Monday, April 29, 2013

『赤い部屋』

"Ik geloof niet aan een inspiratie, die zomaar komt. Niet veel mensen hebben Edison goed begrepen, toen hij zei, dat uitvinden 99 procent transpiratie en een procent inspiratie was. Hij bedoelde er mee te zeggen dat je dat ene onmisbare procentje alleen maar kon krijgen, als je voortdurend met een zaak bezig was en je er in verdiepte. Nooit kwam dat ene procentje eerst. Maar de mensen willen graag aan dat soort dingen geloven. Daardoor kreeg je zo'n verhaal als van Archimedes, die in het bad zat, eureuka riep, en ineens alles wist. Of van Newton, die een appel op z'n hoofd kreeg en meteen de wetten van de zwaartekracht noteerde"
"Koude Vrouw in Kralingen"

"I don't believe in inspiration coming from nowhere. A lot of people misunderstood Edison when he said that inventions come from 99 percent of transpiration and 1 percent of inspiration. What he meant, was that you could only get hold of that necessary one percent if you had been working on the case all the time and had studied it deeply. That one percent won't just fall into your lap. But people just want to believe that. That's why you have that story of Archimedes in bath, shouting out Eureka and suddenly knowing everything. Or that one of Newton, who got an apple on his head and jotted down the laws of gravity instantly"
"A Cold Woman in Kralingen".

I don't mind reading Dutch novels (I really don't!), but I really hope my stacks of Japanese novels will arrive soon here. It's been over a month now, so they should arrive one of these weeks. Then it's back to reviews of mostly Japanese fiction and a translation of a short story once in a while!

Cor Docter's Koude vrouw in Kralingen ("A Cold Woman in Kralingen") is the sequel to Droeve Poedel in Delfshaven and is once again a 'topographical mystery', a detective novel set in a particular region, where the local characteristics, history and culture are to be an integral part of the plot. This time Docter brings the reader to Kralingen and we're not the only ones interested in this part of Rotterdam. The society Precious Kralingen is a club where members gather to talk about the past of Kralingen. At least, that is what they claim to do, because all the lectures they give are nothing but a smokescreen for their real objective, which is... precisely what? The reader doesn't know and the members of Precious Kralingen sure aren't going to tell him. So when a locked room murder happens after one of Precious Kralingen's fake lectures, the members are afraid the police will investigate the exact activities of the club. They decide to blame the victim's son for the murder, but the son makes a run for it and falls out of the window. Convinced they can now present a easy case, complete with victim and murderer, they inform the police, but commisioner Vissering isn't fooled that easy. Especially as this case appears to be connected to another case he has been investigating.

The first half of this novel is great. The members of Precious Kralingen fabricating their solution and trying to force it on the police is similar to the events of Natsuki Shizuko's W no Higeki, or an episode of Columbo. Indeed, the way Vissering in turns slowly manages to find out what really happened at the meeting, by pouncing on the weak points of the members' stories and the psychological weak links of the group, is exactly what our favourite lieutenant liked to do. Here, Koude vrouw in Kralingen is very exciting and the pages fly by as you see the fake solution slowly crumbling.

But the latter half of the novel is weird. And I don't mean the pleasant kind of weird. For example, one part of the puzzle is solved mainly because a guilty party presented himself/herself to the police for no real reason. Well, the book was probably nearing its page limit and Docter had to wrap that subplot up some way, so he summoned a Deux Ex Machina to solve that part of his novel. It really comes out of nowhere and sorta cheats the reader. I am not a big fan of the decalogue and the twenty rules, but heck, when I read an orthodox detective novel, I do want a resolution to the puzzle that is logical and rational. It has to be hinted at in a fair way. You can't have write 150 pages about a problem and basically have someone appear just before the ending saying 'it was me' and have it over with!

The same holds for the locked room mystery, but to a lesser extent. The problem of the locked room isn't even relevant to most part of the story, because the members of Precious Kralingen tried to hide that fact for the police. The solution to the problem is... not implemented well in this novel. I have to admit though, the solution isn't the most elegant one I've seen, and is one of those solutions Edogawa Rampo would have used as one of many, many tricks for his more pulpish novels which only work if you don't think too long about it, but it works and isn't unfair. But, on the other hand, while the solution is thus fair in the sense that it can be done, I am not sure about how fair the presentation was. Here we have a locked room problem which is only discussed briefly at the beginning and the ending of the story and the inspirational 'hint' that led Vissering to the solution works in hindsight, but I really don't think that that is enough to be really fair to the reader. This solution, in my mind, needs one extra hint, one extra stage in the deduction to be fair to the reader. Now we have a solution which is realistic and somewhat original, but presented in a way which won't leave the reader satisfied.

I didn't think Koude Vrouw in Kralingen was as enjoyable as Droeve Poedel in Delfshaven overall, but the great beginning  does make it a read worthwhile for those who can read Dutch. And a review of the final book in the series will be up soon. I already finished reading it, but as always, there's quite a lag between reading and writing.

Original Dutch title(s): Cor Docter, "Koude Vrouw in Kralingen"

Friday, April 12, 2013

「ご馳走さん」

「ラーメンには人間社会の縮図がある。物悲しさから、小さな幸せまで何もかも」
『ゆげ福 博多探偵事件ファイル』

"Ramen is like a minature map of human society. There is sadness, a bit of hapiness and every else"
 "Yugefuku - The Hakata Detective Case Files"

I recently bought Columbo on DVD and even though I have seen most of the series, there are still episodes I've never seen, so that has been a fun way of spending my time lately. And then it hit me. A Columbo game like that Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo game where you play as the villain would be awesome. Slowly figuring out the perfect crime, and trying to get away from that pesky inspector. And just as you think you have defeated the last boss, he returns with his superspecialawesome attack "just more thing" (unavoidable, instant death). Make it happen!

And now for something completely different. It shouldn't be a secret by now that I love ramen. Especially Hakata's porkbone tonkotsu ramen. And it is probably also known that I love the town of Fukuoka. So you can guess my excitement when I first heard about Nishimura Ken's Yugefuku - Hakata Tantei Jiken File ("Yugefuku - The Hakata Detective Case Files"), a connected short story collection set in Fukuoka with a ramen theme! Yuge Takumi is a private detective operating in Fukuoka with a great love for ramen. His father once made Fukuoka's best ramen, but disappeared one day. Yuge (who is still called Yugefuku by his close friends after his father's ramen stand) is still trying to figure out what happened to his father, while also doing his normal business. Which for some reason or another, is often connected to that wonderful noodle dish.

I guess that this is what Cor Docter would have called a topographical mystery. The local culture of Fukuoka definitely comes alive in this short story collection, with lively descriptions of downtown Fukuoka and descriptions of many (actually existing) ramen restaurants, as well as copious usage of the local dialect. In fact, in the many years I've blogged, I've often talked about how I love 1) food-themed detectives, 2) usage of dialects and other speech patterns in fiction, 3) Fukuoka, so you'd figure that I'd be all over Yugefuku. So what is the 'but'?

Well, major part of it is just the (lack) of true mystery. I should have been warned by the phrase 'hardboiled detective': initially, it just seemed like a nice pun on the habit of al-dente noodles in Hakata ramen. But Yugefuku is indeed not a Great Detective, and the cases he encounters miss the complexities and structuring I so love. Not seldom we are given a story where Yugefuku has one, admittedly, bright idea about a certain case, which ends up like 'that brought me on the trail of that one person who never actually appeared in the story and was never mentioned to, who quickly confessed to the crime'. These cases aren't that baffling and most of the time, I was left unsatisfied. The storyline about Yugefuku's father's disappearence is also not of any real importance.

The way the stories connect to ramen are Yugefuku at his best and worst. When author Nishimura manages to present something good, the concept works. Like a certain little lady who likes to compare everything tot the happenings in St. Mary Mead, Yugefuku has the habit of comparing everything with the macroworld of ramen, from the history of ramen-types to how cooks work and customs like second serving. These insights into the world of ramen are interesting on their own, but they also provide surprising new points of view on the case, which lead to the solution. The story Ten to En ("Points and Circles", as a reference to Matsumoto Seichou's Points and Lines) for example has Yugefuku talking about ramen delivery, which turns out to be the key to the case. The moment you see how the two seemingly unrelated notions are connected, is really fun. But most of the time, the connection is mediocre at best. One story for example starts with an anecdote on the custom of kaedama in Hakata ramen, a second portion of just the noodles. The story itself however is about another meaning of the word kaedama, namely substitute/stand-in. So no real connection with the case on hand.

When the anecdotes on ramen and other Fukuoka customs and the main plot don't connect well, the stories kinda fall apart: they feel like a collection of random plotlines and comments, without forming a whole. There were sadly several times I had to ask myself why a certain subplot or comment was inserted in the story, only for me to find out that they had absolutely nothing to do with the main story. It is padding, which is something I am not looking for in a short story.

The pages is filled with love for ramen though, and you'll guaranteed want to eat a bowl of hot noodles when you read this, but purely from a mystery-reader's point of view, this short story collection is lacking. However, as you can hardly define me as just a person who loves detective fiction, without the above mentioned affection for ramen / Fukuoka / dialects, I'd say that people interested in ramen should definitely try it. When the ramen-mystery mix works, it works and you'll learn a lot about ramen anyway.

Original Japanese title(s): 西村健 『ゆげ福 博多探偵事件ファイル』: 「暖簾わけ」 / 「途上」 / 「点と円」 / 「学習」 / 「風吹きぬ」 / 「裏窓」「悪意 箱」 / 「絆」

Monday, April 8, 2013

「都合のいい奇跡だって…やればなんとかなるっ!」

「希望を求めなければ・・・絶望に襲われる事もないんだし」  
『スーパーダンガンロンパ2 さよなら絶望学園』

"If you don't wish for hope, you won't be assaulted by despair either"
"Super Danganronpa 2 - Farewell Academy of Despair"

It's been more than a year since my last translation, and I really want to do a new one somewhere in the near future again. Not sure whether people actually read them though. And I'd have to look for appropiate material. As fun as it would be to translate an actual novel, as long as I don't get paid for it, it would take too much time/effort to do anything more than a short story (and even then I tend to do little more than the bare minimum...) 

The story of the PSP game Super Danganronpa 2 - Sayonara Zetsubou Gakuen ("Super Danganronpa 2 - Farewell Academy of Despair") once again starts at Hope's Peak Academy, a high school which only accepts students of super class. Whether you're a super class gamer, or a super class cook, or just have super class luck, you need to excel at a field to be accepted at Hope's Peak. This time, a group of 16 students, including protagonist Hinata Hajime, can definitely remember they arrived at the school, but for some reason they all wake up on a tropical island. They are told by the rabbit doll-like Usami being that they are on a school trip and that their only task is to bond and become friends with each other. Of course, nobody has any clue of what is going on at the beginning, but the 16 students slowly get used to the idea and really start to have fun on the island.

Until the evil Monokuma, a bear-like doll, appears on the scene, violently usurping the control of the island from Usami. He reinstates the system we already from the first game: students are only allowed to leave the island if they succeed in committing murder and getting away with it. After a murder has happened (and Monokuma makes sure a murder happens by giving incentives and motives for the students), the students have to hold a classroom trial, in which they have to figure out who the murderer is. If they guess correctly, the murderer is executed by Monokuma and the murder games continue, if they guess wrong everyone but the murderer is executed.


The set-up is the same as in the first Danganronpa: a closed circle situation with 16 students, with them having to solve the murders they commit among themselves in a courtroom setting, whilst also trying to figure out why they are being held captured by Monokuma. But Super Danganronpa 2 is an improvement in practically all aspects compared to the first game. First of all, the cases you have to solve are much better. In the original Danganronpa, anyone of reasonable intelligence could solve the murders (including all the 'surprise twists') during the investigation parts of the game, that is, the sequences where you collect the clues you would use in the classroom trials. The clues were so obvious and the plots were so simple, you could figure out everything there already, making the actual classroom trials rather boring: every plot-twist had been telegraphed long in advance because of the clumsy clues.

In Super Danganronpa 2 however, the murder cases are structured much better, meaning you can't solve the cases completely before entering a classroom trial, because some essential hints are only made known during the trial. Sounds unfair, but that's part of the suspense: the students are forced to hold classroom trials by Monokuma, with their own lives at stake. They know one of them is the murderder, but not who. They have to be careful with sharing information, sometimes only bringing things up if it is essential for the current topic of discussion.


This is reflected in some new game mechanics. It's still an action-packed variation of the Gyakuten Saiban games and you can read the Danganronpa review for a more detailed explanation, but it is essentially reacting on statements made by other people. This is usually done by pointing out contradictions with the help of evidence, but one new mechanic is to agree with statements made by other people: sometimes a person makes a suggestion or a guess which actually warrants back up from you (and evidence). It seems like a simple improvement, but it adds a lot to the idea of all students working together through way of discussion to arrive at the truth. On the other hand, another new system introduces specific one-on-one discussions, once again strengthening the atmosphere of having a group of differently thinking students whose really have nothing else but words to get them out of these cases.

There are also some other improvements in the mechanics that make Super Danganronpa 2 a lot more easier and more fun to play, though they aren't related to the plot: there are some shortcuts that make it a lot easier to interact with your fellow students and there are some minigames included for some extra replay value, making the package indeed look like a Super version of the original Danganronpa.


But to get back at the game's story. as mentioned above, you can look at two parts of the story with Super Danganronpa 2. One is the overall story, which deals with the question of how the 16 students are going to escape from the island and finding out what Monokuma is planning to do. Two is the seperate murder cases that occur among the students. So, it's much like a connected short story collection. What makes Super Danganronpa 2's story so great is the high meta-conciousness it has of the genre and itself as a game sequel. For one, a lot of the characters and events that happen over the course of the game are actually references / subversions / inversions of the first game. You sometimes get the feeling you're looking at the original game through a laughing mirror when playing Super Danganronpa 2, but the writer makes great use of this trick, collecting seemingly familiar tropes and archetypes to play with your expectations, but letting them engage in completely different ways. This way the sequel interacts with the original game is really something special.

Where the game doesn't seem to take its cues from the original, it still manages to shine. One case for example is an excellent example of the mansion murder case as often seen in Ayatsuji Yukito's yakata series, which was strangely something not really present in the first game. Also, one student who appears as a twisted version of the protagonist of the first game because of his belief in his fellow students, creates some of the most interesting situations I've seen in detective fiction in years. There is no way you'd see such a character in conventional detective fiction, but I'd recommend him as a sort of character study for any fan of the genre, as an example of a great new type of character in detective fiction.


But Super Danganronpa 2 doesn't interact with the first game just on a meta-level, but also on an explicit level, meaning you'll probably won't understand most of the ending if you haven't played the original. The story of Super Danganronpa 2 can't be seen seperately from the first game and a lot of the game works because it is a subversion of the expectations created in the first game, so one should really see the two games as one set. The sequel is better in both story and game mechanics, but one should not skip the first game, as you'll miss out on a lot what makes it so good.

Oh, and like the first game, Super Danganronpa 2 is full of references to popular culture, from an ingame- horro game called Twilight Syndrome to Monokuma using special moves from various manga to beat up Usami.

In short, recommended material. But you'll need to play the original Danganronpa to get everything out of it. It takes some time, 20+ hours times two, but the reward is great and for fans of detective adventure games certainly, but also for detective fiction fans in general, I'd even say that it is required playing.

Original Japanese title(s) 『スーパーダンガンロンパ2 さよなら絶望学園』

Sunday, April 7, 2013

『犬のみぞ知る DOG KNOWS』

"Je had van die typische wijkmoorden, met een merkwaardige beslotenheid als in the boeken van John Dickson Carr of bij een treinmoord van Agatha Christie. Dikwijls voelde je bij het begin van het onderzoek de sfeer al aan: die van een bekrompen moord in de enge ruimte van een wijk, en dan moest je daar ook de dader zoeken, of de moorden, waarbij meteen de namen van personen uit andere steden of geheel andere delen van de stad opdoken. Dit leek zo'n gesloten wijk-moord, gebonden aan de onzichtbare wanden van het rayon"
"Droeve Poedel in Delfshaven"

"There are those typical neigbourhood murder cases, with a weird sense of 'closedness' like in those books of John Dickson Carr or a train murder by Agatha Christie. Usually, you'd sense the atmosphere at the start of the investigation: that of a cramped murder in the narrow space of a neighbourhood, where you'd have to find the murderer, or that of those murders, where names of people from different cities or parts of town pop up immediately. This however was one of those closed neighbourhood murders, bound to the invisible walls of the rayon"
"Sad Poodle in Delfshaven"

Because this is a review on a Dutch mystery novel on a blog that is usually mostly on Japanese mystery novels, I predict that this post will have a horrible view count.

A crying poodle with traces of blood in his mouth attracts the attention of the local beat cop, which in turn leads to the discovery of its owner's home. Note that they only discovered the owner's home and not the owner himself, who seems to have disappeared. And probably not voluntary, because there are definite signs that a fight had happened and that blood had been shed. The dog's owner, Vledser, is/was a money lender, which is a fairly dangerous occupation within the world of fictional crime, so commisioner Vissering of the Rotterdam police fears the worse. The only clues? The testimony of the neighbor who overheard some kind of conversation last night and some pages with handdrawn maps left in the room.

'A topographical mystery', is what Cor Docter calls this novel, a detective novel set in a particular region, where the local characteristics, history and culture are to be an integral part of the plot. In Droeve Poedel in Delfshaven for example, this concept comes alive because the story introduces the reader to several places that are related to the local history. I myself know next to nothing of Delfshaven and Rotterdam, so this 'topographical mystery' has a function not unlike the Japanese genre of the travel mystery: mysteries that are set in a particular region with plots strongly related with local folklore/history. In fact, these travel mysteries are usually relatively light on actual, orthodox mystery, but they work a strange mixes between mystery, tourist guides and history books (see also reviews of novels by Nishimura Kyoutarou and Uchida Yasuo). Note that travel mysteries do imply travel, ergo, the detective is usually not at work on home ground. And in a less positive note, travel mysteries also imply fairly easy mysteries of dubious quality. Matsumoto Seichou's Ten to Sen for example features an inspector travelling all over Japan with the local infrastructure playing a big role in the plot and is strictly abstractly seen very close to a travel mystery, but both historically (as it predates the term) as well content-wise, you'd have difficulties finding anyone who would typify as a pure travel mystery.

And as for the contents of Droeve Poedel in Delfshaven, I like it! Readers might have noticed that I don't really read Dutch mysteries, and even then they're set in the Far East (see van Gulik and Aafjes), so it was kinda strange to follow a Dutch policeman investigating a disappearance (which, yes, does turn into murder), but I had fun reading this. Docter has a pleasant way of writing, by which I don't just mean his choice of words, but also in the way he structures the developments of his story: every chapter you're given some new hint, some new events that piques your interest, tempting you into that feeling of 'well, just one more chapter then', until you realize you're at the end of the book already.

The way Vissering works is also one of the more memorable points of the story: he and one of his men Grijphand discuss the case, basically one proposing a deduction while the other acts as the devil's advocate, thus using each other as sounding boards. It works, because different from the Great Detective (TM) a policeman has to work with his colleagues in principle, thus such discussions are what you'd expect. But what makes these discussions good is that Vissering and Grijphand work on an equal status here, with rank playing no role here. It is probably in the big picture just something very small, but it was definitely one of the factors that made this book good for me.

The ending features a nice twist on a familiar trope of the genre, but I especially like the hint Docter left pointing to the solution. So simple, staring you in the face at at least two places, but I had no idea. It was at that moment that I really started to love this book: at first it felt like a Dutch police procedural which was written great (on a linguistic-structural level), and then suddenly every suspect is gathered in one room and Vissering reveals a solution which show this book is definitely part of the Great Tradition.

There are two other books in this series it seems, so I am definitely going after those in the near future. 

Original Dutch title(s): Cor Docter "Droeve Poedel in Delfshaven"

Monday, April 1, 2013

Murder in Three Acts

「好き好き大好き 好き好き大好き
好き好き大好き 愛しているって言わなきゃ殺す」
『好き好き大好き」(戸川純)

"I love you, I love you, I really love you 
I love you, I love you, I really love you
I love you, I love you, I really love you
If you don't say I love you, I'll kill you"

My first encounter with Abiko Takemaru was probably with the fun Tantei Eiga, but I mostly associate him with games. He is strongly connected with Kamaitachi no Yoru and Trick X Logic, excellent detective games and while not a detective game per se, I have been having a bit of fun with his newest game.Besides the above, I've read his Hayami siblings series, which is a light-hearted, orthodox detective series which usually goes through the motions but has trouble really setting it apart from the crowd. At any rate, these works of his all feature a humorous tone to them, which is why I always associated Abiko with humor. Which might have been wrong.

Abiko Takemaru's 1992 novel Satsuriku ni Itaru Yamai ("Illness Unto Massacre") starts with the arrest of Gamou Minoru, a serial killer who had been killing and raping women (in that specific order) in Tokyo. Like the famous Jack the Ripper case, this serial killer also had the nasty habit of cutting off breasts and other body parts from his victims. The story then rewinds and we are told how this horrible case started from the viewpoints of three people: Minoru, the serial killer who has finally found 'true' love by embracing necrophilia; Masako, who lately has started to suspect her son from being the infamous serial killer and Higuchi, an elderly ex-cop, who lost a friend to the serial killer and wishes to find the murderer.

First thing that has to be mentioned: the text can be quite graphic at times. Really graphic.In fact, I really do wonder why it is so graphic. It only seems to be there for the shock-factor. I mean, OK, we have a necrophiliac murderer, so it is already a bit nastier than your regular serial murder mystery, but you really don't have to go into every detail of how and when and especially how. I get it's a horrible murder without pages on how Minoru is getting sexually aroused and how he did this and that to his victims. It's something completely different from the actions we seen taken by romantically clumsy protagonists of Kamaitachi no Yoru and the Hayami siblings series!

Written several years after the infamous little girl murder case (where Miyazaki Tsutomu killed several young girls and sexually abused / ate parts of their corpses), Satsuriku ni itaru Yamai touches upon sensitive parts of the society at the time. And I won't go into that in detail, because I figure there are probably reviews out there that discuss that better than I could and there is probably a lot of material out there that are more informative on the issues of families growing apart, the father as a male role model to the son, etcetera etcetera, but for those interested in the topic, you might want to check out Satsuriku ni itaru Yamai and vice versa.

So is there value in reading Satsuriku ni itaru Yamai, besides the graphic descriptions of the murders? Yes, and no. If you can make it through the murders and manage to get into the tales of the psychopathic Minoru, the paranoid mom and the self-blaming Higuchi, then you'll be served a neat surprise at the end of the story. At the end. After going through all the gory and disturbing murders. It is a fun thing Abiko did here in regards of the plot (though, strictly speaking, it seems to serve no other real function than just being a surprise aimed at the reader), but people might give up halfway through the story, never reaching that special moment. Of course, if you're into slash-horror, than you'll have no problem with the novel and than it's definitely a great read, but don't expect clean blows with blunt instruments and polite, dandy suspects in a country house.

Satsuriku ni itaru Yamai is often counted as one of Abiko Takemaru's best, if not his best novel, which probably depends heavily on your taste in mystery novels. I defintiely like the classic 8 no Satsujin a lot better than this novel,  though it definitely is a memorable one, even if mostly for the gore.

Original Japanese title(s): 我孫子武丸 『殺戮にいたる病』