Friday, August 31, 2012

「世界はそれでも変わりはしない」

「教えて下さい・・・運命とは定められたものでは・・・」
『幻想水滸伝』 
"Tell me the answer. Is fate unchangeable?"

My way of dealing with a slightly worrying backlog of half-written reviews is apparently writing reviews on other material and pretending there is not a pile waiting for me. I have a nagging feeling that this is not the right solution.

April, 28th. The time: slightly before 10:00 AM. The location: Tokyo, Shibuya. In front of the Hachikou statue, across of the famous Scramble Crossing, stands Osawa Hitomi with a big suitcase of money. Precisely as ordered by the kidnappers of her sister Maria. Plainsclothes are naturally all over the place, keeping an eye on Hitomi and the money. Everyone is on edge. Will the deal be succesful? Will Maria be released? Will the police catch the kidnappers? With Scramble Crossing being one of the busiest, if not the busiest crossing in the world, will the police be able to protect Hitomi from any possible harm from the kidnappers?  But as the clock slowly nears the all-important 10:00 AM, nobody in the city even expects that this will become the most dangerous day in the history of Shibuya. The day a terrorist organisation threatened to set a deadly virus free in the city.


Nobody does. Not Minorikawa Minoru, a hotblooded reporter on the search for a new scoop in the streets of Shibuya. Not Kanou Shinya, a young and idealistic rookie detective who is also one of the plainsclothes watching Hitomi. Not Endou Achi, an ex-gang leader who has just spotted a particularly nice-looking girl in front of the Hachikou statue. Not Osawa Kenji, father of Hitomi and Maria and a renowned virus researcher, who is on hold in his home. And not Tama, a mysterious person running around in an animal suit, who seems to have lost his / her memory. These five persons are all gathered in Shibuya and little to do they expect that their destinies are intertwined and their actions will eventually save the city. Thus begins the amazing game experience that is 428 ~Fuusa Sareta Shibuya de~ ("428 ~In A Sealed Off Shibuya~").

428 gained quite some fame as one of the few games to have scored a perfect score in the Japanese game magazine Famitsu. Starting it as a Wii game, it got ported to the PSP, PS3 and even iOS recently. I will start off with saying that this is not a proper mystery game. Yes, it is developed by Chunsoft and it is a sound novel, which should naturally remind players of fantastic mystery games like Kamaitachi no Yoru and Trick X Logic. But this is not a mystery game. You are not solving a murder, you are not trying to find evidence that points to the criminal. No. None of that. And despite that, and despite my rule of keeping this a detective-fiction focused blog, I still make an expection for 428. Because it is definitely one of the best games I have ever played and more people should know it. And it has just enough ties with the mystery genre.


So what makes this game so special? It's just a sound novel adventure, some will say. You know, where you read a lot of text and you sometimes get to make a choice that influences the outcome of the story. Which is totally true. The same holds for 428. What makes this such a special game, is the way the story is told. There are five protagonists like I explained above. They all have their own goals, their own lives at the start of the game. You, as the player, can start with any scenario and see what happens. But, and this is a major but,  do realize that every scenerio is connected to each other. Just like how time is a continuous flow of small actions, just as how a butterfly at one of the world can cause a storm at the other end, realize that anything you do in one scenario, has possible effects on some other's story. It is a bit like the famous The Simpsons episode, 22 Short Films About Springfield, with interlinking storylines that develop simultaneously.

The earliest example of this interesting way of telling the story is when you start with police detective Kanou's storyline and see a suspicious man heading for Hitomi. Thinking he might be the kidnapper, Kanou arrests this man. But it turns out that this man is in fact Endou Achi, who was only trying to hit on Hitomi! In this case, both scenarios end with a Game Over: Kanou having made the wrong arrest, while Achi ends up spending the whole day at the police station. This is the very first instance of this interconnectedness in the story, but now imagine that this holds for all five protagonists. All storylines happen simultaneously and hurrying in a taxi with one protagonist for example, might lead to a traffic accident with another protagonist on the run for a hitman! The smallest actions can have tremendous effects on another person's life and it is up to the player to make the correct choices, to influence the destinies of all five protagonists so they will save Shibuya.


It's a brilliant idea and worked out even better! There are about 100 different endings (most of them bad endings) and everytime you try to make just the right corrections, just the right choices to ensure that every persons' scenario can continue. But the bad endings never really feel that bad actually, with a lot of the early bad endings just being hilarious, while others always give you a fair hint to what choices you have to make to continue the story. To help you, the scenarios can be viewed as a handy flow-chart, where you can see every development in every storyline at every point in time (which is also handy to see which scenario is likely to have influence on another). In fact, I contend that it is actually better to get a lot of bad endings in this game. By coming across all the bad endings, you as the player realize how every little action, how every little word can have effects on others. Realizing that everything has meaning really makes this game a special experience.


And the story is just fantastic. The writing is witty, fun and if you think about the amount of endings and possible scenerios, it is just mindblowing! And while I said that 428 is not a proper mystery, there is a bit of a fairly hinted mystery as the story nears its ending, with the terrorist attack under its way and the five major protagonists (and great supporting cast) moving to save the city. There is a spin-off sequel anime series, CANAAN, but I strongly you not to see it before playing 428, as it will spoil some of the best parts of the game.

Would this system work as a proper mystery game? Not sure. Chunsoft already played with the concept of multiple characters in Kamaitachi no Yoru X3, but the storylines were not intertwined as heavily as the ones in 428. The amount of detail (in time) in every scenario also makes a narrator=criminal trick a bit difficult, though one might possibly conceive something with a closed circle situation and multiple protagonists, changing their destinies in ways so they don't panik and start killing off each other. Or something like that. I am definitely not a creative writer.


While Kamaitachi no Yoru portrayed its characters with blue silhouettes, 428 makes use of real actors and still photos. Which really bring the city of Shibuya alive. The actors actually acted for these photos by the way, saying their lines, moving as if they were shooting a movie, all to ensure that every emotion would come across. And I would say that they succeeded. It is kinda strange if you realize that they filmed every scene, meaning they could also have made 428 in an actual movie. Yet not one actor's voice is heard throughout the game.

The funny thing is though, I bought the PSP version about two years ago and I loved it then. In fact, it is the first sound novel I ever played, before Trick X Logic and Kamaitachi no Yoru. A quick search on this blog actually showed that I already mentioned playing this game in December 2009 (which means it's almost three years ago!) 428 is what got me hooked on the genre. Or at least, on Chunsoft's sound novels. And I had played it on-and-off between then and now, but for some reason I never got around to actually finishing it. Maybe I just didn't want it to end. Maybe I wasn't borrowing a TV where I could play it on a bigger screen. Of course, if I hadn't met a friend who borrowed me her TV, I might not have finished this game this week, which in turn would mean that I wouldn't have written this post, which...

I can only conclude this post by repeating that 428 really is a very special game. The sense of satisfaction you get from succesfully changing everyone's destinies so they help each other in accomplishing a greater goal is undescribable. Realizing that anything you do might have the greatest positive effects on someone else's life is a very mysterious feeling, a feeling a normal novel could never conveyed this good. This is a prime example of having writers and developers knowing exactly what they want to accomplish with their story, what they want to tell the reader/player and coming up with the perfect medium to convey that message.

Original Japanese title(s): 『428 ~封鎖された渋谷で~』

「扉の前で立ち尽ちつくすちっぽけな背中に気づいて欲しい」

There is not much to go on m'sieur
- On the surface, no. But what lurks inside the subconcious? If the door can only be opened...
Are you serious m'sieur? I thought your interest in psychic detection was purely academic..
"Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars"

I usually just play the association game in my head when looking for opening quotes and posts titles, but I kinda forgot I had bought two books with the word door in the title. As if I can come up with that many mystery-related references to doors...

Paul Halter is a favorite in the mystery blogging world it seems, and I too enjoyed The Night of the Wolf immensely. Though I also have to admit that I actually remember very little of it. Only that it was awesome. Anyway, it was about time to read some more of Halter, so why not start at the beginning, with his first novel?

Welcome to post war England! Welcome to a small unnamed village, where we find the three befriended households of the Darnleys, the Whites and the Stevenses. The titular door of Halter's La Quatrième Porte (The Fourth Door) refers to the door to an attic room where Mrs. Darnley had supposed committed suicide (which was completely locked) some years ago and since then it has been said that she haunts the room. The rumors chase away tenants in the Darnley house at a regular pace, until the arrival of the Lattimers. Alice Lattimer claims to be a psychic and says that Mrs. Darnley was murdered. In an attempt to contact the ghost of Mrs. Darnley, Patrick Lattimer agrees to spend the night in the attic room, which is sealed with wax and the imprint of a rare coin. The next the door opens however, the corpse of a total stranger lies on the floor.

When in doubt, refer to Monty Python. So I guess I think this novel is ... splunge ("it's a great-idea-but-possibly-not-and-I'm-not-being-indecisive!"). I am not sure how to put my thoughts about this novel into words. But as this blog still hasn't implemented direct psychic transmission, I guess I will have to try. The main "problem" I have with this novel is... that I had already guessed the set-up and the solution of the locked room mystery, before I had even opened the book! (No, this is not an attempt at making it look like something impossible)

Seriously, the first idea that popped into my head when I first glanced at the cover, looking at the words The Fourth Door was the correct one! There is joy to be found when you read a detective novel and you slowly build your own theory as to what happened, but it is a bit boring to see that the first, the most simple and basic thoughts you have about the novel turn out to be correct. Like Takumi Shuu points out, there is something inherently contradictory to the detective novel, as readers want to get surprised by the writer, but they also want to solve the mystery themselves. In this case, I wasn't surprised by the solution, but I also didn't feel challenged by the mystery as I already had an idea by the time I opened the first page! I couldn't even feel smug about it, as it wasn't as like I had solved it based on the text. Most of the time while reading the book, I did try to find hints to disprove my gut feeling, but all in vain. This is probably a very personal experience and the trick might be fun if you haven't seen it before, so you probably want to check other reviews for somewhat more objective views on it.

I had already seen variations on the same trick several times before, which an sich is not that rare and that doesn't instantly mean that a trick will turn out to be disappointing in another novel but to be honest, I thought that the variations I had seen were implemented better in those cases too. Which ties in with another 'problem' of La Quatrième Porte. For someone hailed as the modern Carr, there is awfully little atmosphere in the novel. Everything was described in a drab, boring way and little is done with the supernatural angle of the story. Sure, they talk about ghosts and stuff, but it feels like it is quickly disposed as a solution to the impossible murder and the absence of pressure, of fear is really a loss for such an impossible murder.

Though, and here I go to what I liked about the book, there is a perfectly good reason for the sober way of narration of the novel. It is tied to the narrative structure of the book, which is really fun. Halter utilizes a really amusing method of introducing his series detective Dr. Twist and I would say that the narrative structure is definitely the most memorable part of this novel. Twist appears in a very surprising way and while Halter's method of having a meta discussion with The Great Old Giants is different from the method of authors in the New Orthodox movement, one can feel the same kind of education and meta-conciousness among all of these writers.

The problem here is that this narrative style does explain the sober narration, but that doesn't make the narration more compelling. Here we have another contradiction, because what Halter wants to achieve with his narrative style, does inherently not mesh well with what he should achieve with the plot. In the end it depends on what the reader deems more important, which is again quite personal. Like I said, I thought it a shame the narration didn't succeed in conveying the supernatural to me, but I can definitely see why that happened and I think that Halter at least succeeded in coming up with a very entertaining narration style for his story.

As both writers focusing on impossible crimes, both Paul Halter and Nikaidou Reito are often called modern Carrs (though the latter seems to prefer the moniker Japanese Halter) and they do have their share of similarities. Impossible crimes, stories set in post-war societies ('the good old days'), the supernatural, you'll find them in both authors' novels. Nikaidou, despite his focus on impossible crimes, is walking along the other side of the supernatural/grotesque side of things though, aiming more at Edogawa Rampo than Carr as a writer. And despite my reservations about the direction Nikaidou has been heading for the last few years, I do feel that Nikaidou knows what he is aiming for as a writer, the sort of story he wants to write. I am not sure whether Halter is really aiming to be an modern Carr and there is little I can say based on the on novel and one short story collection I've read by Halter, but La Quatrième Porte does fall a bit short of Carr because of its somewhat ambiguous goals, in my opinion.

So, yeah. I think La Quatrième Porte is splunge. Monty Python, saving people with a limited vocabulary since 1969.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

P≠NP

"If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man
Judges 16:17

It was actually about time for me to get my hair cut. For some reason, I really hate having my hair cut, though there is always a time when even I have to admit that things are getting out of hand. And into my eyes. Though I do wonder why I can't find those cheap 1000 yen barbers here in Kyoto: you couldn't get anywhere without seeing one of those in Fukuoka. And how is this related to today's book? Well...

It is probably more usual to get to know your future wife by taking the same classes at university, or having a common friend or meeting at a party. Asukai Kyou and Miyuki first met beneath the apartment of Mishima Satsuki, a famous writer-illustrator who was also supposed to have psychic powers. Was, because she had been murdered moments before Kyou and Miyuki met. Kyou happened to have witnessed the murder from across, as he was setting his telescope up for an exciting night of stargazing. Miyuki happened to have found the body, together with Satsuki's sister Yuumi, as they had come to visit Satsuki at her apartment. And Satsuki, our murder victim, just happened to have her hair cut after she was killed.

Fast forward six years and we are at the proper beginning of Ayatsuji Yukito's Meifuusou Jiken - Satsujin Houteishiki II ("The Howling Wind Mansion Case - Murder Equation II"). Kyou and Miyuki are happily married now and Miyuki is supposed to go to a small middle school reunion, where they're going to dig up a time capsule they buried ten years ago. Kyou was supposed to go with Miyuki (as she wanted to show off her police detective husband), but an accident prevents from Kyou from going himself. As Miyuki had been bragging a long time about Kyou, she sees no other way around it than dragging along Kyou's twin brother (also called Kyou) to fool her friends. Yuumi also appears at the reunion, held at the Howling Wind Mansion, but strangely enough looking and acting exactly like her murdered sister. Complete with the whole psychic powers thing and so. And just liked her sister, Yuumi ends up being murdered. And even more mysterious, the murderer cut off her hair after murdering her, just like what happened to Satsuki.

The sequel to Satsujin Houteishiki continues the slightly lighter, more humorous tone (most of it deriving from the switch of the Asukai twins) which sets it apart from Ayatsuji's Mansion series. You might be fooled by the title (I was!), expecting a story where the setting of the Howling Wind Mansion would serve an important part in the atmosphere of the story and where the mansion itself might play a big role in the mystery itself. I mean, this is an Ayatsuji novel and he did add in all those maps in for some reason, right? I was thus quite surprised to see that the mansion itself played a very minor role in the story and I really wonder why the story wasn't titled something like Murder Equation II - The Problem of the Cut Hair, in the same vein as the first book in the series?

Because that is what makes this story fun. Why was the victim's hair cut? It mimicks the main problem of the first novel (where the victim's arm and head was cut off for some mysterious reason) and in that sense, the two Murder Equation novels really feel like a set, as they address the same type of mystery. But while the two main problems are very similar, the execution of the two novels are very different. I think I like the main idea in the first novel better, but the overall structure in Meifuusou Jiken - Satsujin Houteishiki II is much better.

I had already said in my review of Kotou Puzzle that it is hard to explain what is so great to a logical chain in detective novels, as opposed to for example a locked room trick. But that is exactly what is so great in Meifuusou Jiken: Ayatsuji has constructed a great logical chain that leads to the murderer (which in turn leads to the mystery of the cut hair). I think this might be a remnant of his experience at the Kyoto University Mystery Club: a lot of the stories written there are solved according to a Queenian elimination method (the murderer has X characteristics, and then you cross-compare those X characteristics to the suspects). In this novel, Ayatsuji has constructed a logical maze that really messes with the readers if they only employ the elimination method, showing fake weak points at several points that are only meant as traps to lure in the reader's deduction. It might not be a surprise if I say that this is actually the first novel by Ayatsuji to include a proper Challenge to the Reader and he really did his best trying to fool the reader (without becoming unfair).

I really liked this part of the novel, but the logical maze does weaken the position of the cut hair as the star of this story. At least to me. Which is why I prefer the way the main mystery (the cut up body) is handled in the first novel, while said logical maze and the way it in the end ties up to the problem of the cut hair makes this story overall better than its predecessor.

The Murder Equation novels have a distinct literary grammar: in both novels data files are inserted between the chapters, which contain character profiles, reports on the crime (like autopsy reports and such). It does kinda break the illusion of the fictional world, but one might say that this is what Ayatsuji likes to do: experiment with ways of narration. His Mansion series for example often feature two-dimensional narratives. I think that one of the reasons his novels are so pleasant to read is that Ayatsuji constantly tries different ways to present his stories and also in a way that the style of presentation is relevant to the mystery he has constructed. In the Murder Equation series, the data files do convey a feeling of pure fairness to the reader, really challenging you into solving the puzzle yourself (and boy am I happy I had written something similar in my review of the first book: it always feels nice to know you're not contradicting yourself!).

The Murder Equation series is on hold at the moment, though I think that Ayatsuji did once state he would like to do a third one in the series. The series is quite different from his Mansion series, and I do prefer the more geeky, meta-approach to the detective story in that series, but the Murder Equation books are sure to entertain any fan of the genre.

Ah, my backlog of reviews to be written is still horrible though, and it is certainly not going to shrink with the pace I've been reading with lately... You might expect to see something American in Japanese, something Japanese in American, something French in English, a holocaust of a family or the self-destruction of a family in the following days/weeks/months* (*delivery times might change depending on unforeseen circumstances, including, but not exclusively, videogames, incapability in channeling the writing muse, forgetfulness and slacking. Though it's probably the latter).

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人 『鳴風荘事件 殺人方程式 II』

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Death wears an Orchid

Okay. I'll take a bunch of those white ones.
- I wouldn't do that if I was you.
No?
- They are lillies, m'sieur. Some people associate them with death...
Yikes! Thanks for telling me. What other flowers do you have?
- Dahlias?
What do they signify?
- Insecurity.
Hmm, I don't want to give her the wrong idea about me.
"Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars"

Please tell me the answer, is fate unchangeable? Yes, I will have to return this TV in a few weeks. Though I love playing games on it. Though I didn't really like Suikoden II as much as I did Suikoden I.

Nikaidou Ranko and her stepbrother Reito should by now be familiar with readers of this blog. Or else I refer to the Ranko tag. The Nikaidou Ranko series might be a sorta of an acquired taste, the more I think about it. Set in post-war Japan, Nikaidou clearly aims at a sort-of modern Edogawa Rampo story-telling with his novels. Weird, grotesque murders and situations that seem like a continuation of the grand master himself. This becomes more clear as the series continues (see Akuma no Labyrinth), but I have to admit, it does get harder to really get into later Nikaidou. I mean, what starts out as a honest bit of Rampo homage, has been giving us destined detectives, cannibals and Nazi-Werewolves (I will never drop this point) in slightly more recent entries. I haven't even started in the more newer novels, for sheer fear of what Nikaidou might have turned to the series into.

But to get back to the book: Yuri Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Lillies") is the first short story collection featuring Ranko, with three rather long short stories. It starts off with Russia-Kan no Nazo ("The Russian Mansion Mystery"), which in turn starts with the regular meeting of the Murderer's Art club (a mystery club) to which Ranko and Reito belong. This time, the meeting is about mysterious events the members themselves have experienced in their life. The final member to tell his story is old man Speer, a Jewish-German who had fled from Germany to Japan during the war and who used to be Ranko and Reito's teacher. Speer tells the club that he used to work as a spy after World War I in Russia and one day, he was supposed to deliver vital intellegence to the Blizzard Mansion, a mansion hidden somewhere in Russia's snow fields where blizzards just won't stop. He manages to fulfill his mission thanks to the help of some fellow soldiers and is invited to stay a bit in the Blizzard Mansion. But the following day, the complete mansion just disappears. Speer still has no idea what happened to the mansion, but Ranko has an idea about what happened.

An impossible disappearance of a building! Queen's The Lamp of God is of course mentioned and while there are few variations in the story-types involving disappearing buildings/trains/etc., I still liked this story, mainly because how the story was told and because Nikaidou added a little touches to tie it up to the historical background (post WWI Russia, the revolution etc.). It works well as a short story and I was quite pleased with it.

Misshitsu no Yuri ("Lilies in the Locked Room") is about the locked room murder of a writer in her apartment. The murder was actually recorded on audio-tape, because the victim was dictating a manuscript when the murderer visited her apartment, but does it also proof to be a clue to the murderer? No, not really actually. But the thing I actually want to say the most about this story is: the basic ideas behind this locked room murder is precisely the same as a story I had been playing around with in my head for two years now. Heck, I sorta tried it in real life too. Heck, I even mentioned it at the time on this blog (point V)!

This story predates my idea and I never actually wrote it, so I am not complaining. In fact, one of the reasons I never wrote the story (besides the fact that I can't write) was because I couldn't never seem to work out in a satisfying way. It would always end up as too obvious. And I am sorta happy to say that Nikaidou also didn't really succeed with this story. Which is actually very, very low of me. But still. I actually think Nikaidou made it worse, because the clues he left pointing at the murderer and the way the actual locked room is set up, make no sense at all. There was no reason for the murderer to do all that. Especially if you realize that by creating the locked room, (s)he was actually leaving more clues incriminating him/herself! Anyway, I guess I'll abandon this idea for a while, though I still want to use it one day...

The last story in the collection is more of a short novellette, called Gekiyaku ("Strong Poison"). And yes, it's a reference to Sayers, even though the contents of the story are more related to Christie. The story is about a poisoning murder done during a bridge party, with Reito as one of the attending guests. It's a bit more complex than Christie's story, with eight people spread over two tables and a bit of walking around by the dummies, but yes, the basic idea is the same. How was the victim poisoned and by whom. Ranko wasn't there at the party, but an examination of the score cards (like Poirot and a hint of Vance!) gives her a good idea about who the murderer is.

A fairly mediocre story. The inclusion of the bridge rules as a sort of intermezzo was sorta strange, as it broke up the flow of the story. Of course, the story had a very, very tedious beginning with the victim making lots enemies, just so we could have a nice cast of suspects. The ending of the story is surprising though, with an incredible amount of plot-twists and multiple solutions, that almost seem too impressive for just a short novellette. Actually, it doesn't just seem too impressive: it simply is. A look at other reviews showed that a lot of people thought that it was unneccesary complex. Not in the sense of logic, but just in the sense that Nikaidou tries too hard to surprise the reader with several solutions presented one after another. I wouldn't say simple is best, but in this case, simpler would have been better. And shorter. Seriously, this story could have lost half the page count and still work.

All in all a not very impressive collection. I only really enjoyed the first story, which feels the most like a Nikaidou story with its detailed historical background and the more gothic atmosphere. Which is what he does best, I guess. Maybe I should continue reading the series to see whether he managed to get rid of the Nazi-Werewolves.

And yes, another bland review, presented by Lack of Sleep, I Want to Play Videogames and of course Mediocre Books Lead to Mediocre Reviews. But from what I've read until now, I think I will be a bit more enthusiastic about Hoch's Hawthorne series. A bit. And to wrap things up, I pose the question: why is there a complete Sam Hawthorne collection available in Japanese but not in English?

Original Japanese title(s): 二階堂黎人 『ユリ迷宮』: 「ロシア館の謎」 / 「密室のユリ」 / 「劇薬」

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Swan Song

 「・・・やめられるかよ・・・ 真相を解き明かすのが探偵のサガなんでね!」
『名探偵コナン: 水平線上の陰謀』

"How can I stop? Revealing the truth is what makes us detectives"
"Detective Conan: Strategy Above the Depths"

And as an answer to the question I posed myself in the previous post: Yes, playing on a PSP connected to a TV does feel different from playing normally on a PSP. For one, I play longer on a TV than on a handheld. I am just borrowing this TV temporarily, so I should clear as many games I can in the following few weeks...

Maya Yutaka's Tsubasa aru Yami - Mercator Ayu no Saigo no Jiken ("Darkness with Wings - The Last Case of Mercator Ayu") is a novel I should have read earlier, right? I mean, Maya's an old member of the Kyoto University Mystery Club and an important writer in the New Orthodox movement, with Tsubasa aru Yami being his debut work. But actually, it's not that strange I never got around to him properly (I have read some short stories by him). I've never been that interested in what critic Kasai dubs the second stage of the New Orthodox movement as a movement, to which Maya belongs to (also Mori Hiroshi and Kyougoku Natsuhiko, amongst others. And technically, Nikaidou Reito too). It might be because of my 'classic' education (from English Golden Age to Rampo, Yokomizo and then New Orthodox) in detective fiction, but I have always had more affinity with the early stages of New Orthodox (Ayatsuji, Arisugawa, Norizuki, Abiko amongst others), which are much more closely related to English Golden Age fiction. Heck, my thesis (I really should work on that harder) is focused solely on early New Orthodox. So, that's my excuse for not having read Tsubasa aru Yami earlier. Not sure when I'll get around to Subete ga F ni Naru (The Perfect Insider)!

Tsubasa aru Yami starts with detective Kisarazu Yuuya and his companion Kouzuki Sanetomo arriving at Souajou, the mansion of the wealthy Imakagami family. Kisarazu was apparently hired by the head of the family, but he has been already been murdered by the time they arrived at the mansion. As well as his son. And they were not just murdered: they were both decapitated and one of them was found inside a locked room! Just like Poirot, Kisarazu is not too happy about losing a client before actually being hired, so he decides to investigate the mysterious murders in the castle-like Souajou.

Like I said, I don't have a particular interest in later stages of New Orthodox and I have been intentionally been avoiding reading secondary sources about it (mostly because I have plenty of other sources I need to read!), but I can definitely make an educated guess to why Maya, and Tsubasa aru Yami are considered important. I could throw around with terms like post-modernism, the 'meta-physical detective story', deconstruction and subversion, which would all apply to this novel to a certain degree. Maya knows the classic tropes of Golden Age detective fiction and he simultaneously critizes and honors them as he plays around with them in this novel.

One example would be for example Maya's use of literary stereotypes in this novel. In a detective novel, the most obvious would be 'the great detective'. Tsubasa aru Yami actually features two of them (Kisarazu Yuuya, and Mercator Ayu appears in the second half of the novel), which is already a strange happening. But both detectives also have surprisingly little succes with their investigations, thus undermining their position as a great detective. Which is slightly different from what Queen did in his later novels: Queen questioned the ability of the detective and the feasibility of finding out the truth by having Ellery make mistakes and angst over it. However, Ellery does win at the end. In Tsubasa aru Yami however, there is no salvation at all for both of Maya's detectives.

What makes this novel also interesting is that both detectives in the novel are used as series detectives by Maya. Tsubasa aru Yami is like the title suggests Mercator Ayu's final case, so all the other stories are set before Maya's debut novel. There are also several remarkable revelations made about the detectives in this novel, which should making reading other stories quite interesting (because of foreknowledge and the mentioned shaky literary positions of the two detectives).

There are some other Queenian motifs to be found here, but Maya also plays around with more abstract tropes of the genre, the most obvious being the final solution to the locked room murder, which is quite blatantly a sort of criticism to the genre and its particular puzzles. But not in a mocking way, definitely not. But Maya does try to look more critically at tropes taken for granted in the genre and seek out the genre's boundaries and limitations.

The novel does surprise as a story that simultaneously criticizes the genre and honors it. Which is why Tsubasa aru Yami is not 100% post-modern, as it at least offers the reader a sense of salvation by having a a properly hinted solution and a denouement scene. It could also have ended with just the detectives losing their literary identities and the mystery of the murders playing second fiddle to that in 'true' post-modern detective style.

I haven't read that much of Maya, so I am not sure how this 'experiment' develops in in later novels. Maya has quite a following among certain readers and I can sorta see why, I guess. Might try some other novels in the future. And I apologize for the somewhat chaotic review. I sorta felt, in the context of this blog, the need to expand on Maya's place in Japanese mystery world, but like I said at the beginning of this review: I don't actually that much about him and later New Orthodox as a movement (to the extent we can call it a movement).

And now, to play more videogames!

Original Japanese title(s): 『翼ある闇 メルカトル鮎の最後の事件』

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Make a Beeline Away from That Feline

"With my aversion to this cat, however, its partiality for myself seemed to increase. It followed my footsteps with a pertinacity which it would be difficult to make the reader comprehend. Whenever I sat, it would crouch beneath my chair, or spring upon my knees, covering me with its loathsome caresses. If I arose to walk it would get between my feet and thus nearly throw me down, or, fastening its long and sharp claws in my dress, clamber, in this manner, to my breast. At such times, although I longed to destroy it with a blow, I was yet withheld from so doing, partly by a memory of my former crime, but chiefly - let me confess it at once - by absolute dread of the beast"

I haven't touched an actual game console in a while now and my hands are itching for a controller, but would connecting my PSP to a TV sorta count as playing on a console? -> Random thoughts.

Akagawa Jirou is one of the big names in the Japanese publication world. Famous for his humorous mystery novels and one of the most prolific writers around. I haven't read that much novels written by him, but most of his stories seem to be light mysteries that are easy to read, but with little to offer for those interested in orthodox puzzlers. Which was why I kinda surprised to see his Mikeneko Holmes no Suiri ("Tortoise Shell Cat Holmes' Deduction") taking a rather high spot in a list of best locked room mysteries voted by Japanese mystery writers. So I decided to take a look at it. The murder on a female student seems to be connected to with rumors of a prostitution racket run from a local women's university and police detective Katayama Yoshitarou is ordered to investigate whether the rumors are true, as Katayama's superior was personally asked a favor from the university's faculty director. And Katayama was the obvious choice for such an investigation, as he is absolutely hopeless as a police detective, being afraid of blood and dead bodies (and women among others), so he wouldn't be of much help in investigating the actual murder. Katayama has only just started his investigation though when the faculty director is found murdered in a cafeteria one morning. A locked cafeteria. Has this to do with the prostitution ring, or are there other sinister plots at play at the university? Luckily though, Katayama isn't alone in his investigation, because the faculty director's cat, a tortoise-shell cat called Holmes, seems to be a lot smarter than you'd expect from a cat...

Oh, did I mention that this is the first novel in the highly popular Mikeneko Holmes (Tortoise-shell Cat Holmes) series? The series detective is actually a cat. Katayama and Holmes meet for the first time here, but the pattern is the same in the subsequent novels: Holmes has a knack for deduction it seems, as she gives hints to Katayama (by 'accidently' exposing clues or even arranging items in a way to push Katayama's thoughts in the right direction) and she sometimes even attacks (would-be) murderers. Holmes is like Conan. Only she's a cat. Katayama is the one who in the end 'solves' the locked room murder case, but only because Holmes helped him a lot.

Of course, my personal theory is that Holmes is actually the big bad behind everything: I mean, if I am to expect that Holmes is able to subtly guide the thoughts and actions of Katayama, what withholds me from thinking Holmes might be doing the same with the criminals, subtly tempting them to murder and giving them hints in hiding their deeds? So in my world, Holmes is actually playing around with all humans, tempting them into murder with one paw, while guiding the police with the other. You have to do something with your spare time if you're a genius cat.

But back to the book. Mikeneko Holmes no Suiri is a very easy to read book and I mean that in the linguistic way as well as well as in regards to the plot. Just set your mindset to "what-to-expect-in-a-two-hour-TV-drama" and you're prepared for every plot twist the story tries to throw at you. Which is a lot. But seriously, there is not one single surprising development in this whole novel. Heck, even the way the story is written feels like a standard mystery TV drama, with occasional scene cuts to the murder victims just before... they actually become victims.

Though I was sorta suprised by the theme of a prostition ring run from an university though. The novel was first published in 1978, which means it should predate most discussion regarding enjo kousai, which is admittely not completely the same (age of participants, the actual services rendered and payment methods), but I do wonder how this novel was read within the Japanese society in the late 80's~early 90's. Especially as to me, the description of the students and the university felt kinda vague and at times, I totally forgot it was about an university and not a high school.

Which was not helped by the horrible cover art of my copy. It is part of a special 2010 series of Kadokawa pockets featuring ex-Weekend Heroine ex-Momoiro Clover Z member Hayami Akari on the cover, with absolutely no relation to the contents of the actual novel. Not one single middle school student appears in this novel!

And the locked room, the whole reason I bought this book (for 105 yen, so I shouldn't really complain anyway)? Interesting idea, bad execution. Really, there are tons of viable objections you could raise against how the locked room murder is achieved in this novel. Though you might argue that a victim who is so stupid to actually die because of such a trick had deserved that anyway. The basic idea is really good though, but it just doesn't work like this. Despite Akagawa's pitiful attempt to explain away some of the easier raised objections as his detective(s) explain the murder. No idea why so many authors voted for this locked room trick. And I can't really check it now, as my volume containing the list (+ commentary) is in the Netherlands.

Oh, and I just watched the first episode of the identically titled Mikeneko Holmes no Suiri TV drama, which is based on several of the Mikeneko Holmes novels. The first episode was based on this novel and... yeah, you can pretty much ignore it. A lot of the original story was cut. And a lot of bad elements were introduced to fill the time. A lot.

I don't think Holmes will appear anymore on this blog, though I'm also sorta busy with a sound novel video game produced by Akagawa Jirou, so he might be mentioned again in the future. If I actually manage to finish the game.

Original Japanese title(s): 赤川次郎 『三毛猫ホームズの推理』

Saturday, August 11, 2012

「『殺しちゃった』は、誰にでもできるけど、『殺した』をできる人って、意外に少ないんだ」

「どんな小さな異常さえも起きない…そんな世界があるとしたら、それって、もの凄く異常だと思うんです」
『ダンガンロンパ 希望の学園と絶望の高校生』

"A world where nothing strange happens. It would be extremely strange if such a world existed"
"Danganronpa - The Academy of Hope and the Students of Despair"

Going to a big open second hand book market at the Shimogamo Shrine was interesting. It's kinda strange to see a big market on what is technically a ground to worshop kami, right? Got some interesting books though, including a Japanese translation of In the Queen's Parlor. Less fun was the sudden rain. Or actually, it wasn't that sudden, because it did appear in the forecast, but I had kinda forgotten my umbrella. The way back was also interesting, as I apparently still have the magical gift of being able to get lost everywhere. I really thought I was going east towards the station, but I ended up way up north, actually nearer to the place I wanted to take the train to in the first place!

Danganronpa - Kibou no Gakuen to Zetsubou no Koukousei ("Danganronpa - The Academy of Hope and the Students of Despair") is a 2010 game for the PSP. I played the demo when it was first released and it was quite fun, but for some reason or another I never got around to getting the game itself until now. And then I completed it in just a few days. Yes, I enjoyed it. The story starts with protagonist Naegi Makoto on his first day at Hope's Peak Academy, a special high school for super class high school students. Students have to be the best of the best to enter the school. It doesn't matter in what field though, so we have super class swimmers and programmers together with super class gang leaders and plastic figure makers. This year's class gets knocked out right before the opening ceremony though and when they wake up, they find themselves to be prisoners of a strange robotic bear called Monokuma (monobear). He tells them that all fifteen students are to live inside the academy facilities forever. There is only one way to get out: you have to kill a fellow student without getting being found by the others. And thus starts the live of despair for the students.

Fifteen students in a closed circle situation, with Monokuma manipulating the students (blackmailing them) into murdering each other? It feels a bit like the classic Battle Royale, only with super class students. And don't forget the rule that you have to murder a fellow student without being found out by the others. In practice, this means that after every murder (yes, they do start killing off each other) the students are given time to investigate, after which a classroom trial is held. During the trial, students debate with each other about the identity of the culprit. At the end of the trial, students have to vote for who they think the murderer is. If the murderer is caught, he is sentenced to death, and the remaining students have to continue the game. However, if the murderer manages to fool the others, he will be released, while all the other students are sentenced to death in his place!


Wow, where to start! Let's just say it's an awesome game! The story is really thrilling: like I said, it's a bit like Battle Royale with students being forced to kill each other off. Like with the BR novel, you slowly get to know the other students, which makes it all the more shocking when one of them dies (by the hands of another fellow student!). As the game progresses, the story shifts beyond the normal classroom trials, as the students also slowly start to investigate about why they are captured by Monokuma and what the secret behind Hope's Peak Academy is.

The story is seperated in a couple of chapters / cases. The murders themselves are not particularly difficult though, while definitely better mystery stories than what you see in your average detective game. But playing this game did made me realize again how brilliant a writer Takumi Shuu was with the Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney games. In Danganronpa, I figured out all the cases before entering the classroom trials (except for one, but there were reasons for that). In Gyakuten Saiban however, you often, deliberately, have incomplete information as you enter the courtroom. Sure, it isn't fair, but it does result in a very exciting game, as you have to react to every piece of information introduced in the courtroom on the spot, changing and adapting your theories as you go. As a story, the way of feeding the player information in Gyakuten Saiban is fantastic, showing how great a writer and game developer Takumi Shuu is. In Danganronpa, the classroom trials function as little more than a sequence where you check your theory, as opposed to actually being a part of a story still in progress.


Danganronpa, as a game, is an eclectic mix of all kinds of gameplay systems. Most of the chapters are divided in three phases: daylife time phases, investigation phases and the classroom trials. The daylife phases are pretty much the same like you see in dating simulation games, or a game like Sakura Taisen.You are given the freedom to interact with your fellow students: you can strengthen the bonds with a student by spending time with him / her, with little dialogues, quizzes and the opportunity to exchange gifts. If done right, you might in return acquire skills useful in the classroom trial phases later on. You only have limited free time, so you have to make wise choices who to spend your time with. It's also during this phase that the story slowly builds up to a murder.

The investigation phases are pretty much like the ones you see in any detective adventure game: the murder happens and Naeki has to investigate the murder by collecting evidence and statements. There is really nothing special to this phase of the game. The writing does kinda steer the player to where to go ("Maybe I should take a look at...") and it even refuses to let you leave a location if you haven't found everything there yet, so it's pretty much impossible to get stuck here. Normally, this might sound a bit too restraining, but there are quite a lot of locations within the game and I personally prefer being told what to do here in these kind of situations rather than being forced to wander through the school going through every classroom just to find that little piece of evidence I missed. I have to find that piece of evidence anyway and the act of wandering around isn't particularly fun (I kinda get motion sick from walking around in first person perspective in games actually), so yes, streamlining works here.


The classroom trials are the climax of the game and definitely the most fun. In form, they are a lot like the Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney games. During the trials, the students present their arguments and discuss about who they think the murderer is. These sequence are automatic in the sense that the dialogue flows naturally (as opposed to the Gyakuten Saiban games, where players have to click through the testimonies) Here the player literally has to shoot down contradictions within the utterances of his fellow students: pieces of evidence are treated as bullets within the game and the player has to aim the cursor at the contradictions and shoot them down with the right 'bullets'. Which is where the title comes from actually, Danganronpa meaning Bullet Refutation.

This action-based system demands more of a player's reflexes than the Gyakuten Saiban games, because of this is basically a shooting game and the speed of the utterences you have to shoot down can be quite high and there are obstacles as well! On the other hand: you only have a handful of bullets/pieces of evidence per sequence, so you don't have to think that hard, as your choices are limited. In Gyakuten Saiban, you sometimes have to choose the right evidence to present among a list of over 20 items! But still, the shooting can be quite hard for people not used to those kind of games and there is a time limit for sequence, so you do have to hurry. But think a more action-oriented Gyakuten Saiban and you're 80% on the right way.


There are some other weird game sequences during the classroom trials, like the Machine Gun Battle, basically a music game where you have to shoot down a barrage of logical fallacies being thrown at the player (which is a bit of a miss, I think). A lot more fun are the Climax Inferences, which appear at the end of the trial, when you have deduced the right murderer. Here you reconstruct the crime by filling in missing panels in a comic reconstruction of the murder and subsequent events. Visually reconstructing the crime in a videogame (or any visual detective fiction) isn't particularly original, but most games I know do it through an abstract flowchart, which the player has to fill in. Danganronpa's comic book reconstructions are much more engaging.

Anyway, as you clear these gameplay elements, the murder gets solved. And while these sequences, except for the Climax Inferences, are all very action-oriented, the game is still a detective game, so you do have to think and deduce as you go through these sequences. Which is really unique. Gyakuten Saiban brought the concepts of hotbloodiness and action in its storytelling, but Danganronpa really succeeded in making an action detective game.


Danganronpa's presentation style is very addictive too (watch the trailer!) It is top-notch, with excellent character writing as well as a load of a pop-references from movies to manga and anime (of course). There is also a very distinct tone of black humor in its presentation, starting with the cute Monokuma who is actually very, very sadistic despite its appearance. Monokuma is made even more creepy because of the fact he's voiced by Ooyama Nobuyo, the voice actress who voiced the famous Doraemon until 2005. Personally, I loved having Ogata Megumi as the voice actress for protagonist Naegi. Sure, she might be more famous for voicing a certain protagonist in a mecha-deconstructing classic, but for me, she'll always be Tantei Gakuen Q's Kyuu. Especially if she's doing a detective role, like here! Seriously, she was Kyuu for me during the whole game (and in related news, Conan's Takayama Minami is actually playing the protagonist in the recently released sequel Super Danganronpa 2).

Anyway, an awesome detective game that really excells in presentations. It's a bit of a mish-mash of all kinds of game mechanics and almost all of them work very well. I don't it's really probable anymore that this will be published in English (because the PSP is pretty much dead outside of Japan), but for those who know Japanese, definitely one to try out. Preferably the budget version, as it has bug fixes and other fixes!

Original Japanese title(s): 『ダンガンロンパ 希望の学園と絶望の高校生』

Friday, August 10, 2012

"Poirot, you really can't do that. It's not playing the game"

「私の趣味。それは他人の冷蔵庫を覗く事。冷蔵庫の中身は持ち主の生活や性格を反映する」
『冷蔵庫探偵』第1巻

"My hobby is peeking inside other people's refrigerators. The contents of a refrigerator reflect its owner's lifestyle and character"
"Refrigerator Detective" 1

Note to self: it is not possible to reproduce all recipes that appear in gourmet manga in real life. Sure, quite some of my cooking actually comes from manga, but I even I could have guessed that a gigantic big bang shumai is not likely to be made in real life. At least not by me. Ah well, another lesson learned...

Like I mentioned in my previous post, I quite like writing about food (how many mystery detective fiction focused blogs have a food tag?).  Having changed my blog into the detective fiction focused blog it currently is, I don't get to write about food that often lately sadly enough. Of course, it's my blog, so I could just bend the rules... If I would do that, I would for example write about Kyoto ramen. The soup seems traditionally to be very thick (kotteri), with (almost surprising) a lot of them being based on chicken. Due to the thickness of the soup, I really don't eat Kyoto ramen that often as it's just too heavy on the stomach. And the noodles themselves ar.... But let's drop this topic for now.

Anyway, food. So when I saw a manga with the interesting title Reizouko Tantei ("Refrigerator Detective"), I just had to pick it up. Because it is probably related to food, right? And detective fiction plus food sounds like a match made in heaven to me! The premise sounded interesting at any rate: protagonist Reiko started her catering company not only to well, have an income, but also because she has a strange hobby. She likes peeking inside other people's refrigerators. Her idea is that you can read people's personality and way of living through that. And she speaks out of experience: if she had checked her own refrigerator better in the past, she would noticed her boyfriend cheating on her a lot earlier. Now she uses her 'profiling' powers to help the police in little cases.

Let's ignore the fact that peeking inside your customers' refrigerators to see how they live is kinda rude. Especially if you're doing it even before a case has happened.

So, like I said, the basic premise is interesting, but to be honest, the first volume quickly showed that it was also a bit too narrow. Most cases resembled each other quite a lot. The cases in Reizouko Tantei are usually not about murder, but about connected lives (of friends, family) slowly drifting apart. The evidence for that is to be found in the refrigerator. A refrigerator with little ingredients is probably used by a person who doesn't often cook at home, while a sweet desert in the refrigerator of a man who doesn't like sweets might indicate a woman in his life. And yes, Reizouko Tantei is mostly a daily life mystery manga (though it does occasionally address murder).

One problem with the story-telling of this manga however is that the reader is never actually shown the contents of the refrigerators until Reiko starts reporting her profiling! Reiko is the only one to peek inside and come up with deductions, while the reader is forced to only nod at Reiko's story. Which makes it a very boring detective manga. I mean, I don't really like daily life mysteries anyway, but at least give me the chance to do something here. Because the stories themselves are not particularly original or shocking.

The art is also very, very generic. The characters don't look bad, but they are certainly also not particularly memorable. Or maybe it's better to say that they're not memorable at all. Their images don't even come up in my mind as I write this. What's even worse is that the food isn't drawn that nice actually! I might be a bit 'spoiled' by reading gourmet manga (where food naturally is a big element of the art and it usually looks quite tasty!) and yes, I am aware that food inside the refrigerator is usually not... prepared yet and often still in packages / wrappings / etc, but even considering that, the lack of details in the art of the food is very disappointing.

Though I guess I wasn't the only one disappointed in the series. After reading the first volume, I discovered that Reizouko Tantei stopped with the third volume, so yeah, it was killed off quite early (luckily?).

So the conclusion? Read Kuitan. The premise might be a bit different, focusing more on prepared food and be a bit more technical rather than the psychological profiling of Reizouko Tantei (incorporating knowledge of food preparation and even chemical workings of ingredients), but it's more fun, a bit more fair (if you know about food) and the food actually looks good. Which is not too surprising as Terasawa Daisuke is formally known for gourmet manga like Mister Ajikko.

By the way, a peek in my refrigerator now would probably result in a reaction like 'why is he hoarding grapefruit juice?'.

Original Japanese title(s): 遠藤彩見(原) 佐藤いづみ(画)(『冷蔵庫探偵』第1巻

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

「解けるわけのない問題に悩むなんて、人生の悲哀を感じるわ」

「ひとりでは解けない愛のパズルを抱いて」
"Get Wild" (TM Network)

"Embrace the puzzle of love you can't solve on your own"
"Get Wild" (TM Network)

I tried writing an introduction about okonomiyaki, the Kansai region and detective fiction, but then I realized that the only memorable okonomiyaki scenes in Japanese detective fiction I know are from Higashigawa Tokuya's Koigakubo Academy Detective Club series. Why is that a problem? Higashigawa is from Hiroshima, so his characters usually eat a totally different kind of okonomiyaki. Yes, I like to write randomly about food. Experiences have taught me that little okonomiyaki restaurants run by old ladies are the best, so I'm happy to say I found one in the neighborhood a while ago. Getting treated by my partner-in-dine on the other hand made me feel both happy and guilty at the same time. Hmm. Anyway, the moral behind this story is that okonomiyaki is good. Or something like that. But enough about food (gasp!).

Oh, and as some might have noticed from the sidebar, but I sorta started to use Twitter. Sorta. Not sure what to do with it, so we'll see how that works out. Will probably switch back and forth between English and Japanese.

Apparently, I had already started reading Arisugawa Alice's Kotou Puzzle (The Island Puzzle) at least two weeks ago. Thirteen days of those two weeks were spent on the pages before the first murder and then I finished the book within one day, apparently. Heh. Yes, I like my deaths to happen early in a story. Anyway, back to the book. Kotou Puzzle is the second novel in the Student Alice series, starring the student Alice (male), the Eito University Mystery Club (EMC) and the series detective Egami Jirou. The EMC, originally consisting of just four male students, has welcomed its first female member in the form of Arima Maria. Maria has invited Alice and Egami to her uncle's island for the holidays. The island was originally owned by Maria's (now deceased) grandfather, who was a great fan of puzzles. Before his death, Maria's grandfather actually hid a fortune in diamonds on the island, with the island functioning as one giant puzzle and hint that points to the whereabouts of the treasure. Maria, Alice and Egami arrive at the island to challenge this puzzle, while a great number of Maria's relatives are also visiting the island. The EMC's treasure hunt changes in a murderer hunt though when two of the guests are found shot death in a locked room one night. Oh, and this is an island in a detective story, so yes, there is a storm cutting the island off of the mainland and all other means of communcation are also conveniently destroyed!

I had heard people raving about this book, and I can say that I am all too willing to join those masses. Pretty much everyone agrees that the logic behind Kotou Puzzle is excellent and it really should serve as obligatory literature on constructing logic-based 'guess-the-criminal' stories. Arisugawa is definitely inspired by Queen, but it is a bit different here: early Queen logic is usually based around identifying several characteristics of the murderer and then matching them with what the suspects (i.e. the elimination method). Often seen characteristics are for example whether the murderer was left- or righthanded, certain knowledge the murderer must have had, or access to a particular place or item.

In Kotou Puzzle however, Arisugawa bases his complete solution on one single hint, an item (and in particular, the state of that item).  He then develops that one single hint into a whole train of deductions that clearly show what the murderer must have done, and finally arrives at the one single person that could have. So instead of deducing characteristics for the murderer, Arisugawa here presents the reader with deductions of the murderer's movements (all starting from one single item), that in the end lead to one single characteristic that points to the murderer. And it's awesome. Of course, Queen might be associated with this kind of logic too (especially as his country novels all include a noun, i.e. shoes and hats), but nowhere do we seen Queen develop this idea as fantastic as Arisugawa does here. Arisugawa already did a little bit of this in Gekkou Game, where a little item also served as a crucial starting point of a chain of deductions, but he really nails it in Kotou Puzzle. This is very cleanly written piece of logic that really should be read by all fans of the genre.

For fans of locked room mysteries, or let's say alibi tricks, it seems easier to show what they exactly like of their favorite trope. An ingenious mechanical trick, or something that surprises because of its simplicity, or the fantastic use of human psychology. I am not sure how to do that with logic though, which is something I really like in detective novels (explaining why I like writers like Queen and Norizuki). It is (naturally) a lot more abstract to explain and it's usually a deduction-chain that impresses, making it the more difficult to explain what was so awesome.

Some other detective tropes also appear in Kotou Puzzle, like a dying message and a locked room, but they are subordinate to the actual pointing out the identity of the murderer. The dying message was nothing special and kinda easy to guess actually, but I did like how the identity of the murderer tied in directly to the special circumstances of the locked room. You wouldn't be able to deduce the identity of the murderer based on the locked room, but you can definitely arrive at a satisfying explanation for the circumstances of the locked room murder were so strange if you know who the murderer is (which is what is actually done in the story).

The way Arisugawa develops his deductions from one single hint is also reflected in the other puzzle of this novel: the puzzle that leads to the diamonds. Abstractly seen, the idea behind the two puzzles (treasure hunt / murder) are the same, namely the natural development of a single thought, but the result is quite different. It might not be as grand as the logic behind the murders, but this is actually an interesting puzzle that might have been perfect on its own too (as a code cracking story of sorts).

Were there also elements I didn't like? Well, yes, actually. I wasn't too big a fan of the characters. There were no 17 almost identical students this time luckily, but still, that Maria has one big and complex family! And I am used to reading Nikaidou Reito's novels! The other problem is that the island itself feels very artificial. Of course, a closed circle setting on an island cut-off by a storm and all kinds of 'complex' means of transportation on the island that clearly define the time you need to get from one place to another is sorta a classic within detective fiction, but yeah, the island really did feel like only like a tool for the story, rather than an actual setting. And like I mentioned, I had severe troubles reading this book up until the first murders. Really, the treasure hunt on the island was quite boring, but there was at least a big award at the end for having to wade through the first hundred or so pages.

(And just to make it clear, I've reviewed the first three of the four Student Alice novels at the moment: Gekkou Game ("Moonlight Game"), Kotou Puzzle ("The Island Puzzle") and Soutou no Akuma ("Double-Headed Devil"))

What to read next, what to read next?, he said, while having at least half-a-dozen of half-read books on his nightstand.

Original Japanese title(s): 有栖川有栖 『孤島パズル』

Sunday, August 5, 2012

「愛がほしいだけさ」

"'Two young adventurers for hire. Willing to do anything, go anywhere. Pay must be good. No unreasonable offer refused.' How would that strike you if you read it?"
"The Secret Adversary"

To be expected of the Kyoto University Mystery Club: people who arrive early for the end-of-semester party all head straight for the Book Off to browse/read until meeting time, discussions at the izakaya include topics like secret hallways and how the stairs are probably only able to hold a certain amount of weight so we can create an elimination-style detective story and the karaoke list being dominated by theme songs of Conan and Kindaichi Shounen.

L'Agence Barnett et Cie is a small private detective agency in Paris run by Jim Barnett. What makes this agency unique? It's free. No fees are charged for services rendered. At all. And that's not because Barnett is a bad detective: to the contrary, he is a very gifted private detective who seems almost able to perform miracles for his clients. His gift for detection is even recognized by inspector Béchoux, disciple of Ganimard, the legendary police detective of the Paris police force. Oh, and yes, Jim Barnett is nothing more than an alias of the famous thief Arsene Lupin. And you can bet that even though he doesn't charge anybody for his services, Lupin is sure to arrange things so he profits in one way or another...

L'Agence Barnett et Cie is a short story collection and readers familiar with Arsene Lupin will know what to expect: whereas the novel-length stories of Lupin tend to be swashbuckling adventures, the short stories tend to very entertaining orthodox detective stories. This collection is no exception and I had great fun reading the stories. In fact, I wasn't even planning to read any Japanese translated novels this week, but I had been wanting to read this collection for years and when I discovered this book among the shelves of the Mystery Club, I just had to read it immediately.

In Les gouttes qui tombent ("The Falling Drops"), Barnett is asked to help baroness Asserman in the matters of an inheritance. Her husband, the baron, had been ill and confined to his bed for a long time and with time, love between the two had disappeared. Wanting to punish the baroness for her lack of loyalty to him, the baron then made a curious will. His wife was to inherit an insanely expensive necklace when he were to die, while his other relatives were to inherit the rest of his possessions (the mansion, the rest of his fortune). The catch? The baroness discovers, after her husband's death, that the necklace is replaced for a fake and that she thus inherits nothing at all. But who could have made the switch of her necklace (which she had always hidden in her safe)?  The solution is a very obvious one because of the length of the story though: I love short stories, but if written badly, the right solution might be too easy to see because there are just too few story elements. Which doesn't mean the solution was disappointing though, as this was a truly cruel and horrifying trick to steal and get rid of the necklace! More easy on the heart is seeing how Barnett/Lupin arranges things so he benefits too!

Inspector Béchoux hopes Barnett will be able to solve a curious murder in La lettre d'amour du roi George ("The Love Letters of King George"). The murder on an old man seems to be commited by his three nephews, as they are the only ones to profit of his death and they were all on the scene of the crime, but they swear that they saw their uncle's friend at the house that day. However, the villagers all swear that they saw this friend at his own house, sitting in the living room smoking like he always does at the time of the murder. How could he have been in two places at the same time? The solution is one of those that seem a bit unrealistic, which can be attacked with a lot of 'but what if...''s, but it might actually work. In those times, in little villages.

La partie de baccara ("A Game of Baccara") is very easy to see through. I mean, there is not even something to see through. The murder of a man after a game of baccara really doesn't need the likes of Lupin to solve. The only fun part of the story? Barnett once again making a profit in a slightly illegal way.

L'homme aux dents d'or ("The Man With the Golden Teeth") is the one stole the religious treasures, the monk said to inspector Béchoux. So he found a suspicous man with golden teeth in the neighborhood. So everything is over? No. For the monk swears that the golden teeth were on the left side of his mouth, while the man arrested has them on the right side. Once again not that complex, while it does features a double-layered solution.

An investor is robbed of a bag full of stock certifcates in Les douze africaines de Béchoux ("The Twelve African Stock Certificates of Béchoux"). And yes, like the title suggest, the loot includes an investment of Béchoux himself (so now it's personal!). Thanks to the quick recovery of the robbery, the investor manages to arrange that nobody is able to leave the building until the arrival of the police. But even an extensive search of the police across all floors doesn't produce the documents, nor the thief. Where did they disappear to? Another impossible diappearance/extensive search story, but with a slightly disappointing solution because this is one of those times where I feel that that place was a place that should have been searched. On the other hand, Leblanc does make some truly hilarious (and probably true) observations about the habits of a particular professional occupation.

Le hasard fait des miracles ("Chance creates miracles") feels a bit like Au sommet de la tour from the Les Huit Coups de l'horloge Lupin collection, both about families of nobility with a muddy past and a mysterious death. Here the death of an impoverished young baron, who seems to have fallen to his death forms to be a problem. Was it just an accident? Like Au sommet de la tour, Barnett uncovers a very old plot and the truth behind the current death (which unfornately also depends on a very unbelievable bit of luck), but the best part is seeing Barnett being his old Lupin-y old self and dominating the last scene.

Gants blancs... guêtres blanches... ("White gloves, white spats") opens with the revelation that Béchoux was actually married. He divorced because his wife wanted to become a star, which she did. Now she wants Béchoux to find out who robbed of her apartment, attacked her mother and to recover the loot. Still in love with his wife, Béchoux is unable to refuse this request and even though he knows that Barnett is not to be trusted (as he always ends up profiting one way or another), he also knows that only Barnett is able to solve the problem of how the robbers were able to get into the building unobserved. A variation on a classic trick, which sadly enough becomes clear immediately the moment the hints to it are introduced in the story.

After the events of the last story, Béchoux hopes to finally arrest Barnett for his unortodox way of running a detective agency that 'doesn't charge a fee' in Béchoux arrête Jim Barnett (Béchoux arrests Jim Barnett"). Barnett seems to be connected with the case of the murder on a housewife and the consequent disappearance of a photo that could make or break the case against the main suspect. Not a very interesting story actually, as the solution to where the photos are hidden is almost too absurd.

There is quite an emphasis on the great search trope / hidden objects trope in the stories collected here, which has always been a big Lupin thing, I guess. Most of the solutions aren't that surprising though and I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed here.You'd think with all these comments that I didn't like this collection, but that's not true actually. I had quite some fun with the book and that was really because these stories are two-layered. At one hand, we have the main story of seeing how Barnett solves the cases. But on the other hand, we also have to consider how Lupin is going to make a profit out of this case. And that is really the main attraction for me of L'Agence Barnett et Cie: seeing how Lupin acts as a great detective and all, while still being his sly thief-self and arranging everything that he profits one way or another.

Reading this in Japanese was interesting though. I had only read Minami Youichirou's adaptations of Lupin until now, which were highly re-written and simplified (in fact, La Demeure mystérieuse is a sort-a sequel to L'Agence Barnett et Cie also featuring Béchoux). This was an actual translation, which gave another flavor to the text. The Minami 'translations' can definitely be critized for being very disloyal to the original text (in terms of word-to-word translations), but they read more easily as actual Japanese text. I've been reading quite some Japanese translations lately (why?!!!) and I do find the difference in ways of expression across the languages very remarkable. It is instantly clear whether you are reading an actual Japanese text or a translation. Which makes sense, I guess, but I do see why one would like to read Minami's translations.

Next up: a non-translation. I hope.

Japanese title(s): 『バーネット探偵社』 「したたる水滴」 「ジョージ王の恋文」 「バカラの勝負」 「金歯の男」 「べシューの十二枚のアフリカ株券」 「白手袋・・・白いゲートル」 「べシュー、バーネットを逮捕す」