Friday, December 28, 2012

The Black Cat

"One morning, in cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree; - hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart; - hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence; - hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin - a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it - if such a thing wore possible - even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God"
"The Black Cat"

When a friend said earlier that this habit of mine was strange, I shrugged it away, but now that I think about it, playing a videogame while watching/listening to a video playthrough of another videogame is a bit strange maybe. Then again, a videogame where the universes of several game series collide isn't that different from a videogame where Sherlock Holmes has to take on Chtulhu, I guess.

Kuronekokan no Satsujin ("The Black Cat House Murders") is the sixth novel in Ayatsuji Yukito's Yakata series and revolves around an elderly man who has lost his memory after a traumatic escape from a fire. Almost all clues to his identity were lost in the fire, except for a notebook he had with him when he was saved. It appears to be a diary-like record of a caretaker of a cottage, who is, considering also fingerprint research, is the John Doe. The contents however are quite shocking, as they detail a murder case that happened when the son of the cottage's owner and his three friends visited last August and how everybody present there contrived to hide the body. Our John Doe wants it to be just a piece of fiction, but he sadly enough finds one piece of evidence in the record that tie it to reality: the cottage, refered to as the Black Cat House, is said to be designed by Nakamura Seiji, who really did exist. Wanting to find more about his own past, the man contacts the expert on Nakamura Seiji, writer Shimada Kiyoshi and his editor Kawaminami to help him.

Wow, maybe it wasn't that smart of me to read this right after Tokeikan no Satsujin. I wouldn't say that Kuronekokan is bad per se, but it is definitely very different from the large-scale Tokeikan. Well, of course the two-dimensional narrative is still present here (with the story alternating between the investigations of Shimada and snippets from the diary), but because I wrote quite enough about this characteristic of the series just a few days ago, I am just going to refer to that review. There is not much to add to that for this review, besides a comment that you won't find anything shocking here from Ayatsuji's side.

Well, except maybe for the fact that this time, the use of a story-within-a-story narrative brings forth an armchair detectivy vibe to the series. Sure, this type of narrative was also used in Meirokan, but there the story-within-a-story is actually presented as a narrative on its own, while here the old man's diary really just functions as a problem which the reader has to solve, not unlike a proper Challenge to the Reader type of story. The funny thing though, is that while the story-within-a-story narrative in Meirokan doesn't succeed as such from the beginning, because you are aware that not everything is solved within that inner narrative, while in Kuronekokan, you are never really sure what the main problem is and what you are exactly looking for.

The main problem is quite as easy to see through though, which might be a bit disappointing, but I did find it quite amusing to see that despite having arrived at the solution quite early on, I had still failed to pick up quite an amount of hints and foreshadowing lines Ayatsuji was kind enough to hide in the story. Not sure how that happened. Kuronekokan will not go into my memory bank as a remarkable detective story, but I have a feeling I will remember this novel as one where hints and foreshadowing were woven quite well in the narrative. Well, except for one thing that I don't think is as absolute as Ayatsuji tries to make you believe.

It is quite obvious that Ayatsuji was inspired by Queen on several levels with this novel, actually the most I've ever seen in his works. The length of the story and the set-up of the story actually made me think that this was originally a short story written for the Kyoto University Mystery Club (as they often tend to take a Queenian tone), but apparently not (of the Yakata series, only Ningyoukan seems to be a rewritten version of an older, published script, as well as the not-really-Yakata-series-but-close-enough Kirigoutei Satsujin Jiken).  

Kuronekokan is a fairly short novel (350 pages), probably somewhere around the size of Ningyoukan and that's not the only thing they have in common. These two novels also differ from Jukkakukan, Suishakan, Meirokan and Tokeikan because they aren't really closed circle serial murder mysteries, making them feel very light and relaxed compared to those four. The 'big four' feature 'bigger' stories, with the cast being occupied with some activity or some quest (i.e. researching an old murder, an annual gathering etc), but Kuronekokan and Ningyoukan are about murders that 'just' happen unexpectedly. Once again, not a bad thing per se, but I wouldn't say that I am really looking for that in the Yakata series. These 'main events' combined with Nakamura Seiji's buildings always made it feel like there was something like destiny working there, like all the stars aligned for murder or something like that, but here it feels more like... coincidence.

And to echo the previous post: another three to go in the series! (*I am pretty sure that the next review won't be a Yakata review though)

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人 『黒猫館の殺人』

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

「Time to live, time to lie, time to cry, time to die」

「時の流れには逆らえず色褪せてゆく想いもあり
それでもさめざめ流れてく涙はちょっといいもんじゃない」
『As the Dew』 (Garnet Crow)

"Not able to go against the flow of time, these feelings slowly fade away
But despite that it is not bad to have these flowing tears"
"As the Dew" (Garnet Crow)

I am not sure why I even still wear a wristwatch. I mean, I also walk around with a cellphone and a music player, which all feature clocks, so why bother with an object that has no other function that displaying time? Heck, I usually take it off when I am in class. I would have a good reason to wear it if my watch had a stungun function or a secret compartment with a piece of paper to restore my sealed memory or something, but alas.

The titular Clock House in Ayatsuji Yukito's Tokeikan no Satsujin ("The Clock House Murders") is a mansion divided in two parts, with the 'old mansion' being the original Clock House, a place where Koga Michinori stored his immense collection of clocks from all over the world and related research material. It has been many years since his death, but the mansion is still being managed as it was at the time as according to his will. Rumors in the neighborhood tell about the ghost of a young girl who died ten years ago haunting the place and as a special project organized by occult magazine CHAOS, the medium Koumyouji Mikoto will attempt to get into contact with the ghost. Koumyouji, three staff members from CHAOS and a group of students from the occult research club from W-University are to spend three days inside the old mansion, locked away from the rest of the world. People start to get murdered however and with the keys to the exit lost and no way to contact the people in the 'new mansion', the survivors can only wait until the third day in the hope that help will come from the outside. Amateur detective / recently debuted writer Shimada Kiyoshi however is also investigating the Clock House unbeknownst to the people inside the old mansion, as it was designed by Nakamura Seiji, whose buildings have a history of stirring up murder.

The fifth novel in Ayatsuji's Yakata (mansion) series and after a somewhat strange day out in Ningyoukan no Satsujin, we're back at what can be considered the good old formula of this series. A suspenseful, dense story with loads of events that happen in a very short period of time, set in a closed circle situation within the titular Clock House. And it's good! I might have said that it was good for the series to have gone on that little field trip in Ningyoukan, but let's be honest, it was definitely the weakest of the Yakata novels up until then. Tokeikan brings us back to the basics, and I mean that in a more literal way than you'd think.

Because in a sense, this feels like a more refined, readable version of the first novel in the series, Jukkakukan no Satsujin. Which is also because Kawaminami, Shimada's sidekick in Jukkakukan, returns in this novel as the new editor of CHAOS, but we are also presented with another two-dimensional narrative that is a staple within the Yakata series. Suishakan had a past/present narrative and Meirokan a novel/outside world narrative, but both Jukkakukan and Tokeikan feature an inside/outside narrative, where you follow the closed circle horror-suspense narrative on one side, and an investigation narrative on the other side. This is naturally a bit dangerous, because it blurs the difference between the two novels, but the atmosphere in both novels is quite different.

I have to say again though, the main trick, while absolutely fantastic and greatly performed, with excellent foreshadowing and hint-placing, once again hinges on the same basic idea Ayatsuji has been playing around ever since the first novel in the series, which makes it fairly easy to spot. But suppose I would have been able to read each Yakata novel with no expectations / a priori knowledge of the series, then I think I would have been the most impressed by Tokeikan's main trick of all Yakata novels. This is also because of the structure of the story: Jukkakukan was obviously inspired by Christie's And Then There Were None, and ends with everyone dead on the island. The murders in Tokeikan seem to get solved right after the old mansion is opened again, but with another hundred pages left in the novel, any reader can guess that there is something more coming and it is in this section Ayatsuji reveals that the main trick in Tokeikan is something different than you would have thought in the first place and pleasantly so. Like I said, the main trick's performance hinges on a pattern Ayatsuji uses often, but the trick itself, the type and especially the execution, is really brilliant and marks a new way to look at that type of trick, in my opinion.

Tokeikan also feels more like a refined Jukkakukan in the sense that it is a lot more accessible. Jukkakukan was immensely meta, with discussions about, and references to classic detective fiction everywhere (heck, the characters were all known by nicknames as Agatha, Ellery and Car!). The setting featuring students belonging to a mystery circle was also strongly influenced by Ayatsuji's own participation in a mystery club. In short, Jukkakukan was very much written from Ayatsuji's viewpoint, for people like him. Which isn't a bad thing per se and I still like Jukkakukan the best of all I've read of Ayatsuji, but it is not the most accessible, I think. Tokeikan on the other hand loses practically all of the meta-atmosphere, making it work as a 'standalone' novel: it doesn't feel too strongly connected with other writers / books as was the case in Jukkakkan. Tokeikan is like a Jukkakukan written for a more general public, by an Ayatsuji has grown in the years as a writer.

I do hesitate in recommending reading Tokeikan first though: the Yakata series is definitely a series that references the previous novels. What's more, Nakamura Seiji's existence is a very important factor in the novel and his character is explored the most in Jukkakukan. If you know nothing about Nakamura Seiji's 'strange' architecture and the things he likes to hide in his designs, you might get disappointed/mad about some events in the Yakata novels. In a sense, Nakamura Seiji does represent an unfair element in the otherwise fairplay novels (because practically anything is possible in his buildings), but this Nakamura-cheat code is never a vital hint to arrive at the truth, and if it is a vital part, then it will get revealed at an early enough stage allowing the reader some thinking time.

Tokeikan no Satsujin is like with most Yakata novels a recommended read however. And another four to go in the series!

 Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人 『時計館の殺人』

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Off With His Head

「けれど堂戸は、山根のように人形を気に入ることはできなかった。むしろ不気味にすら感じられた。人間とそっくり同じ形なのに、生きていないもの。それは屍体と共通している」『『アリス・ミラー城』殺人事件』

"But Douto didn't like puppets like Yamane did. In fact, she thought they were creepy. Even though puppets look like humans, they aren't alive. A fact they share with dead bodies"
"'Alice Mirror Castle' Murder Case"

Yes, this month's rule: all post titles in English. Just for fun. I don't think it has any actual influence on the visitor count though...

Confession to make: I finished reading Kitayama Takekuni's 'Guillotine Jou' Satsujin Jiken ("'Guillotine Castle' Murder Case") at the end of October. No idea why I postponed writing this review for so long, since I did like it. After finding a photo of a girl standing in front of a guillotine with the message "help" on the back, great detective Makube Naco (note: self-proclaimed) and his assistent Yorinashi Yuuki (note: according to Naco) head to the Guillotine Castle. The place gained this cute nickname because its recently deceased owner collected all kinds of execution tools. Which of course guillotines. And talking about guillotines, the castle owner was found decapitated one year earlier in a locked room. Together with a Russian doll that is rumored to be an executioner automaton. But that was one year ago.  But luckily for our great detective (?), new murders (of the locked room kind) await him in the Guillotine Castle.

As always, Kitayama Takekuni utilizes a closed circle situation in what can only be considered its own closed circle: Kitayama's novels seem always to be set in a somewhat different world, a world that is very alike, but not quite like 'our' world. These worlds feel quite artificial actually, though I am not sure whether that is what Kitayama is aiming for. But at any rate, these worlds, and the closed circle situations set inside them work very effectively in conveying a feeling of uneasiness, of something just being wrong on the reader, which really heightens the tension in his novels. Though it is a hard thing to do, as you don't want to estrange too much fom the reader (I for example, found it distracting in 'Clock Tower Jou' Satsujin Jiken).

Guillotine Jou Satsujin Jiken features two grand tricks, both involving a lot of cutting up bodies in a locked room (the main one being that of four girls being cut up and spread across several rooms in a locked space). Both tricks are quite impressive, but I am not sure whether I would consider them fairly clued. Also, I am normally not that big a fan of this type of trick in locked room mysteries, even though it is a characteristic of Kitayama. Nevertheless, the solution behind the two murders do impress when the truth is revealed to the reader and the way the two tricks are intertwined with each other is really fantastic. It's almost undetectable, but you can only nod when the link becomes clear.

And Kitayama wouldn't be Kitayama if he wasn't awfully meta in his novels. This time character identities and names within novels become a main theme in the novel, but what is impressive is that this isn't something Kitayama does just to flaunt with how smart he is, it is a vital part of the story and the way this theme is connected to the rest of the novel is really few authors can imitate.

This is where Kitayama excels in, but it forms one of Kitayama's weaker points. He manages to mix themes, tricks and setting by creating a complete artificial world where he is god, where he can change everything to suit what he wants to accomplish. Which is what most writers strive for, I guess, but the artificialness of Kitayama's stories can also feel to overwhelming, making it hard for the reader to get into.

Guillotine Jou Satsujin Jiken however is an excellent example of it simply working and what you get is an awesome murder mystery that is worth the time and effort to read.

Original Japanese title(s): 北山猛邦 『『ギロチン城殺』殺人事件』

Monday, December 24, 2012

Turnabout Memories - Part 2

"I have to go over everything that's happened. I have to remember"

You could say that mystery-wise, this was a good year. I mean, I got the chance to write the introduction to the English translation of Edogawa Rampo's The Fiend with Twenty Faces (which means that my name actually appears next to Rampo's on sites like Amazon!). And I entered the Kyoto University Mystery Club, where writers like Ayatsuji Yukito, Abiko Takemaru, Norizuki Rintarou, Maya Yutaka, Ooyama Seichirou and Van Madoy originate from and which still is a wretched hive of scum and villainy a place where people with a healthy, and some with a unhealthy love for the genre gather. It is the first time I think in my life I have been able to just talk about detective fiction in real life with other people (as oppossed to over the internet), which is really fun. Ah, if only we had such clubs back home...

And this was also the year where definitely started to slack with my reviews. Sorry for that.


Anyway, like last year, A List Post. And with that, I mean a list of ten works with no comments on them whatsoever, leaving the reader to guess why I picked them and... a couple of random categories for works I wanted to mention.  

Best short story collection!
Misshitsu Shuushuuka (The Locked Room Collector) (Ooyama Seichirou)

He may be a very inactive writer, but Ooyama's short stories are great. In Misshitsu Shuushuuka, he manages to combine the locked room situation succesfully with pure logic-based detection, something you don't see often and certainly not as elegantly done as here.

Best logic seen in a novel!
Kotou Puzzle (The Island Puzzle) (Arisugawa Alice)
 Everything in a lengthy novel is solved through a lengthy, multi-stage deduction chain based on the state of one (!) single item. Queen would have been proud, and impressed.

Best turnabout!
Marutamachi Revoir (Van Madoy)

I saw the movie of the mother-of-all-turnabouts, Gyakuten Saiban, and I reviewed the crossover game, Professor Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban. Danganronpa also borrowed a lot from Gyakuten Saiban, but Marutamachi Revoir was just fun because I didn't know at the time that the story would feature that many turnabouts.Heck, it explicitly isn't about the truth in the Revoir novels, just about whether it seems plausible enough, creating an enormous space for people rebutting other people's claims (who in turn get rebutted too...).

Best story I read which I can't discuss in detail!
International Problem II was either the first or the second Guess the Criminal script we did at the Mystery Club this year, but it was definitely the most fun in my opinion. In a sense, Guess the Criminal scripts aren't as much stories as they are pure puzzles, but why complain if it is a splendidly constructed puzzle?

Most Interesting Game. Played in 2012 But Probably Older! 
Professor Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban (Level-5)

A hard one, even if I confine myself to only mystery games! Kamaitachi no Yoru 2, Danganronpa and Professor Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban are all three very strong contenders, as well as Detective Jinguuji Saburou - Yume no Owari ni (At the End of the Dream), which has been waiting for a proper review for half a year now. But force me to name only one title, and I would go with Professor Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban, for the insane theme of witch trial and the witty script. And it was actually released this year.

(And as for non-mystery games I want to mention: 428428428. Play it! And even though I'm not a big platforming Mario fan, I did enjoy Super Mario 3D Land and I am spending way too much time with Animal Crossing New Leaf too. And Suikoden was an awesome RPG too!)

Most Interesting Game I Didn't Play in 2012 But Only Saw A Playthrough Of!
Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo - Hoshimitou - Kanashimi no Fukushuuki (The Case Files of Young Kindaichi - Stargazing Isle - The Sad Monsters of Revenge) (Hudson)

I should buy a SEGA Saturn maybe...

Novel featuring the best reason to decapitate someone!
Clock Tower Jou Satsujin Jiken (Clock Tower Castle Murder Case) (Kitayama Takekuni)

Sorry Jezebel, but you're not even close to what Kitayama came up with in Clock Tower Jou Satsujin Jiken.

And like last year, The Just-Ten-In-No-Particular-Order-No-Comments List:

This isn't the last post of this year, because there is another one scheduled for tomorrow, but I have no idea about after that. Guess we will all find out when the next (after tomorrow's post) one actually goes up!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Backstage Rage

「本番中の演出かご室。 大胆な犯行ですね」
「そうだね」
「犯人は、かなりの知能犯でしょう。一体どんなトリックを使ったんですかね」
「さすがに、この事件は難しそうだね」
「はい。二週またぐ確保ですね」
「犯人が自白した」
「?!!! 」
『33分探偵』

"So in a stage cage room during a performance. What an adacious murder"
"Yes"
"The murderer must be very intellegent. What kind of trick did he use?"
"This case looks difficult"
"Yes. This story will take at least two weeks for us to solve"
"Sir, the criminal just confessed!"
"?!!!"
"33 Minutes Detective"

 I did post the Tozai Mystery Best 100 last week, but I am not sure yet whether I am going to make a best-of-list, like last year. Partly also because I read quite some very good books this year for reading clubs, which makes it harder to make a list. But I might figure out something for that. Like a Japanese/Non-Japanese list or something like that. Still a week to go in this year, so we'll see.

Under normal circumstances, it is quite hard (or at least expensive) to get your hands on a copy of Christianna Brand's Death of Jezebel. When you're in a Mystery Club, you can just casually mention you want to read to the book, only to find out the following day that someone has been nice enough to bring his copy for you to read. Rare books, smare books! Anyway, a nice young lad called Johnny Wise finds his girl Perpetua in the arms of another man, "thanks" to the rather cruel Isabel Drew and commits suicide. Seven years later and Perpetua, the man Johnny found her with and Isabel (whom people also call Jezebel) all receive threatening letters. It also happens that all these players are to participate in a pageant, with Isabel playing the Queen in a tower, surrounding by her knights on horseback. And what happened at the pageant was that Isabel fell down the tower (after being killed), surrouding by her knights on horseback. And nobody in the public saw the murderer enter or leave the tower on stage!

I first have to say that the Johnny's suicide was kinda... fast. I mean, it happens in the first few pages of the book to set-up the story, but the jump between finding out his lover's infidelity and his suicide was quite abrupt. I get that finding your girlfriend in the arms of another man is less than pleasant, but to skip all the (psychological) steps leading up to suicide...

But having addressed that point, I can join the praising parade for Death of Jezebel. I wonder whether reviewing this book is some sort of ritual a mystery blog has to undergo before it is recognized as one. Anyway, first up, the murder! Who doesn't love an impossible murder, commited in front of many witnesses, on stage?! In a sense, all mysteries are a kind of theater, a play that unfolds in front of the reader's eyes and thus such murder stories are closer to meta-fiction than most people would initially think. And I love meta-fiction, so no objections from me.

I  won't say I'm a Brand expert, seeing as I've only read Tour de Force and seen the Green for Danger movie, but I am going to suppose that having multiple (fake) solutions and insane complex logical plotting is a characteristic of Brand. Which again is something I love, so more bonus points. The trick behind Jezebel's murder is complex and certainly impressive enough to hold the structure for a whole book (which isn't always the case for mystery novels). The trick also has a distinct, headless flavor to it you don't see that often in Golden Age mysteries, but something I certainly can appreciate walking round the bloody fields full of decapitated corpses and loose limbs that make Japanese detective novels (ok, it's not that bad. Only relatively).

My second not-sure-whether-this-is-a-Brand-characteristic is the observed murder setting: Tour de Force, Green for Danger and Death of Jezebel all feature impossible crimes, where the crime scene is under (almost) constant observation by multiple witnesses. These crime scenes are under natural observation (it is normal to overlook a beach, just like that doctors and nurses do have to look around in an operation room), with people all doing their own thing (walking around the beach; doing their own tasks in the operation room, the actors in a play), which gives the murderer leeway to execute his trick. The interesting thing is that Brand handles the same situation in very different ways, with different kind of tricks and solutions to the problem. So even if you recognize the setting, you probably won't see what Brand has up her sleeve this time. Which , making her murders all the more puzzling and fun to read. Or watch.

And one final point to make this post absurdly Brand-centric even though I hardly read her work: Death of Jezebel features both inspector Cockrill (of Tour de Force and Green of Danger) and Charlesworth (whom I know absolutely nothing about). Wait, sorry, I don't even have a point to make about this. It's just a fact I wanted to mention.

This is one of those novels that you really want to recommend to other people, only to remember at the last moment that the book is quite rare. And not everybody knows a guy who has a copy of the book available to borrow. Still, it might be a more realistic recommendation to most people, compared to recommending Japanese novels nobody can read. The things money can buy!

Perchance to Dream

「ミチルの街に、神はいないのですか?
いません
では、誰を頼りにいきるのですか
自分自身です。
自分たちが神なのですか」
『女王の百年密室』

"Is there no god in your town, Michiru?
- No.
Who do you rely on in life?
- We rely on ourselves.
Are you yourselves gods then?"
"God Save the Queen"

It's creepy how fast time goes by if you're playing Animal Crossing. If you think about it, it's not that much different from a social game, well, except for the fact that you can perfectly play it on your own and it might make you actually less social in real life, but... so... addicting...

Earlier this year I reviewed the audio drama of Labyrinth in Arm of Morpheus, the second entry in Mori Hiroshi's 100 Years series; earlier this week I finally found the audio drama of Joou no Hyakunen Misshitsu (English title: God Save the Queen), the first adventure of journalist Saeba Michiru and Walkalone (android) partner Roidy. It is 100 years in the future (literally, as the books are set in 2113), technology had significant advancements resulting in androids, flying cars and the works. But cars still break down (especially when you are are heading somewhere to research an article), which leaves Michiru and Roidy wandering around on foot in the middle of nowhere, until they arrive in the walled city of Lunatic City. City-scale self-governing states can be found anywhere in the future, but Lunatic City is, as its name implies, a bit strange. According to its inhabitants, the city, ruled by Queen Debou Suho, is controlled by the god, leading to a for Michiru incomprehensible attitude towards death. In fact, nobody ever 'dies' in Lunatic City, they just fall in a long sleep. Which is what happens to prince Jura. He falls "asleep" in the royal quarters on top of the palace. And gained imprints of some hands on his neck in the process too. But witnesses (including the Queen, who was also present in the royal quarters), swear that nobody entered or left the palace. And what makes this case all the more hard on Michiru: it's not even considered a murder case because death, and therefore murder, doesn't exist in Lunatic City.

I just noticed something in my review of the previous book which is either an enormous coincidence, or I actually used to pay attention when writing my reviews. Anyway, I liked Labyrinth in Arm of Morpheus in general, so I was really looking forward to God Save the Queen and as people might know, whenever someone starts a review like this, chances are it ended up being disappointing. And yes, it was.

Let's just start with the bad: this is not really a fair locked room murder mystery. Not really, in the sense that Mori plays with the rules a bit, that definitely makes sense in-universe (Lunatic City), but not from the perspective of the reader. The problem of the vanishing murderer is solved instantly the moment the hint appears in the story and while I admit that thematically, it is a bit like the impossible crime situation in Labyrinth in Arm of Morpheus (and while I haven't read/listened to that much of Mori, I suspect it's a theme he likes a lot), the decapitation murder in Labyrinth was much more interesting than the murder in this story.

The story is also quite 'heavy' on the reader, who has not only have to cope with the eccentric world of Lunatic City, but also with Michiru, who has a shady past which is revealed as the story progresses. Which is not a bad thing per se, but if you have to deal with a(n unfair) murder mystery, a strange world and a protagonist whom the reader can only see as another mystery, well, it makes it hard for the reader to connect to the world.

Like I mentioned in the Labyrinth review, I quite like these travel-to-new-lands-with-its-own-culture-and-rules stories and I liked the concept of Lunatic City, but I have to say that a world where death is not recognized as such, thus resulting in a world where murder doesn't exist, would really drive a detective-character insane. Michiru wants to find the murderer of the prince, but nobody in Lunatic City seems to be helpful, only looking at Michiru and Roidy as outsiders who don't understand the world (but they are friendly enough to hold banquets in honor of the two).  I've read mysteries before that played with the archetypical roles of detectives, assistents and murderers, but one that actually messes with death, and therefore murder?

God Save the Queen is a fun adventure story with a mystery twist on it, but you shouldn't expect a real fair locked room murder mystery. The radio drama is made extra fun (at least for Detective Conan-fans!), because Takayama Minami, the voice actress of Conan, is doing Saeba Michiru. And yes, everything Michiru says sounds just like Conan.

Original Japanese title(s): 森博嗣 『女王の百年密室 GOD SAVE THE QUEEN』

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Calendar of Crime

「いくぞ!!  地上の愛と正義のために!!  命と魂のすべてをそそぎ込んで!!  今こそ燃えろ 黄金の小宇宙よ!!  この暗黒の世界に… 一条の光明を!! 」
『聖闘士星矢』

"Let's go! For love and justice on this earth! Pour in all of our life and souls! Burn now, our golden Cosmo! To bring forth in this world of darkness... a ray of light!!"
"Saint Seiya"

I had mentioned that we sold the Mystery Club's magazine? book? Souanoshiro at the school festival earlier, but for some reason the internal review of the stories published there doesn't happen until after the festival. Yes, there is internal review on the content and a very extensive check on typos and such before the actual printing (naturally!), but there is no big review with members involved until after we actually sell the product. Which is kinda strange, but anyway... I had about the review meetings already, which can be very, very harsh according to Van Madoy. But people really give very good constructive comments on the writers and I can see how writers would benefit from this proces greatly. It's of course a bit like what I try to do at this site, but you usually don't give comments on a story in front of the writer. It was at least an interesting experience.

Over a year ago, I reviewed Norizuki Rintarou's Hanzai Horoscope 1 - Rokunin no Joou no Mondai ("Horoscope of Crime 1 - The Problem of the Six Queens"), a short story collection with a zodiac theme originally released in 2008. Now, five years later, the sequel has finally been released. Hanzai Horoscope 2 - Sannin no Megami no Mondai ("Horoscope of Crime 2 - The Problem of the Three Goddesses") collects the remaining stories where mystery writer Norizuki Rintarou gets involved with cases that are somehow themed after the legends behind the zodiac signs. Note that while this is similar to Poirot's adventure in The Labours of Hercules, Rintarou isn't actively looking for cases that are connected (sometimes in very oblique ways) to the zodiac: it's all just a coincidence.

[Libra] Shukumei no Majiwaru Shiro de ("At the Castle where Fates Cross") starts with the familiar scene of Superintendent Norizuki asking his son for help in an enigmatic case: he has two murders on his hand that might be the work of a serial killer. Or not. The only connection between the two corpses is the fact that at both crime scenes, the Justice tarot card was found. However, the type of tarot cards used were different and it seems like there is nothing else to really connect these murders. Things start to move when Rintarou first suggest the notion of a murder exchange. Which is actually a trope Norizuki (the actual writer) has used several times now in his short stories. And a novel. I haven't read last year's King wo Sagase ("Look for the King!") yet, but it seems that Shukumei no Majiwaru Shiro de shares the same theme and that this story functions as an early, pilot version of King wo Sagase. I liked the theme of tarot cards and things do get a bit complex near the end (in a good way), but after seeing like two or three other murder exchange stories by Norizuki, I can't say I was really surprised by the solution.

In Horoscope 1, the subtitle belonged to arguably the worst story in the collection. Luckily this time, [Scorpio] Sannin no Megami no Mondai ("The Problem of the Three Goddesses") belongs near the top. This time the superintendent wants the help of Rintarou solving the mystery behind the murder on the president of an idol company. His company was on the verge of bankrupcy and his attempt on a revival of the former hit idol-unit Tri-Star also failed earlier this year because he couldn't collect enough funds (though rumor has it he ran away with the money he did collect!). The former president of the Tri-Star fanclub commited suicide, saying he had killed the company president because he had betrayed the fans. What bothers the superintendent is that he called the three idols of Tri-Star just before his death. Almost as if he was hired by one of the idols to kill the president and that he called to say he had accomplished his mission. The deduction Rintarou shows based on just the telephone records is fun and with a classic which-of-the-three pattern and a focus on material evidence and analysis of who-knew-this-at-what-time, this story feels the most classic (Queen) of the stories collected here.

If it's the superintendent, then it's someone from Rintarou's publisher. [Sagitarius] Ocyrhoe no Shi ("The Death of Ocyrhoe") starts with a request by an editor: a stalker of the fiance of Saji Kurumi, a popular writer has been murdered and the police is suspecting the fiance. Kurumi wants Rintarou, famous as a detective and for his connections with the police, to find out who really killed the stalker. An almost surprisingly fun and complex story. At least, I wasn't expecting much of it at the beginning, to be totally honest. It starts with the lovers telling the story about the stalker, and a lot of impossible punning on Sagitarius and such, but when it moves into the actual investigation of the murder and Rintarou starts to check who could have commited the murder, it starts to evolve in something more akin to the stories that rank amongst the best of Norizuki. Akin, I say, because it feels a bit forced at times. But fun.

An editor lost contact with an influential music critic in [Capricorn] Sakuran no Syrinx ("The Confusion of Syrinx"), so she asks Rintarou for advice, not sure whether it involves some kind of criminal activity or not. It does, as they later find the critic locked and tied up in his sound-proof room in his apartment, having died of lack of water/food. The security cameras show nothing decisive and while the police have some ideas about possible motives, fact remains that the only 'real' clue consist of a dying message left by the dead man, made with his feet. And blood. The message? Something that is probably the zodiac sign for Capricorn. A dying message can often be a hit-or-miss and I would say it is closer to the latter. I have to admit that some of the knowledge/hints required to solve the message where well hidden within the story, but still, it requires quite a bit of one's imagination. Yet, Norizuki made sure it wasn't the only way towards the identity of the murderer and I definitely liked that part of the story. Look at the dying message as an extra, and you're left with a story that is not bad at any rate.

[Aquarius] Ganymedes no Mukuro ("The Corpse of Ganymedes") is where Horoscope 2 starts to crumble. Rintarou is asked for advice by a boy who has an interest in dressing as females, who has drifted apart from his mother, a succesful consultant. One day, the boy was asked by his mother to deliver a suspicious package to a man at a station, but he had to be dressed as a female. As (s)he handed over the package, (s)he was told "Not to worry, the consultant's son is unharmed". Considering the consultant only has one son (and that he of all people was actually the one handing over the package), you can understand the boy's confusion. What follows is a story with deductions that seem grounded on nothing and a solution so absurd it's not really worth writing about.

The final story, [Pisces] Hikisakareta Sougyo ("The Torn Apart Fish"), is also a bit strange. It's about a director of a succesful firm being taken in by a spirit medium, as she has been convinced by him that her son who died 25 years ago had reincarnated that same time, meaning that somewhere, a 25-year old person is walking around with her son's spirit. Using her company's connections and the spirit medium's power, she has found three candidates that could be her son. The president's nephew fears his aunt is being deceived by the medium and asks Rintarou to help him. The story doesn't really rely on foolproof deductions and logic, but more on intuition and a surprise ending that I admit is sorta surprising, but it isn't really satisfying as a mystery story.

While never the same quality as Norizuki Rintarou no Bouken and Norizuki Rintarou no Kouseki, Hanzai Horoscope 2 is definitely a decent collection, especially if you like Greek legends. The stories here often mirror events from the legends in surprising ways, and feel less forced than what Poirot did in his Labours. People who like Queen's short stories or Norizuki's previous collections can definitely pick this one up safely.

Original Japanese title(s): 法月綸太郎 『犯罪ホロスコープII 三人の女神の問題』: 《天秤座》 宿命の交わる城で / 《蠍座》 三人の女神の問題 / 《射手座》オーキュロエの死 / 《山羊座》錯乱のシランクス / 《水瓶座》ガニュメデスの骸 / 《魚座》引き裂かれた双魚

Monday, December 17, 2012

Murder on the Orient Express

「覚悟は決まった? 
VERMOUTH」
『名探偵コナン』第78巻

"Are you ready? 
VERMOUTH "
"Detective Conan" 78

Finally regained my reading spirit. Yes, I realize there isn't much left of this year, but I think I can manage a couple of reviews before the 31st. Probably. Yes, I know I skipped one Conan review. Might come back to that one later.

But no way I am going to skip the review for volume 78 (which shouldn't even release until the day after tomorrow, even though it was available in every bookstore today). I had been looking forward to this volume ever since I read volume 77, which worked as a build-up to the main storyline in this volume. Heck, I'm not even going to bother to go into the details of the other stories collected in this volume (one story with The Judas Window-esque premise where Conan awakes in a locked room with a dead body, and the first chapter in a KID story), because they are just not remotely as fun or interesting as the Bell Tree Mystery Train storyline. Seriously, the only thing you need to know is that this volume has the Mystery Train story.

As hinted at in the previous volume, Conan and his entourage of guardians and the other kids board the Bell Tree, a train owned by the Suzuki Zaibatsu with a Mystery Train theme (like this one): it has an unknown destination and a murder game is to be held among the passengers. The train has only just departed the station when Conan (and the other Detective Boys) become witnesses to a crime scene where they see a man shooting down one of the other passengers in his compartment. At first, Conan and the Detective Boys think it's just part of the murder game and follow the 'murderer' all the way to the next wagon, but lose sight of him. When they decide to return to the victim, they discover that not only the victim's compartment, but that the whole wagon seems to have disappeared! When they do finally find the victim, they realize that this wasn't a game, and that the man did really die.

Oh, and did I mention that the Black Organization is aware of Haibara's presence on the train and that they sent Bourbon there to catch/kill her?

Where to start, where to start? The impossible disappearance of the wagon is solved very quickly actually, after which the tone of the story shifts becomes very much like its great inspiration: Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. Yes, Conan has been involved with murders on trains before (volume 22), but the Bell Tree story was created with that classic in mind very clearly, with several references (including comments which are actually very spoiler-dangerous) and a Mouri Kogorou who tries his best at a Poirot imitation. What's even more fun is that some of the hints and events in this story feel like 'echoes' to Murder on the Orient Express, even though that the things the hints point to, and the main trick used in this story, aren't alike to Orient at all, which is really a feat on its own.

And there is the parallel storyline of the agents of the Black Organization trying to capture Haibara, which really has some of the greatest moments in Conan-history. Here, the story seems to echo the train-storyline in volume 22 too at times, but Aoyama also plays around with the readers expectations (like how he juxtaposed hints and references in the major storylines in volume 26 and 42). And for those who have been reading the manga the last few years: yes, Aoyama finally revealed the identity of Bourbon (a spy who was first mentioned years ago!). It's not that shocking, but at least we have an answer! And the ending is actually great and I really want to see this animated as a long movie-esque TV special soon!

Though I have to note that this Black Organisation story feels less like... Conan-manga long storyline, and more like a Conan-movie. The great stories of the manga, like the main storylines in volume 42 and 58, also featured parallel storylines, one following a case, one following the Black Organisation (though the line between those two in 58 was very blurry), but the two storylines were always very much connected. There was for example a reason for the parallel storylines in volume 42's main story. In the Bell Tree Mystery Train story, we have a murder on a train and almost completely seperate from that the Black Organisation-trying-to-hunt-down-Haibara storyline. Heck, like in the movies, the solving of the murder case is followed by some big event which has almost nothing to do with the murder (in the movies, this often involves having Conan escaping from explosions / flying airplanes / traveling to space) and it feels weird to have such a gap between the murder case and the Black Organisation storyline, because Aoyama had such a good record with this until now.

But I still want to see this animated. Soon.

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン』第78巻

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Ten Little Indians

「ナンバーワンにならなくてもいい もともと特別なオンリーワン」 
「世界に一つだけの花」 (SMAP) 

"You don’t need to become number one 
You’re special, the only one of you, to begin with
"A flower of which there is only one in this world" (SMAP)

Yes, I know I haven't been really active lately. I haven't really read any books even lately; it's been a bit busy with papers and other reports, though the worst is over now. And with that, I mean that this whole weekend was spent on writing. Oh well, just one last week before winter break starts...

And as I haven't read anything these three weeks, I figured I would post something that should interest fans of the mystery genre all over the world, but still wouldn't involve me having to read. People all over the world like to list things. Especially at the end or the beginning of the year. Which is also true of mystery fans. There are probably countless of lists out there. One of the more famous Japanese lists of mystery novels is the Tozai Mystery Best 100, a list originally published in 1985 by Weekly Bunshun consisting of two lists of all-time best mystery novels (Japanese novels, and foreign novels), voted by mystery writers, critics and other mystery-related persons and institutions.

And I had already sorta refered to it in this post, but a new Tozai Mystery Best 100 was compiled this year. The Kyoto University Mystery Club was also one of the institutions asked to vote, which resulted in a long discussion and a lot of politics and strategic voting at the club when we compiled our list (i.e, Ellery Queen ended up very low at our list, because the seniors figured that other people would vote for Queen anyway).  Anyway, I thought it might be interesting for both fans of Japanese mystery novels, as well as people not specifically focusing on Japanese novels to see what classics made it (or didn't!) made it into the top ten.

National (Japanese) Top Ten:

1. Gokumontou ("Prison Gate Island") (Yokomizo Seishi) 
2. Kyomu he no Kumotsu ("Offerings to Nothing") (Nakai Hideo) 
3. Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Astrology Murder Case") (Shimada Souji) 
4. Dogura Magura (Yumeno Kyuusaku) 
5. Kasha ("Fire Chariot") (Miyabi Miyuki) 
6. Ten to Sen ("Points and Lines") (Matsumoto Seichou) 
7. Daiyuukai ("A Grand Kidnapping") (Tendou Shin) 
8. Jukkakukan no Satsujin ("The Decagon House Murders") (Ayatsuji Yukito) 
9. Mouryou no Hako ("The Mouryou Box") (Kyougoku Natsuhiko) 
10. Honjin Satsujin Jiken ("The Daimyou's Inn Murder Case") (Yokomizo Seishi) 

For those interested, Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken (no. 3) is available in English as The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, Kasha (no. 5) as All She Was Worth and Ten to Sen (no. 6) as Points and Lines. Also interesting to note that Gokumontou retained its position as the absolute number one, and that Yokomizo is features twice in the top ten.

By the way, the following entries in the Japanese top 100 are also available in English: The Devotion of Suspect X (Higashino Keigo, 13), The Summer of the Ubume (Kyougoku Natsuhuko, 23). The Two Sen Copper Coin (Edogawa Rampo, 24), Inspector Imanishi Investigates (Matsumoto Seichou, 35), The Tattoo Murder Case (Takagi Akimitsu, 32), Beast in the Shadows (Edogawa Rampo, 35), The Inugami Clan (Yokomizo Seishi, 39), The Casebook of Hanshichi (Okamoto Kidou, 42), OUT (Kirino Natsuo, 43), Shinjuku Shark (Oosawa Arimasu, 65) and The Strange Tale of Panorama Island (Edogawa Rampo, 87; scheduled for this month).

Edit: The following books are also available in English (thanks to Dokuta of the Asia Mystery League): The Poison Ape: A Shinjuku Shark Tale (45, Oosawa Arimasu), The Red Star of Cadiz (85, Oosaka Gou), Zero Over Berlin (91, Sasaki Jou) and The Sleeping Dragon (99, Miyabe Miyuki).

Foreign (Non-Japanese) Top Ten:

1. And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie) 
2. The Tragedy of Y (Ellery Queen) 
3. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle) 
4. Phantom Lady (William Irish) 
5. The Murder of Roger Akroyd (Agatha Christie) 
6. The Long Goodbye (Raymond Chandler) 
7. The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco) 
8. Father Brown's Innocence (G.K. Chesterton) 
9. The Silence of the Lambs (Thomas Harris) 
10. The Burning Court (John Dickson Carr)

For those wondering, the Tragedy series by Queen have always been very well received in Japan. Almost enigmatically so. 

And commence commenting on the absurdity / correctness of these lists... now.

Original Japanese title(s): 週刊文春 『東西ミステリーベスト100』

Saturday, December 1, 2012

To Switch a Witch

"If she weighs the same as a duck..... She's made of wood"
"And therefore?"
"A witch!"
"Monty Python and the Holy Grail"

Many moons ago, I bought my Nintendo DS for the sole purpose of playing the courtroom battle detective game Gyakuten Saiban / Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney after seeing this awesome trailer. And then I switched over to a DS Lite, put gave clear instructions that 'my' DS has to play at least one Gyakuten game once a year. And once again, I bought a new game system to play one game.


Professor Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban (Nintendo 3DS) is a grand crossover between Level-5's Professor Layton series and Capcom's Gyakuten Saiban series, the former being a quirky adventure game built around the premise of solving (mostly non-story related) puzzles, while the latter is an adventure detective game built around the premise of courtroom battles. And I like both series. So there was no way I was going to miss this release. Especially not when I heard that Takumi Shuu, the original creater / scenario writer / director of the main Gyakuten Saiban series was involved with the scenario.

The game starts with both professor Layton (and assistant Luke) and ace attorney Naruhodo (and assistent Mayoi) getting involved with a mysterious girl called Mahone in London. After their respective encounters with the girl, both the Layton and Naruhodo duo end up in a mysterious place called Labyrinth City, a medieval town where magic and witches exist. Mahone ends up being arrested for suspicion of being a witch (with her seemingly incinerating two robbers with fire magic according to the witnesses) and it is up to Naruhodo to defend Mahone in the Witch Trials. And Layton is there solving random puzzles and the mystery behind Labyrinth City, like he always does.

This game really did it right by making witch trials its subject, because it is a theme that fits both the Professor Layton and Gyakuten Saiban series. What's more, it brings all kinds of new elements to the familiar courtroom battles of Gyakuten Saiban that really make it a must-play for fans of the series (the Layton part of the game is sadly enough not as interesting, with few interesting puzzles). I already wrote about how detecting works within the Gyakuten Saiban games (multiple times by now), so I will mostly look at the new things here.


And witches are definitely new. Whereas in the main Gyakuten Saiban series, you are 1) trying to prove your client's innocence and 2) trying to find the real culprit, you are doing something completely different here. Technically, Mahone is tried for being a witch, not for killing two men with magic. Naruhodo thus isn't trying to find the real culprit (witch) or trying to prove Mahone didn't kill anyone, he has to proof that Mahone isn't a witch. Which requires quite a different approach to the trials.

One might also wonder, how does a detective game work in a fantasy setting where magic and witches exist? (It is actually a bit like this) Well, by having rules to magic (akin to how alchemy works in Fullmetal Alchemist). In Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban, there exists three conditions to magic: a witch must be holding a staff as she casts magic, she must say the proper enchantment for it to work and the staff she is holding must be equiped with the proper magic stone for the type of magic she wants to cast. These conditions form the foundation upon Witch Trials are based.


The clear rules to witchcraft is what makes Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban work as a fair detective. While set in a fantasy setting, Takumi Shuu made sure that the player knows what is possible (and not) even in a world where magic exists, thus preserving a fair-play setting. Like I mentioned in my review of Mori Hiroshi's Subete ga F ga ni Naru, not knowing what is possible can have great effects on how one perceives/enjoys a certain detective story. A bit back a Guess the Criminal script presented at the Mystery Club also revolved around the existence of youkai and such, but the clear presentation of the rules of the game made it a very enjoyable story.

Abstractly seen, the whole witchcraft setting isn't that different from what you usually do in Gyakuten Saiban though: like always you're on the lookout for contradictions made by witnesses by comparing testimonies with evidence. This time however, Naruhodo is also in possession of the Complete Works in Witchcraft, where you can check what rules exist for the different kinds of magic. What is considered common sense, might be different in a world where witchcraft exists, but it is the same logic with which you find the real murderer (witch) in this game.


The other big difference in the Witch Trials compared with the main Gyakuten Saiban series is the mob examination. Instead of listening to each witness' testimony after another, you are now forced to crossexamine multiple persons at the same time, with sometimes extra people suddenly dropping in and out! It is supposed to emulate the chaos Takumi envisioned when imagining how a witch trial would proceed, and it works. Witnesses react to each other's testimonies, resulting in some very unpredictable trials. Suspense in its storytelling has always been a staple of the Gyakuten Saiban series and it is only strengthened by the mob testimonies.

It's because of these additions that the Layton part of the game feels underwhelming. Whereas the courtroom segments (i.e. the Gyakuten Saiban part of the game) have all kinds of new things, the Layton part of the game (exploration of the town, solving logic puzzles) features nothing new. In fact, it's not nearly as interesting as a real Layton game, as this game features fewer and easier puzzles compared to full-fledged Layton titles.


Though I have to admit: the new elements in the courtroom segments aren't always used as effectively as I would have liked (especially the Complete Works on Witchcraft feels underused) and the last trial segment is too long and not particularly interesting actually. The Gyakuten Saiban part of the game reaches its climax relatively early in the game, sadly enough.

Some other non-detective points of interest: the game has great production values, as expected from Level-5 (responsible for main programming). Animated sections, music, voiced lines. Seeing Naruhodo as a 3D model (instead of sprites) actually works and the orchestrated music is simply amazing (seriously, I want this running in the background if I ever get to accuse someone of murder). Too bad they used Narumiya Hiroki as Naruhodo's voice actor though: he played a solid Naruhodo in the live-action movie, but he just doesn't work as a game/animation voice actor. It's been a while since I heard such boring voice-acting (well, April actually).

Anyway, this is must-play material for fans of both series, naturally. It especially poses interesting stuff to Gyakuten Saiban fans, as expected because of Takumi's involvement with the development, but Professor Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban also serves as a great example of how to effectively present a fair detective story within a fantasy setting.

Original Japanese title(s): 『レイトン教授vs逆転裁判』

Thursday, November 29, 2012

『QはQuestionのQ』

「思い出と記憶って、どこが違うか知っている?」 犀川は煙草を消しながら言った。
「思い出は良いことばかり、記憶は嫌なことばかりだわ」
「そんなことはないよ。嫌な思い出も、楽しい記憶もある」
「じゃあ、何です?」
「思い出は全部記憶しているけど、記憶は全部は思い出せないんだ」
『すべてがFになる - The Perfect Insider』

"Do you know what's the difference between memories and recollections?" Saikawa asked while he extinguished his cigarette.
"All memories are good, while recollections are bad"
"That's not right. You can have bad memories, and also good recollections"
"What's the difference then?"
"All recollections are memorized, but you can't recollect all of your memories"
"Everything Becomes F - The Perfect Insider"

Last week was the November Festival of Kyoto University, at which the Mystery Club was selling its magazine (?) Souanoshiro (or Souajou; both readings are correct). The first year members (even though I'm far from a first year student) were in charge of the booth, which was a new kind of experience. I had been to Kyushu University's school festival before, but such a festival is definitely different if you're on the selling side. Interesting was that Van Madoy himself was present at the booth too (often to sleep, but also to sign books). In fact, a lot of old members drop by to pick up this year's Souanoshiro, which meant that Maya Yutaka and Abiko Takemaru also visited the booth. And I totally got their Mii's with the 3DS's StreetPass functionality.

But anyway...

Mori Hiroshi's Subete ga F ni Naru - The Perfect Insider ("Everything Becomes F - The Perfect Insider") is the first novel in the S&M series starring assistent professor Saikawa Souhei and first year student (and old acquaintance) Nishinosono Moe, a dynamic duo that solves mainly locked room problems. We are first introduced to Magata Shiki, a genius (overall genius, but specialized in computer science and programming), who was once considered a child prodigy. Until that whole being accused of killing her parents incident when she was 14 years old and being diagnosed as suffering from multiple personality disorder. Since then she has been living inside locked quarters inside the Magata research institute, located on Himakajima island. Her living quarters are separated from the rest of the institute by two doors: one door can only be opened by Shiki herself, while the other has to be opened by other people at the institute. During a visit to Himakajima island, Saikawa and Moe request to meet Magata, only to be greeted by her corpse, in a wedding dress, while the computers inside her room display the enigmatic message: "Everything becomes F".

Hmmm. Subete ga F ni Naru is one of those famous works in contemporary Japanese mystery novels you just have to read and most people like it quite a lot, but for some reason or another, it just doesn't 'click' with me. It is definitely not a bad book (far from it!) and it does sorta mark the beginning of the scientific detective novel movement in Japan, so I can't really afford to ignore it here, but I really have trouble finding the right words to describe how I experienced Subete ga F ni Naru. Which explains why I wrote this review weeks after I had read the book. Well, that and I always have trouble finding relevant post titles.

There are roughly two problems in the novel: what happened inside Shiki's triple locked room (the island, the institute and Shiki's room), and how did the murderer escape from the locked room? It's the solution to the latter problem I don't really like (I love the former though). It is a trick that is quite innovative (especially considering the original release date of 1994!), but it is not completely fair to the reader. The foreshadowing/hints is/are not clear enough, or at least not detailed enough to absolutely point to the one solution. In hindsight, it all makes sense, but there are some details vital to the solution that seem skimmed over in the text until Saikawa gives the solution. It is a great trick in theory though and I would have been very pleased with it if Mori had planted more detailed hints in the text.

Even though this novel is set in reality, I had troubles in guessing what 'rules' Mori was going by with this story. It is something that can arise when dealing with mystery novels set in the future, or with a fantasy setting, but this is one of the rare instances where I had such troubles in a realistic setting. Of course, most mysteries I read are either set in an age where technology hasn't advanced this far yet, or set at an isolated location, or have a setting where technological advancement simply have no role, so that might explain why I didn't really "get" it. It's the same problem I often have with Higashino Keigo's scientific mystery series, Detective Galileo (applies mostly to the short stories).

I also had problems with the characters in the novel. Yes, they are all memorable and come alive on the pages, but in a slightly exaggerated way. It is for example a bit hard to swallow Shiki's genius if everything she does is just explained away by 'she's a genius'. Subete ga F ni Naru is not only a starting point for scientific mysteries, it is also often seen as one of the earliest novels to invoke kyara moe (not moe kyara by the way. That is something else). In short, to look at a work focusing on the characters (as opposed to plot, structure etc.). Definitely something to consider if you want to look at society and (second stage) New Orthodox detective novels, even if I am not really interested in that period.

Subete ga F ni Naru is definitely not bad and I am actually quite fond of the problem of what happened in Shiki's room, but I just can't feel that enthusiastic about the novel. Maybe it's because of the (unfair) expectations I had because it was such a famous book, maybe because scientific detectives, kyara moe and stuff aren't for me, but I am more likely to continue with Mori's 100 Years series than the S&M series. For those not fluent in Japanese, yet interested and fluent in French, I am sure the manga version has been released in France as F - The Perfect Insider.

Original Japanese title(s): 森博嗣 『すべてがFになる The Perfect Insider』

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Farewell, My Lovely

「どうして幸せになるおうと思わないんだって聴いてるんだ!」 流の問いに達也は少し考えた後にこう答えた。
「僕の憧れた仮面ライダーは改造人間なんですよ」
「ああ、それはもう聴いた」
「この有名なフレーズの後にこう続くことは知ってますか?『彼らは決して再び人間に戻ることは出来ない』と。それでも人間のために闘うんだ。自分のことは度外視して」
『今出川ルヴォワール』

"I am asking you why you don't even try to attain happiness!" Tatsuya took a while to think about Mitsuru's question and then answered: "I wanted to be like Kamen Rider, an artificial human."
"You already said that."
"Do you know what comes after that famous phrase? They will never be able to turn back into humans. But despite that, they fight for humankind. Ignoring their own troubles."
"Imadegawa Revoir"

Something backstage, but I finally updated the library. Something I hadn't done since July. I really should learn to do it whenever I post a new review, instead of just staring at an evergrowing backlog of entries to be added.

Have I ever spoken about my love for the Japanese bunkobon pocket format? Most of the books I buy are in those format (which also explains why I seldom read new releases, which are usually released as hardcovers first). They have better paper and durability than the pockets you usually see in the English-language releases, but the best part is just the size. First of all, it's a universal size (as opposed to the ever-changing sizes of English-languge pockets), meaning I can use my custom book covers on all of them. Secondly, you can read bunkobon with just one hand! I can stand in a packed train with no space to move and still read a book! And I can fit in my coat pocket just as easy! I really wish such a format was available for English releases too.

Revoir series
Marutamachi Revoir
Karasuma Revoir
Imadegawa Revoir
Kawaramachi Revoir 

Van Madoy's Imadegawa Revoir is the third book in the Revoir series and was released just a couple of weeks ago actually (so no bunkobon available yet, sadly enough). I usually don't read new releases, but seeing as Van Madoy himself is going to hold a reading club session of the book at the Mystery Club this week, I just had to read it (which also explains the Karasuma Revoir review earlier this week). The story starts very surprisingly with a Gathering of the Twin Dragons where Midou Tatsuya, Dragon of the Tatsuki family and one of the protagonists of the series, is accused of the act of murder on a monk of the Daionji temple in Kyoto. Daionji was once a gambling heaven, with the grand Gongon'e gambling tournament held on the day before and on the day itself of the famous Kyoto festival, Daimonji. The revenge Tatsuya has been planning, which was alluded to in the previous works, seems indeed to be directed at Daionji temple and the Gongon'e, but did he really kill someone out of revenge?

Probably the first time that I read multiple books in the same series within one week. But I am glad that it was the Revoir series, because Imadegawa Revoir felt very different and refreshing, even though at the same time, it retains its identity as a Revoir story. I already noted it in my review of Karasuma Revoir, but Madoy seems to try something completely different with every story, whilst preserving the series' characteristics. Imadegawa Revoir makes another big change in the structure: whereas Marutamachi Revoir and Karasuma Revoir were structured to have a climax in a Gathering of the Dragons, Imadegawa actually starts with a Gathering of the Twin Dragons, with the main part of the story focusing on the great gambling tournament Gongon'e.

At this point, I might once again point attention to the fact that Van Madoy belonged to the Kyoto University Mystery Club. Why? Well, this is probably something slightly less known outside the circle itself, but there is a lot of mahjong playing in the club room. The rumbling of mahjong tiles is something you will get used to very fast. We have also specialist mahjong manga magazines lying around here, together with classics like Kaiji and Akagi. Heck, Ayatsuji Yukito is not only known as a mystery writer, but also as a mean mahjong player. So it is not very strange to see such influences in the Revoir series. In fact, there have been many, many mahjong references up until now, but Imadegawa Revoir really feels like a gambling manga when the Gongon'e tournament starts, with people trying to outplay each other (or outright cheat, if they don't have the skills to play fair). But no problem if you don't know mahjong: the important games in this novel are about a card game called Ootori, with few rules, yet with enough room for very exciting scenes.

And no, there are no card games on motorcycles.

Like mentioned, the dynamics of this novel are quite different from the previous two novels: the first part is a classic Gathering of the Twin Dragons like we have seen before, with fast-paced deduction battles between the two competing Dragons (prosecution and defense). The Gongon'e tournament part feels, for obvious reasons, less like a classic detective novel, with the focus a bit scrambled, looking at both Tatsuya's ties with his family and the Daionji temple and the actual games played at the Gongon'e, with a lot happening in between. It is a bit chaotic and the complete picture feels less organized compared to the much cleaner Marutamachi Revoir and Karasuma Revoir.

Card games (gambling games) aren't as different from the normal Gathering of the Twin Dragons trials as you would initially think: in both events, the players try to outbluff their opponement with the little ammunition they obtain, be it through luck or through expertise. And you can cheat as long as you don't get found out. The difference here is that the Gathering of the Twin Dragons is much more flexible: Dragons fight with theories, with deductions, which can go into a wide variety of directions. Because of the singular rules of the card game Ootori, players do have a range of options (cooperation, non-cooperation, stealing points from opponents etc.), but it is naturally less freedom than you have with theories. In the end, it is a card game with rules to abide to. These Gatherings of the Twin Dragons were at their best when you had no idea who would come up with what kind of theory/interpretation based on the evidence available, but here the player's actions feel confined to the cards and the rules of the game, removing a lot of the trademark impredictibility of the series. Also, th usage of a tournament set up to drive forth the plot results in another loss in the trademark impredictibility of the series, because you know how a tournament works: with winners of single duels progressing until they reach the finals. With the Gathering of the Twin Dragons, you never knew what was going to happen.

But the bigger question, is this still a detective novel? It is definitely a mystery novel in the wide sense of the term, but the trial of Midou Tatsuya (ergo the investigation into the murder of the murdered monk) is resolved in the first part of the story, with no real big mystery left to drive the plot forwards (there are some less important plot-related mysteries, but they aren't able to support a complete story on their own). While the approach to it was different, both Marutamachi Revoir and Karasuma Revoir were about finding a truth, an explanation for possible murder cases by creating theories and finding (or fabricating) evidence. Imadegawa Revoir loses this aspect early in the story. That is not to say that there is nothing left to solve in the second half of the story (especially the events during the finals of the Gongon'e are interesting!), with just enough hinting to consider those fair mysteries, but they feel more like a side-dish than the main.

Finally, just an observation, but this novel felt the most connected to the city of Kyoto of all three Revoir novels. All novels are named after the streets in Kyoto and the geography and cityscape of Kyoto are all featured in the Revoir novels (especially the areas near Kyoto University, for obvious reasons), but I think that those who are familiar with Kyoto will be very pleased in the surprising way the city and its customs appears in this story (and with that I mean at the end).

Anyway, Imadegawa Revoir was once again Revoir-ish in the sense of it being totally different from what I'd expected it to be. The direction this novel took kinda limited the usage of the series' settings I think, but such changes at least save the series from becoming stale and it worked to an extent in this case. Sudden changes are just part of Revoir. And the story ends on a cliffhanger-of-sorts, so I hope a new Revoir appears next year too!

Original Japanese title(s): 円居挽 『今出川ルヴォワール』