Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Journey into Lost Memories

『かまいたちの夜2 監獄島のわらべ唄』

'Do you remember?'
The man asked again 
A: I remember
B: I don't remember
"Night of the Kamaitachi 2 - The Warabe Uta of Prison Island"

As the club room of the Mystery Club is located conveniently on the university campus,  I usually spend quite some time a week there between classes and stuff. Because it certainly beats having to cycle back and forth from my room in the heat and / or rain every time. And also because the club room is packed with interesting books and games. And manga. Loads of manga. Not sure what series like Hokuto no Ken and Chuuka Ichiban! are doing in our room, but I sure like it!

And there is a small shelf with non-Japanese novels. By which I mean, books written in languages besides Japanese. Most of them are naturally English, but there are also Italian, German, Korean and Chinese books there. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the name Patrick Quentin among the English books, as he/they was/were mentioned quite often in the mystery blog-world some time ago and because the title seemed slightly familiar, I decided to read Puzzle for Fiends to kill the time until my next class started. And the amount of dust that flew into the air and the dirty fingers I had by the time I had finished the novel suggested that very few members of the club actually touch the non-Japanese parts of the shelves. And to continue this random selection of observations before I discuss the novel itself: this Penguin paperback was actually bought for almost 800 yen in a secondhand bookstore! Which is, yes, quite expensive.

Especially as I didn't like the novel that much. Anyway, one day a man awakens in a house he doesn't remember, surrounded by people he doesn't remember. And he sure doesn't remember why he's got cast on his arm and leg. Well, to be honest, there is a lot our protagonist doesn't remember, as he is apparently suffering from amnesia after a car accident. He is told that he is Gordy Friend, husband to sensual Serena, brother to beautiful Marny and the son of Mimsey Friend. Oh, and his father died apparently died recently. But that is of no concern. It is probably just a matter of time before he recollects it all, he is told. Of course, the reader is aware that the so-called Gordy Friend is actually series detective Peter Duluth, who for some reason has lost his memory and is now in the care of a strange family who is trying very hard to make him believe he is someone else...

So apparently the writing duo of Patrick Quentin changed their formula for the Peter Duluth (Puzzle for...) series from a Golden Age formula after the war, with this obviously being more of a thriller. In fact, it feels very much like a Hitchcock movie and I'll admit I had fun with this book in the earlier parts, where Peter was struggling with his memory and trying to figure out who he was. It certainly read as a movie and I could easily visualise the whole thing. Though on the other hand, it seems like a waste to have used a series detective for this story: right from the start the reader is aware that the amnesia patient is Peter Duluth (the story starts with a short narrative with Peter and his wife), so that takes a bit of the suspense and tension away as you know that all of Peter/Gordy's suspicions of his 'family' are correct and you can bet that there really is something going on in the Friend mansion.

In the second half of the story, Peter does solve the mystery of his own role in the charade and even manages to solve some murders, but it is also incredibly predictable, which almost took away all pleasure I had with the story. The plot developments in the second half can be guessed even before they happen and you'd probably be right too! I think I might have liked the second half if this really had been a movie, but with some expectations for Patrick Quentin and this actually being a novel, well, I couldn't help but be disappointed.

And yes, I know, I should try the earlier novels in the series, but we sadly don't have them in the club room. Not in English at least. Maybe I should have listened to my gut-feeling instead of to my curiosity, as I could also have read Christianna Brand's Tour de Force today...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

『a=x, b=x, ∴a=b』

『殺人方程式 切断ざれた死体の問題』

"I found the answer. The answer to the three problems I pointed out last night. And naturally, I also found out the truth and the true culprit behind this case. What about inserting a 'challenge to the reader' here like in those detective novels of the past?"
"Murder Equation - The Problem of the Cut Up Body"

By now, most readers must have noticed that I seldom do what I say I will probably do at this blog. For those expecting a review of the next volume in Ayatsuji Yukito's Yakata series: sorry, but your princess in another castle. A castle which will probably come anyway if you wait long enough.

But hey, at least the Ayatsuji Yukito part is right! Satsujin Houteishiki - Setsudan Sareta Shitai no Mondai ("Murder Equation - The Problem of the Cut Up Body") has a neat title, I think and it starts out neat too. One day, the naked, dead body of a man is found on top of the roof of the Residence K apartment complex in S Town in Shinagawa Prefecture. Oh wait, maybe I should be more specific: the naked, dead body of a man who has been decapitated and is missing an arm too. It doesn't take long for the police to identify the corpse as Kidena Gouzou, the current head of the Mitagami Shoumeikai sect. The headquarters of the Mitagami Shoumeikai is located on the other side of a river across Residence K and Gouzou was supposed to have been in the penthouse there, as he was going through a ritual to officially take over the role of head of the sect from his recently deceased wife Mitsuko. Yet nobody saw him leave the building, nor did anybody see him enter Residence K. So how did he move from one building to another, losing a head and arm (and his life!) in the process?

Satsujin Houteishiki is despite this summary quite a light-hearted mystery. It is very different from the Yakata series and is mostly reminiscent of a two-hour TV drama. Which is usually a bad thing. But the main puzzle, 'the problem of the cut-up body', as the subtitle says, is luckily quite well-done. Ayatsuji himself admits that the main premise of the trick is not particularly original, but he adds enough of extras, like interesting clues to point to the murderer and the method, to keep it from feeling like just a rehash. This novel's main trick is also very different from what you'd expect from Ayatsuji if you're mostly familiar with him through the Yakata series (like me) though, so that also served as a pleasant surprise.

Ayatsuji also employs several styles of story-telling in this novel, which makes this novel a pleasure to read. The first chapter for example sketches a couple scenes starrring several star-players in the story around the time of the murder, while the second is a pure police procedural. The third chapter on the other hand feels more like an early Queen scene where the great detective makes some small deductions that lead up to new developments. The switching between these styles never feels forced and I myself was quite surprised how fast I finished this book, which is definitely because of this writing-style.

I have to say that the story feels almost too light at times though. It starts with the series detective(s): Asukai Kyou, who can't stand the sight of corpses and who only became a police officer because his wife wanted him to be one. And his twin (older) brother, who for convenience's sake is also called Kyou (written differently in Japanese though). They are fun to read as characters, sure, but the casts feels radically different from the gloomy and mysterious Yakata series and it took me quite some time to get used to them. The part where older brother Kyou 'dresses up' as his younger brother to get more information almost feels like slapstick or even comic-esque and this light touch to the story combined with the plot-element of sects/ new religions made me think of Nikaidou Reito's Karuizawa Magic, which is never good.

It is funny though that Ayatsuji mentions in the afterward that the editors originally requested him to write a travel mystery starring a police detective. Which was kinda not what Ayatsuji wanted and in the end they settled for going for a story starring an incredible trick, but to me, Satsujin Houteishiki really feels very close to the light two-hour police dramas that are so prevalent in Japan because of the writing style and the cast. Well, it does feature an incredible trick that would befit Shimada Souji, but still...

I really don't have that much to say about Satsujin Houteishiki actually. It is fun to read and certainly easier to get into than the Yakata series and the main problem is interesting too. But is... very different from the Yakata series. You won't find much of the elements that make that series so interesting in this novel. This is not (really) meta-fiction (though you might say it barely touches the borders). Not being the Yakata series isn't a bad thing per se though and like I said, there are definitely points worthwile to this novel, but yeah. Different.

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人『殺人方程式 切断ざれた死体の問題』

Tuesday, June 19, 2012



"That is very much possible. I don't know about that maid, but there is not a single person here who hasn't read that famous novel by Queen"
"The Labyrinth House Murders"

Spending an entire night (and the morning) casting current members of the Mystery Club in the roles of the characters in Jukkakukan no Satsujin. Weird, but fun. Oh, and I can't divulge too much about this as this is something private of the Club, but do people really think that there are actual great detectives here when they see Kyouto Daigaku Suiri Shousetsu Kenkyuu Kai ("Kyoto University Detective Fiction Research Club", the official name of the Mystery Club)? Hey, this isn't the Koigakugo Academy Detective Club!

But now for something completely different. Or not completely. I mean, in the end it's all detective-fiction-related...

Meirokan no Satsujin ("The Labyrinth House Murders") is the third novel in Ayatsuji Yukito's Yakata series, which features amateur detective Shimada Kiyoshi and the mysterious buildings built by architect Nakamura Seiji. The titular Labyrinth House is an underground mansion, inspired by the myth of the Minotaur. And by inspired, I mean that the mansion is actually a labyrinth. The owner of the mansion, mystery writer Miyagaki Youtarou invited his four disciples, his editor (and wife), a critic and mystery fan Shimada Kiyoshi to his mansion for a special event, but he is found dead when they arrive. A recorded tape however tells them that he hopes that his disciples will improve their works and challenges them in writing a detective story within five days after his death, under the condition that nobody leaves the mansion until then. Their stories have to be set in the Labyrinth Mansion and they themselves have to appear as victims within their stories. The winner, determined by the editor and critic, is to inherit the whole fortune of Miyagaki. However, the four disciples are killed one after another and what's more surprising, they are all killed according to their own stories!

One year later, a novel is written based on the murders that happened in the Labyrinth House and a copy is delivered to Shimada. One of the persons connected to the case wrote the novel, but who? And why did he/she write down the horrible events that happened in the Labyrinth?

People who have been following this blog for some time, might know that I have a weakness for 1) Greek mythology and 2) meta-mystery, especially featuring writers, editors and fans. You might infer my reaction to Meirokan no Satsujin based on the summary above. Writers get a free bonus point with me whenever they employ any of these tropes, but Ayatsuji's third novel is also very good even without those bonus points.

First of all, the story-within-a-story framework is excellent. The story starts with Shimada receiving the book based on the murders in which he acknowledges that one of the persons involved wrote the novel, followed by the novel itself. Shimada thus challenges the reader (us), to not only solve the murders that happen within the story-within-a-story, but also to find out which of the characters that appear in the micro-narrative is in fact the writer. The two-dimensional narrative is something Ayatsuji likes a lot (c.f. island-mainland in Jukkakukan no Satsujin and past-present in Suishakan no Satsujin), but I think it works the best here; the integration within the whole narrative feels the most natural, compared to how it appears in the previous two novels.

Spoilers for Jukkakukan no Satsujin and Suishakan no Satsujin (select to read):
It was obvious from the start with the previous novels that Ayatsuji intended to fool the reader by using the two narratives, i.e. implying existing relations between the narratives or denying them. Which made solving them rather easy. By starting with saying that there is something fishy to the document in Meirokan no Satsujin, we at least know that Ayatsuji is going for something slightly different here.
End Spoilers 

Four disciples who are murdered according to their own stories and a labyrinth as the location for those murders. Yes, this novel is packed with thrilling events. It is a really exciting read, especially as any detective story gets more exciting when it is a genuine closed circle situation. Which this is, as the keys to get out of the Labyrinth House disappear early on in the story. The closed circle is once again a much-used trope of Ayatsuji, although this time it is not as natural as in Jukkakukan no Satsujin. But the setting! Just imagine being locked up in a labyrinth with a murderer on the loose! Ayatsuji is quite good at writing easy-to-read, but very exciting stories and this is no exception. I have to admit though, that at times it almost feels too much is going on. A locked room murder, a dying message, the labyrinth, the murders made to resemble the stories the disciples were writing... It almost feels like overkill, especially near the last half of the story-within-the-story, as events follow each other rather rapidly.

The murders made to resemble the scripts, as a plot-device, is fun to read though. One day, I will come up with a better English term for the Japanese mitate-satsujin than 'resembling' murder, but until that day, I will always refer to this older post. The previous two novels, despite obvious differences in characters and setting, were actually very similar in an abstract way, also looking tropes in use. The 'resembling' murder trope here thus feels quite 'fresh', even though it is an often employed trope within Japanese detective fiction. The motive for the resembling murders here is a lot more amusing than the motives you usually in detective fiction though and what is even more interesting is that Ayatsuji actually plays with the common motives, acknowledging them as legit, but also going one level deeper with the trope.

I also liked how the mansion built by Nakamura Seiji actually appeared to be a really menacing location within the story. In Jukkakukan no Satsujin, Nakamura Seiji as a person seemed of more importance than the titular Decagon House, while the Water Mill House of Suishakan no Satsujin, admittedly worked as a creepy setting (and it gave us a creepy discovery-of-the-corpse-scene!), but it never felt threatening as an object on its own. The claustrophobic Labyrinth House with an actual labyrinth inside it and references to Greek mythology however is really impressive as a location and much more fitting to be mentioned in the title.

And of course, the genre-savviness! I still like the meta-conciousness of Jukkakukan no Satsujin more than this novel, as the discussions there feel a lot more natural / realistic to me. This time, most of the genre-savviness and meta-talk derives from Shimada himself. The contents themselves might be as entertaining as always, but these kind of things just feel more natural when spoken by a member of a Mystery Club. Yes, this is a totally personal feeling, but hey, opinions on novels are based personal experiences.

So short story, I like this novel. A lot. Which makes it very alluring to move up the other books in the series up in my reading pile...

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人 『迷路館の殺人』



"A train running on rails is better than a train not running at all"

Rewatching Detective Conan: The Fourteenth Target and Detective Conan: Lost Ship in the Sky with people of the Mystery Club didn't change my opinion about the movies, but it sure was fun to watch those movies with foreknowledge, which led to amusing comments and shared feelings. The sounds of sorrow and pain when inspector Megure first appeared in The Fourteenth Target were priceless. Oh, and people who remember every person in the keyholes at the back of every volume are amazing. And never underestimate the international power of Super Smash Bros.

Anyway, I was surprised in the weekend by the sudden early release of Conan 76, but I had also forgotten that the first volume of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ("The Casefiles of Young Kindaichi") was also released last weekend. First volume, you ask? Surely I reviewed it earlier this year, you say. Or you might even point out that the first volume of the series was released quite some time ago. 20 years to be exact.

Which would all be correct. But to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo series, publisher Kodansha actually commissioned a new serialized series, as opposed to the short limited series of the last couple of years. This means that like Conan, Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo now has regained a regular publishing schedule without a planned conclusion. This is also reflected in this new release of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo: it is branded as the first volume in the 20th Anniversary series and like the old serialized series, stories are spread over multiple volumes, unlike the one-shot approach (one or two volumes containing a complete story) of late (something like this). The brand name suggest that this serialization might only run in this anniversary year, but who knows, it might continue for some years like the original series too!

Kindaichi Hajime's return to the world of regular serialization starts with Hitokui Kenkyuujo Satsujin Jiken ("The Human Eating Lab Murder Case"), which brings us back to familar grounds (especially compared to last year's adventure, which was a bit different). Hajime and Miyuki go visit an old middle school friend of theirs, Midorigawa Mayu, who is now the (very young!) head of a research laboratory. The lab is located in Hitokui Village, also known as Nostalgia Village, because it is like times stood still in this village. From the buildings to the cars and the public phones, everything seems it is from the post-war Showa period. In fact, the town actually manages to attract tourists because everything is still so well preserved.

Mayu invited Hajime and Miyuki to ask them for help in solving a code her father left her before he commited suicide many years ago, when he was the head of the lab. It seems that the laboratory has a strange history related to suicides: the suicide of Mayu's father was one in a series of several suicides and suicide attempts and this would hardly be a Kindaichi Shounen story if the suicide chains wouldn't start again, right? Someone jumping off the building, another hanging himself inside a locked room... What is making these people commit suicide? Is the location itself, Hitokui Lab, which can be interpreted as Man-Eating Lab, maybe the catalyst here?

As Kindaichi Shounen story, this is really a classic set-up. A visit to a friend that ends up in murder? A isolated location far away from the outside world? Locked rooms and other impossible crimes? Suggestion of the supernatural? It's all here and it feels good. The story is not completed yet in this volume (a major con of publications of regularly serialized material!), so I can't comment too much on the whole story, but it feels familiar. In a good way. I don't familiar in the sense of 'I've seen that trick in another story' or anything like that, just familiar because this is what I expect from the series. Some tricks might seem more suitable to Tantei Gakuen Q than Kindaichi Shounen and the interesting setting of Nostalgia Village is thrown away quickly for more focused view on the the rather bland Hitokui Lab (with a lot of shots of different white research rooms and keys which are kept in all kinds of places), which was a shame. I did find it amusing to see that there was no man running around dressed as a monster this time and that the research laboratory itself was presented as the 'murderer'. That would have been more suitable for a Opera House story!

And now to wait until October for the new volume! Really happy that the series is running regularly again, but I wish I could avoid having to wait for the conclusion of the story...

Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸、さとうふみや 『金田一少年の事件簿 20周年記念シリーズ』第1巻

Saturday, June 16, 2012


I know my heart should guide me, but, 
There's a hole within my soul. 
What will fill this emptiness inside of me? 
Am I to be satisfied without knowing?
 I wish, then, for a chance to see,
 Now all I need, (desperately)
 Is my star to come... 
"Wind's Nocturne", Lunar: Silver Story

Last time a friend said that I had a knack for living in all kinds of places in Japan besides Tokyo. Which is sometimes reflected in my Japanese. I for one loved living in Fukuoka, but there was one moment, one happening that really made me realize that Fukuoka was indeed far away from 'the center' of Japan. Being told that new releases (of books, games, comics) were usually two or three days late in Fukuoka because they have get shipped to the island of Kyushu from the main island of Honshu, was a big shock to me.

So I was kinda surprised to see Detective Conan 76 in the stores here in Kyoto today. Especially as the official release date is actually in two days. Yay for early releases! And to be honest, I had really forgotten that Conan 76 was to be released this month: I am sure that it wasn't that long ago I reviewed volume 75! Doesn't it usually take three months between every volume? Anyway, this also explains the crappy photo of the cover by the way: official scans of the cover, usually found on websites of bookstores, aren't available yet. The newest volume starts off with Nocturne of the Detectives, an interesting story mostly meant to advance the main storyline. Mouri Kogorou and the gang are lured out of the office and when they come back, they find that someone had been impersonating as Mouri in order to procure a key from a prospective client. The imposter commits suicide when he discovers that Mouri is on to him, but Conan suspects there is more to the story than what meets the eye.

What follows is a rather easy and predictable plot surrounding the mysterious imposter and the prospective client, but what makes this particular story so fun is that it clearly poses Subaru Okiya, Amuro Tooru and Sera Masumi as the three candidates for the Black Organisation spy Bourbon. I had hoped on some more hints on who Bourbon really is, but who knows, the denoumement of this particular storyline might turn out to be as surprising as what we saw in volume 42.

The Death Calling Barbeque is a Detective Boys story, so not too interesting. The DBs are invited to a barbeque by a young couple they met while camping a bit earlier. During the barbeque, the couple has a fight and the husband accidently stabs his wife. Or did he? Like many of the DB stories, a short and rather predictable story, with an often-seen misdirection trick. It's also the second story in this volume that focuses a lot on human drama. The last volume also ended in a rather melodramatic tone. Style-change of Aoyama?

The Entrusted Feelings of the Wataru Brothers is one of the human drama stories set at the Metropolitan Police Department stories that you either like or not. Takagi Wataru, who can be called a lucky man because he's dating Satou, or an unlucky man because of all the things he has suffered until now in this series, is once again in a pinch as he has been kidnapped by a person (or persons) unknown. And laid upon a girder with a noose around his neck. Who kidnapped Takagi and why? A story that would work fantastic as a short TV movie, with suspense! and mystery! and human drama! and romance! and stuff, but it feels a bit light here, especially as Takagi has been in too many pinches by now. And it is really never his fault (note: I like Takagi's character and he really should get more lucky breaks!).

An OK volume, as the opening and ending story are suspenseful enough to keep the normal reader interested, but as detective stories this trio is kinda disappointing. Which also explains why this is a rather short review. There is just too little to write about it (in the context of this blog). Hope the next volume is a back to the more classic style of stories.

Oh, and when did Conan change his clamshell phone for a smartphone? And more interesting reviews of more interesting stuff will come... when I actually read more interesting stuff. Hmm. Even the four posts a month thingy is becoming challenging now.

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン』第76巻

Saturday, June 9, 2012


"You enter a room, a street, a country road. You see a figure ahead of you, solid, three-dimensional, brightly coloured. Moving and obeying all the laws of optics. Its clothing and posture is vaguely familiar. You hurry toward the figure for a closer view. It turns its head and - you are looking at yourself. Or rather a perfect mirror-image of yourself only - there is no mirror. So, you know it is your double. And that frightens you, for tradition tells you that he who sees his own double is about to die..."
"Through A Glass, Darkly"

I already said it in my review of Roger Scarlett's Murder Among the Angells: reading English novels translated to Japanese taxing. The inherent difference between the two languages, plus the fact that the original text was already 'dated' English (as in not contemporary English), made for a reading challenge that was distinctly different from reading books that were originally Japanese. And a lot more tiring. So I really wanted to avoid reading more books translated to Japanese. On the other hand, you should imagine the temptation whenever I see translated versions of old (and out of print!) English classics in a neat row at any large bookstore. It's still strange to realize you can get most Queens new here in Japan at any decent bookstore.

Anyway, today's topic: Through A Glass, Darkly by Helen McCloy. Because apparently it is going to be discussed at the Mystery Club in a week or two. And because it was available new at the local bookstore. And it is quite a famous novel. And because I should read more McCloy. I think. Actually, this is my first McCloy (my writing has become more chaotic? It's been a while since the last post...). Anyway, young teacher Faustina Crayle is fired from her position mid-term at a girls' school for reasons the head of the school does not want to tell her. Faustina's colleague Gisela von Hohenems fears there might have been a big mistake and confides in her fiance Basil Willing about this affair. Willing discovers that students (and teachers) at the school have been seeing Faustina appearing at places she could not have been unless she could teleport, split herself into two images or something like that. Willing suspects a sinister plot surrounding Faustina and this turns out to be reality when another teacher is found dead, apparently having fallen of a staircase. One student claims to have seen Faustina pushing the teacher of the staircase, but Faustina was in another city at the moment of the accident!

One of the first notes I made while reading this book was "Carr". Because this story feels really like a Carr story, with the supernatural element of a ghost/doppelganger. The novel's theme is also reminiscent of Dorothy L. Sayers' short story The Image in the Mirror, which is actually one of the few Sayers stories I like. There is just something romantic, and horrifying about the theme of doppelgangers and Helen McCloy manages, as far as I can judge from the translation, to convey a really creepy atmosphere even though the prose is quite dry and down to earth. Maybe that is why it feels all the more creepy: everybody tries to think logically about it, but the supernatural events still happen.

There's apparently also a short story version of this novel, which might actually work better for this story, I think. Through a Glass, Darkly is certainly an entertaining detective story, but most of its charm, for me, was derived from its atmosphere, which would have worked just as well, or maybe even more powerful in a more condensed, shorter version. So I might want to try out the short story version in the future.

I was less impressed by the overall trick, but that might be because the solution seemed so obvious. Ignoring the 'supernatural' card, that seemed like the most likely solution. Which might be a problem with a lot of 'supernatural' settings/plot devices in detective novels. As a plot device, there is something magic to the classic locked room though that prevents it from becoming as obvious as the supernatural plot device in Through a Glass, Darkly. Usually. But like I said, the atmosphere is really good and McCloy's plot-structure really manages to support that atmosphere. Personally, I found the ending to be quite interesting too and quite fitting to the tone of this novel, but I can imagine people not being content with the last few pages.

Awful review? Yes, I know. I really should write more often again. By which I don't mean that I write masterpieces when back in a proper writing rhythm, but it would probably be a lot better than this post. Which reminds me, I really should try writing a short story myself this year, as several semi-interesting situations have been popping up in my head lately (of course, solving those situations is another problem...)