be and even smaller elements like featuring semi-regular classmate Souta in the story too (Souta usually appears in the short stories as a good friend of both Hajime and Miyuki and we know they've been classmates for a long time, but apparently the three have been friends since elementary school).

As a mystery novel, it's a bit too simple though, even if you keep in mind it's for kids. There is basically one "impossibility", that of a skeleton disappearing from a beach in the time it took for the group to get down there along the only path there, but the solution to this conundrum is not only simple, Hajime basically solves it the moment he commences his preliminary investigation. Even for kids, this is way too simple, as the solution is pretty much given as-is. The whodunnit element of the book is better though, as that actually requires the reader to do a bit more thinking themselves (in the a=b, b=c, therefore a=c type of reasoning) and the identity of the culprit is reasonably clewed.The various story elements of the Island-Dweller, the treasure hunt and the folklore surrounding the practice of ubasute (senicide by leaving the elderly in the mountains to die) however don't really work well together, with especially the treasure hunt not integrated very well: it's basically just a reason for the Adventure Club to go the island, and then it's mostly forgotten until a few pages before the end of the tale, when Hajime (once again) happens to come across the one vital clue needed to solve the riddle.

The two children's novels based on the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney games, released in 2016 and 2017 and written by Takase Mie, have set a certain high standard within my mind to which I compare other children's mystery novels, as they were really good mystery novels, that still worked perfectly for the intended, younger audience. They featured impossible situations that required some lateral thinking to solve, but they were also fantastically clewed, making these more complex situations also accessible for a younger audience: a more experienced reader might've been able to recognize the clues and their implications fairly easily, but heck, few "serious" mystery novels could do clewing as good as these novels. As the first entry in this Kindaichi-kun no Bouken series is similarly published within an existing established children's novels line like the Gyakuten Saiban children's novels, comparisons are quickly made, but while Karasujima no Kaijiken isn't bad, it's certainly not as good a mystery novel as the Gyakuten Saiban children's novels.

Kindaichi-kun no Bouken 1: Karasujima no Kaijiken thus ends up as an okay-ish, but never outstanding children's mystery novel. For children who don't know the Kindaichi Shounen series yet, it's an accessible entry-point that foregoes with the gore and bloody murders of the main series,  while still keeping the tone of the characters and story set-up intact. While not formally announced as a series, the numeral 1 in the title suggests we'll see more adventures of Hajime and Miyuki as sixth graders, so it'll be interesting to see how this series will develop in terms of mystery plotting.

Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸(文)、さとうふみや(画) 『金田一くんの冒険1 からす島の怪事件』

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Locked Doors

あの夢この夢 君にみえるかな
「君の思い描いた夢 集メル HEAVEN」(Garnet Crow)

Can you see it in all of your dreams /
The Door of Novalis where the blue flower blooms
It is up to us to create tomorrow
Our worlds are connected
"The MÄR HEAVEN Where We Collect Your Dreams" (Garnet Crow)

There are quite some Japanese mystery stories with titles based on And Then There Were None, now I think about it. More than in English, I even suspect.

Two men and two women wake up to find themselves locked inside a nuclear bomb shelter. The last thing each of them remember is having tea with the mother of their friend Sakiko, who died three months ago in a car accident. Sakiko had invited her two friends, and their boyfriends for a triple date to the holiday villa of Sakiko's family (one of the boyfriends couldn't make it, so they ended up with five people). A big row between the friends resulted in Sakiko leaving the villa in her car, which was later found beneath a cliff. Sakiko's body was only retrieved from the sea much later, and the police deemed it an unfortunate car accident. It appears however Sakiko's mother disagrees with the police, as one can guess from the fact that she has taken her daughter's four friends prisoner as well as the message "You Killed Her" painted on the walls. The four friends think Sakiko's mother has gone out of her mind and try to escape the shelter, but as they talk about Sakiko's death, they realize that their assumptions about her demise might be horribly wrong in Okajima Futari's Soshite Tobira ga Tozasareta ("And Then The Door Was Closed", 1987).

Okajima Futari is the pen-name of a writing duo consisting of Inoue Izumi and Tokuyama Junichi, who wrote mystery novels together between 1981 and 1989 until they disbanded again. The name is derived from okashina futari, or "Two curious people". I had never read any of Okajima's novels before, though the few novels published have been received quite well by the Japanese mystery community and even experimented a bit with the genre, as they also wrote a mystery gamebook in 1986. Soshite Tobira ga Tozasareta is one of their later works.

In theory, I should've liked this novel a lot more than I actually do. The closed circle setting, where a group of people (among them the culprit) is isolated from the outside world is a a classic trope of mystery fiction, and for a good reason. The core mystery plot is combined with suspense elements as we know the murderer is among the group, and that any of them might fall victim without a chance to escape from their predicament. Many of the books I discuss here (especially Japanese ones, now I think about it) use this setting. Soshite Tobira ga Tozasareta at first seems to go the traditional way by locking everybody up in a bomb shelter, but this time, the characters are forced to think about a case that happened in the past, with no direct danger threatening the group. The setting is a highly original one (strangely enough, it's not the first time I've seen it in mystery fiction), and as time passes by, you can really feel how tense the atmosphere must be inside the small rooms, with the pressure building as each of the characters starts to doubt the others.

As the story is set inside the shelter from start to finish, the four characters are forced to rely on their memories of the day Sakiko died, occassionally helped by some "useful" objects they find inside the shelter that are also connected to the case. The book is thus completely built around the discussions the four characters have, and the deductions and recollections they have as they put their minds together. Ocassionally something mentioned by one person will help the memory of someone else, or one character remembers seeing the other acting awfully suspicious, etcetera. As the story progresses, what appeared to be an accident will take on the form of murder, and while I wouldn't say the plot is bad, it's also not especially engaging or exciting. The four recall things, talk a bit, fight a bit, and repeat. The revelations made are never shocking. In fact, it takes ages for the story to really move (it's probably only around the halfway point when you get enough material to deduce yourself), and everything up to that point is more filling in blanks in the tale, as each of the characters look back at the day of the accident. As for the truth that is revealed in the latter half of the book, it's a bit predictable.

What I myself really did not like however were the four characters, and especially the protagonist. While not in equal measures, I'd say each of them are in fact horribly selfish and selfishly horrible people and none of this would've happened if any of them had acted in a more decent way towards each other. None of them even needed to be good people, they just needed to be more thoughtful of each other to avoid all of this! The story has a rather melodramatic streak to it, with love triangles and more, but it kinda falls flat with this cast, as each time you learn more about the group, you realize how being just ever so slightly more considerate to the others would've resulted in well, an outcome without any death at all, and at least more persons with some happiness. Note also that these four are the only characters who appear in person in the book (other people only appear in flashbacks), and the whole story is driven by the conversations between the four, you may imagine how each page made it even more difficult for me to continue with this cast of characters.

So my first experience with Okajima Futari was not a particularly good one. Soshite Tobira ga Tozasareta has an original setting, but a mediocre plot, and horrible characters who are also sadly the focal element of the story, as everything is built around their conversations and interactions. I understand that the whole book is plotted around the fact that these four characters are being held prisoner, but I think I would've enjoyed the plot better without this plot device, without me having to deal with these characters all the time. Being locked up with them from start to finish can really drive a reader insane.

Original Japanese title(s): 岡嶋二人 『そして扉が閉ざされた』

Wednesday, January 31, 2018


I cry...
To try to cry my pain away
Alone, nobody around
I say you pay for all the things you said 
"I Cry" (Nadia Gifford)

I am not that well-versed in Japanese classical literature actually. I know a bit of Classical Japanese, and I know a bit of the stories through references, but I have never read completely through tales like Genji Monogatari...

Oreki Houtarou's plans to spend the coming three years at high school in an energy-efficient manner (meaning: without any extra activities) are immediately shot down by his globe-trotting sister. She orders her brother to join her old school club at Kamiyama High School, because the Classic Literature Club is on the verge if extinction due to the fact the last members graduated last year, meaning that if there's no influx of new members this year, the club's effectively dead. Houtarou finds he's not the only one to join the club, as Chitanda Eru, heiress of one of the prominent families in town, also joins the club "for personal reasons", as well as two of Houtarou's childhood friends. After learning that Koutarou has a knack for solving small mysterious events that happen at school, like the mystery of the book that is borrowed, and returned on the same day every week by different people, Eru decides that he's the one who can help her. She confides in him that she joined the club because she needed to dig in the history of the Classic Literature Club, as she wants to learn more about her uncle who has disappeared, and her only clue is a fading memory that links her uncle to the school's Classic Literature Club and their club magazine, Hyouka, which is also the title of today's book. There's also an English subtitle, The Niece of Time, a reference to The Daughter of Time.

Hyouka was the 2001 debut novel of Yonezawa Honobu, published in the Kadokawa Sneaker Bunko line for light novels. It turned out to be a golden debut, as Hyouka was followed by several sequels to form the Classic Literature Club series, which was adapted as a succesful anime TV series in 2012, which was named after this first novel in the series. The anime series is fairly populair even outside Japan, and I think most people will know Hyouka better just as a school anime series, rather than as a detective series or the debut work of Yonezawa. I haven't seen the anime myself by the way, as I kept saying to myself I'd read the books first, but it took me quite some years to actually get to them (I have read other works by Yonezawa in the meantime though).

Now I think about it, Hyouka is quite similar to Yonezawa's Petite Bourgeoisie series, as both feature high school students, a protagonist who is somewhat reluctant to actually detect, a more active female counterpart and of course, everyday life mysteries. The mysteries solved here aren't bloody murders, but other, rather innocent happenings that happen in your normal life that might raise an eyebrow. The first few chapters for example throw the cited example of a rather boring book being borrowed every single week on the same day, but by different people, or one where Eru is locked inside the club room, even though there's only one key to the door, which was in the possession of Koutarou (who most definitely did not lock the door). While not a spectacular as a triple murder, I've come to appreciate this subgenre of detective fiction, especially when they're done like in Hyouka: the situations are somewhat mysterious, but normal enough that they raise questions, and they're properly hinted. Bonus points for the fact the situations fit perfectly with the school setting.

After the introducing chapters, Hyouka moves to the main storyline, which is about Eru's uncle and what transpired at the Classic Literature Club thirty-three years ago. Here the mode changes to that of something that resembles a mix between a historical and a bibliophilic mystery, as the club members search for old books and other materials to deduce what happened three decades ago. One has to admire how Yonezawa used precise wording in each of the documents to nudge the reader in the right direction, as well as the fact how each new document presented changes the working theory. So first a theory is made based on document 1, which is then altered because of the contents of document 2 leading to theory 2, etc. It's a great showcase of the cause-and-effect relation between clues and hypotheses, even if the deductions feel less 'tight' (or decisive) compared to the mysteries found in the earlier chapters because it's based on textual interpretation.

I first read this book as a short story collection, as early on each chapter had its own mystery, but it turned out it was a proper novel, and I liked in hindsight how good the clueing was throughout the book, with little comments or revelations made the earlier parts coming back for the end. This is what any good detective novel should do, of course, but because I first read it as a short story collection, I wasn't prepared for that much story integration across stories, and even after noticing it was not a story collection, I thought the clueing/foreshadowing was done really well.

Hyouka was thus a fairly entertaining book, even if a bit short. While the book does feature a finished storyline, it also feels like the start of a story, so I guess we'll learn more about Houtarou, the other characters and the school itself in subsequent entries. So while Hyouka on its own is a good, but light meal, I have the feeling the whole course will turn out to be quite satisfactory. And hey, I might even try the anime.

Original Japanese title(s): 米澤穂信 『氷菓』

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Body In The Library


I've been saving them up from rather long ago / I sometimes read them again / inside my mind
Those words / those words  have an echo
"Echo" (Unicorn) 

On the topics of libraries: I can't study in libraries. During my university years, I saw many friends who went to the library to study, but I just can't. I need my own, private space!

Hidden away in the middle of a small grove stands the Nonomiya Private Library, housing the curious book collection of the late Mr. Nonomiya. Mikiko, a young woman who has just graduated from high school, is hired as the curator of the collection, with her main job consisting of brining order to the rather chaotic collection. When asked why the collection appears to be so completely random, Tadokoro, the attorney acting for the committee overseeing the library, explains to Mikiko that the late Mr. Nomomiya only added books that had some connection to crime or murder. One book might be used as a step to commit suicide by hanging, the other book might be the sole survivor of a fire consuming a whole family. As Mikiko and her childhood friend/not-just-yet-boyfriend Yoshio look into the backstories in Akagawa Jirou's Satsujin wo Yonda Hon ("Books Calling For Murder", 1988) they realize that sometimes people don't like to be reminded of the crimes behind each of these books, and that sometimes people can become very desperate to prevent people from digging deeper.

Satsujin wo Yonda Hon is a linked short story collection by Akagawa Jirou, but I suspect the game adaptation of this book is better known. Yasoukyoku ("Nocturne") was originally released in 1998 for the PlayStation and was successful enough to lead to a sequel, as well as a port to the Nintendo DS hardware in 2008. I have the DS version of the game actually, but I never finished it and now I even finished the original book.... The game is a sound novel game (somewhat like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure game), with the story more-or-less the same as the original book, but by making different choices at select points in the story, you can also reach a multitude of alternative endings (some of them being bad endings).

Satsujin wo Yonda Hon is a mystery short story collection, but each of the five stories collected is rather short and light, and I doubt any of them will leave any impression on the reader. Almost all of the stories follow the same plot structure: Mikiko is cleaning up the library when by chance her attention is drawn to one of the books. She and Yoshio learn more about the history of the book. They poke around by visiting the people related to the case. Either Mikiko or Yoshio is knocked out (or both!) on the head in the library over the course of the story because someone doesn't like their digging. Mikiko thinks she solves the case, but doesn't really. The real culprit reveals themselves, but is eventually caught anyway. Rinse and repeat.

The mystery plots themselves are very simple, somewhat reminiscent of Christie short stories. Often it'll just turn out the crime-related story behind the book in question is in reality not what the outside world thought it was, and there's usually at least one person very eager to keep that a secret, but the road to the solution is rather simple. It's often more guessing than actual deducing, the hints are barely there and more often than not, the story ends with the big bad giving the game away on their own, as they try to wipe out Mikiko and Yoshio. The stories themselves are okay-ish, but nothing particularly outstanding. The stories have, per Akagawa Jirou's usual style, a humorous tone to them (Mikiko and Yoshio bicker a lot), but this does lead to some awkward moments where serious scenes are followed up too quickly by humorous scenes, like Mikiko and Yoshio making fun of each other again moments after they had been assaulted and knocked out. Akagawa also really loves his couples-with-age-gaps. Mikiko and Yoshio only differ a few years (with Yoshio being the older one), but Mikiko is also getting courted by the attorney Tadokoro, who's basically twice as old. I felt it came out of nowhere in this book, but it did make me remember I had seen the middle-aged man - just-out-of-high-school girl romance quite often in Akagawa's works. In fact, it's almost the norm in most of what I've read of Akagawa. Different times, I guess....

It's a shame the book is rather light as a mystery novel, as I do like the premise of a whole library full of books, each hiding a tale of mystery. There are some stories in Satsujin wo Yonda Hon that also make good use of the book motif, like the one about a book that has a will of its own, always 'running around' and popping up at all kinds of places around the house even though it had been been put away.

Satsujin wo Yonda Hon is thus rather light reading, despite a premise that could've resulted in something more substantial. Like always, Akagawa Jirou's writing is pleasant enough, but the end result is not something that'll leave any impression. In fact, I'd say the game adaptation, Yasoukyoku, might be more interesting as it offers an interactive manner to experience the stories, with more variation.

Original Japanese title(s): 赤川次郎 『殺人を呼んだ本』

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Attack of the Headless Horror

"Looks like you won't be attending that hat convention in July!" 
"Hudson Hawk"

Today, a fantastic book!

Mitsuda Shinzou's Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono ("Those Who Cast A Curse Like The Headless", 2007) starts with an introduction of Himekubi Mountain and Himekami Village at its feet, situated in the rural outskirts of Tokyo. Himekami Village has since medieval times been ruled by the Higami Clan, which in turn is divided in three houses. The House of Ichigami is the main family and leader of the Higami Clan, while the Futagami and Mikami Houses serve as the branch families. Only males of the Higami Clan can succeed to the position of the head of the Ichigami House and lord of the Higami Clan, and if ever the Ichigami House fails in producing an adult male to take over the position, the next leader of the Higami Clan will be chosen from either the Futagami or Mikami Houses, which in turn becomes the new Ichigami House. Luck has it that the Higami Clan has been cursed and especially the sons of the Ichigami House have trouble staying alive until adulthood, often perishing in their childhood. The person who cast the curse, a princess who was wrongfully decapitated at the end of the Warring State period, has been deified as the mountain kami Aohime, and the people of the Higami Clan have to pray for her mercy in the fall of their third, thirteenth, twenty-third and thirty-third year by visiting Aohime's shrine in the mountains and spending one night there. It is in 1943, during the war, when Choujurou, the future heir of the Higami Clan, and his twin sister Himeko conduct the Thirteenth Nightly Shrine Visit, but Himeko vanishes from inside the shrine as she's making her way to the room where she's supposed to spend the night, despite being observed from both outside and inside the shrine. Himeko is later found dead inside a well, and rumors has it she was found headless. Ten years later, Choujurou once again has to pay a visit to the Aohime Shrine in the mountains, this time to choose one out of three potential bride candidates and ask for Aohime's permission to marry the woman, but one of the women is decapitated inside the shrine, and Choujurou himself is also found decapitated elsewhere on the mountain. Is this the curse of Aohime, or can these deaths be attributed to someone from the other houses hoping to become the next leader of the Higami Clan?

Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono is the third novel in Mitsuda Shinzou's Toujou Genya series, which stars the horror/occult novelist Toujou Genya and the bizarre crimes he comes across as he travels across Japan to do research on local folklore. This is the first I read this series by the way (or anything by Mitsuda actually), but it had been on my radar for a long time, as I absolutely love horror-mystery novels with a folklore background (see also the work of Kyougoku Natsuhihiko for example, or a game like Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P). The reason why I started with the third novel was because Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono is widely lauded as one of Mitsuda's best mystery novels, and I had learned it was not necessary to read them in order anyway. In fact, Toujou Genya hardly appears in this novel, as Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono is presented as an accurate account of the murders that happened in Himekami Village in the past, written as a serialized novel by Himenomori Myougen, mystery author and wife of the police constable who was in charge of both the 1943 and the 1953 case. The novel is written in the hopes that some reader manages to figure out the truth behind the horrible headless killings in Himekami Village.

And what a novel this is! This will no doubt be one of the best mystery novels I'll read this year, as it's a blast from start to end. After an atmospheric start that introduces the reader to the folklore surrounding the vengeful deity Aohime, the curse on the Higami Clan and ghost stories about headless spectres roaming the mountain, we're witness to the absolutely baffling disappearance, and death of Higami Himeko during the Thirteenth Nightly Shrine Visit, which makes up one amazing locked room mystery. Both Himeko and her twin brother Choujurou have to spend one night in Aohime's shrine, which has sleeping quarters attached to it. To make their way from the main shrine to these sleeping quarters, one must pass through a tower. This tower only has one corridor in the form of a spiral stairway, which first goes all the way up to the top of the tower, and then spirals back to the bottom (to the other side of the tower). This means that even if two people start walking from both sides of the tower, they won't see each other until they meet each halfway, at the top of the tower. Himeko is seen entering the shrine and the tower from outside the building by a witness, and heard by her brother Choujurou who was already inside the sleeping quarters waiting for his sister, but Himeko disappears the moment she arrives at the top of the tower. She is not found anywhere inside the shrine, and because of the pebble stone garden surrounding the shrine and the tower, it was also impossible for her (or her body) to slip out the building without being heard. Yet she is found dead outside the shrine, stuffed inside a well. The case ten years later, after the Twenty-Third Nightly Shrine Visit, is not an impossible crime per se, but still as baffling, as one of Choujurou's potential brides is murdered and decapitated inside the shrine's sleeping quarters, and Choujurou himself is also found decapitated elsewhere on the mountain. But why were the two decapitated and how did the murderer make their way to the shrine even though all the mountain entrances were being watched by the police due to the marriage meeting ceremony?

What makes this an exceptional mystery novel is the meaningful repetition of themes. The 1943 and 1953 crimes are for example completely different mysteries, with the first being a brilliant impossible disappearance and the latter more a whydunnit about decapitations, but ultimately, the two crimes are connected by a common, underlying theme of mystery fiction, but executed in very different manners. The two crimes have nothing in common except for this theme, which makes it so devilish, as figuring the precise connection between them won't be easy. I had an inkling of what was going on, but really didn't manage to make the necessary connections between all the various points, so I maybe got 10, 15% of the whole solution. This repetition of themes in different manners is done multiple times in this novel, and in fantastic ways. Most of them would be spoilers of course, but take the theme of decapitation: there are multiple plot threads that involve decapitations in this story, from sightings of a headless creature roaming the forests, to the murders and decapitations of the victims, to heads being found. Each of these threads however have completely different reasons for them, and all of them are convincing. As a master class on decapitations in mystery fiction, I can think of no work that can rival Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono, especially as the novel also features a Decapitation Lecture! Locked Room Lectures are popular, and I've seen lectures on dying messages and missing-footprints-in-the-snow too, but this is the first time I read one on the various reasons for decapitations in mystery fiction, and it's a gem! This exceptional focus on certain themes is makes this book so great, as it brings not only variation, but also consistency between the various events.  The impossible disappearance for example is plotted very well even taken on its own, but it is the connection to the other events of the book what makes this one to remember.

One decisive clue to the tale lies in the practice of folklore, what some readers of mystery fiction might not consider fair, as it's basically belief in the supernatural. I myself seldom see a problem with that though, as folklore itself is based on human practices and human perception of the world, which in turn follows (human-made) rules of logic. Supernatural powers might not exist, but the belief in supernatural powers exists and it does govern the psyche, and therefore the action of humans, so a good mystery novel can make great use of that. Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono has a great example of that, as the decisive clue surrounds an action that should've been taken given the folklore we've been presented with throughout the novel. The story takes the time to explore this theme of folklore and the workings and psychology behind it, so even if you don't manage to spot it (I didn't), you don't feel cheated, as it was set-up in a most fair way.

As a mystery novel on its own, Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono is great, but it's the synergy between all the various themes that makes this a classic. No element is there just on its own, everything is to strengthen the rest of the book. The horror elements aren't there just to scare you, they also serve as meaningful misdirection and hints to the solution of the murders. The presentation in the form of a serialized novel isn't there just for fun: it's a crucial part in presenting a part of the mystery in a fair way to the reader. The impossible disappearance and the decapitations aren't just there for the mystery: they are intricately connected to the underlying story of the fall of the Higami Clan throug the curse of Aohime. Everything in this novel has a reason, no, multiple reasons to be there and they make what would've been a great mystery novel on its own, easily one of the best novels I've read these last few years. I can't wait to read more of this series!

Original Japanese title(s): 三津田信三 『首無の如き祟るもの』

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Red-Headed League

この手を放すもんか 真っ赤な誓い 

Right now I'm surrounded by things I don't understand
But I'll keep on following this path I believe in
No matter the enemies or friends I'll come across
I'll never let my hands go off this crimson oath
"My Crimson Oath" (Fukuyama Yoshiki)

I wonder if the color red, and variations of it (crimson, scarlet, etc.) is the one that appears the most often in mystery fiction titles? The connection to blood makes it a strong contender of course, but I suppose white and black would put up a good fight...

Mark Brendon, celebrated rising star of Scotland Yard, had hoped to enjoy a nice trout-fishing holiday in Dartmoor, but gladly gives up on his leisure time to help the beautiful Jenny Pendean. Her husband Michael and her uncle Robert Redmayne have disappeared, and there are definite signs that her uncle killed her husband. Her three uncles, Albert, Bendigo and Robert had been opposed to their niece's marriage to Michael at first, as they accused him of shirking his duties as a subject of the British Empire in the Great War by failing the militairy medical exam, but the Pendans had proven their worth in the war nonetheless, and during a chance meeting with Jenny and Michael in Dartmoor, uncle Robert learned of their endeavors, and was finally willing to accept his niece's husband. But it appears that a war-induced post traumatic stress disorder led to Robert killing Jenny's husband, and now he's on the run. Despite the best efforts by Brendon, red-haired Robert manages to elude capture, until he appears at the house of his brother Bendigo, and gets rid of him too! As the one responsible for the disappearances of two of his family members, Brandon feels even more pressure to capture Robert, but his mind is also distracted by the beautiful Jenny, whom he fears might be falling for the wrong man so soon after her husband's death. Can Brendon solve the case and woo Jenny over in Eden Phillpotts The Red Redmaynes (1922)?

Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960) was an extremely prolific novelist/poet/playwright, mainly known for his country-side novels set around Dartmoor. Agatha Christie used to live near Phillpotts in her late teens actually, and he helped her with her writing early on in her career. At age 60, Phillpots decided he'd try his hand at the mystery genre too, and it appears it suited him well, as he wrote a fair number of mystery stories too. The Red Redmaynes (1922) was his second mystery novel, and while not forgotten in the West, it appears it never did attract the same amount of fame it did in Japan. The praise Edogawa Rampo had heaped upon The Red Redmaynes had cemented its position as one of the classic Golden Age novels in the eyes of the Japanese mystery reader, which is also reflected in the curiously large number of different translations and releases the book has seen in Japan since its initial release. Rampo also wrote a translation/adaptation of The Red Redmaynes, titled Ryokui no Oni ("The Demon in Green", 1936), green being a complementary color to red (see also my review of Yuureitou, which is an adaptation of a translation/adaptation of Williamson's A Woman in Grey).

And after reading The Red Redmaynes myself I can say that while I wouldn't consider this anything near the best the 1920s had to offer in terms of mystery novels, I did enjoy reading it. What some readers might notice early on is that Phillpotts prose betrays his long writing career before making the jump to mystery novels. The descriptions of the background settings (first Dartmoor, later around a lake in Italy) are admittedly somewhat longwinded at times, and might have an old-fashioned feel to them, but they are also vivid and do a great job at envisioning the stage upon which the mysterious case unfolds. There's also a somewhat melodramatic romance plot for Brendon (who falls head over heel for widow Jenny), which again seems to be a throwback to Phillpotts' contributions to other genres, but at least it's well integrated within the mystery plot.

The mystery plot is reasonably entertaining, even if somewhat simple. I think that readers in this time and age won't be that surprised when it's revealed who is behind the Redmayne Tragedy, as the core idea is a very familiar one, but Phillpotts manages to dress the plot in a way to keep the reader engaged. The story has a distinct Gothic thriller novel feel to it in the first half of the novel, with Red Robert Redmayne roaming lonely Dartmoor and the relatively small cast of characters in fear of what he might do next to the other Redmaynes. And by the time the reader has enough of this, the story moves to sunny Italy, where the plot decides to move a lot quicker too, with more exciting scenes to pull the reader in. That said, I doubt the misdirection employed in this book will be able to divert attention away from the truth for a long time, especially as Phillpotts makes it a point to be more than fair to the reader, with a second detective character pretty much spelling out what is going on a few chapters before the climax for the benefit of a different character, as well as the reader. It is a well-plotted mystery story, with everything occuring in the tale for a reason that eventually ties back to the conclusion.

So I thought The Red Redmaynes was a decent novel. It might not be really surprising perhaps, but Phillpotts used the plot he had to write a more than competent mystery novel, with a good plot structure that is supported by Phillpotts' experience with other genres and writing in general. As his works are available in the public domain, I'll probably take a look at his other mystery stories too in the future.