Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle"

Don't judge a book by its cover
 
So I noticed that the next post will be the 400th post. Well, actually, the 401st post, because I have removed one post for sinister reasons I will unveil when all the planets are aligned and planet X has appeared, but let's keep things simple. 400. They weren't all about detective fiction, but still, I certainly hadn't expected I'd write this much nonsense when I first started. Oh, and this post, this won't be about detective fiction either. Not really anyway.

Because I will be just posting some covers of books I like. But first, a bit about Japanese publishing. Usually, a cheaper pocket version, a bunkobon, is released some time after the initial release of a (hardcover/larger sized) book. I tend to buy those, as not only are they cheaper, but they are just better designed in my opinion. These size of these books mean I can actually slip them in and out of my coat pockets easily, which is a godsend when you like to read in the train/at the station. These books are even small enough I can hold in just one hand, and having trained my monkey paws I can also flip the pages with the same hand I'm holding the book in (for when the train is really busy and you can't seem to get one arm near the other). Also, unlike most books published outside of Japan, the bunkobon has an uniform size, which mean they stack better, and more importantly, I can use custom bookcovers!



Bookcovers are usually used to prevent other people from seeing what you're reading, as well as add a bit of protecting to your book. I was a bit sceptical at first about bookcovers, but my bookcover prevent books from slipping out of my hands because of the cloth material, and it has a built in bookmarker, for when they forget to give me one. And it's cute. Bookcovers only work when there is an uniform size for books (or else you'd need to have covers for different kind of sizes of books), which for some reason publishers don't seem to think useful outside of Japan.

Of course, there also times when you want to show the cover of the book you're reading. The following covers are some of my favorite ones I've come across the last few years.


Yokomizo Seishi truly made it big after the movie-boom in the late 70s, which was coupled with re-releases of his novels as bunkobon. And they feature fantastic covers. I assembled the clean artwork for some of his novels above, but you can feel the typical dark and sinister Yokomizo Seishi atmosphere from those covers.


The Kodansha Box imprint features softcover books in a cardboard bookcase for a premium price. I don't actually think they are that neat, but the Revoir series by Van Madoy feature some great cover art! I have the bunkobon of Marutamachi Revoir, but I have to admit that I actually regret not having bought the (almost twice as expensive) Kodansha Box release.


These covers for Ayatsuji Yukito's Yakata (house) series showcase the titular houses by (fictional) architect Nakamura Seiji, who loves putting things like trap-doors and secret hallways in his creations. His houses also tend to be a focal point for evil and murder and these covers really capture the dark atmosphere of each of the houses.


I also love retro(-feel)-covers, and these covers for Anthony Berkeley's novels are just great! Not more to add to that. In fact, a lot of Tokyo Sougensha's covers are great!


So for some reason, Japan's the only place a complete collection of Hoch's Sam Hawthorne series is available. And I absolutely love these covers also of publisher Tokyo Sougensha, as they convey the 'feeling' I have with this series. The series might be about a lot  of murder, but it is always told in a warm way by the narrator Hawthorne, which is reflected in these bright, warm covers. Much better than the covers of the first two books published in the States in my opinion.




And some more retro-covers, but this time of Edogawa Rampo novels. The Shounen Tantei Dan series has some great artwork of children's literature that just scream Shouwa period.



And ending with these covers is mostly because I have no idea what is going on with these covers for Nikaidou Reito's Nikaidou Ranko series. Is that a clown? A hand-face thingy? A face-staircase? An attempt at human transmutation gone horribly wrong? These covers aren't even related to the contents of the books! Nightmare fuel!

And that was today's I-didn't-really-do-my-best-post. Note though: these aren't all of my favorite covers, just the ones I could think of, and I just grew tired of searching for covers online after a while. Maybe something for a follow-up post.

Monday, June 24, 2013

『完全犯罪に猫は何匹必要か?』

「この本は、ネコの手の届かないところに保管してください。殺人をたからむ恐れがあります」
 『キャットフード 名探偵三途川理と注文の多い館の殺人』

"Keep this book away from cats. They might be planning a murder"
("Cat Food - Great Detective Sanzunokawa Kotowari and the Murders of the House with Many Orders")

When I was in Kyoto last year, I lived in a dormitory for international students. I think I've seen my neighbour only once, and that was not in before our rooms, but in a class we happened to take together. After a bit of talking, we suddenly discovered we had lived next to each other for over half a year without ever meeting once. As I lived at the end of the corridor, I had only one neighbour inside the dorm, but I also had three stray cats living somewhere near my room whom I saw/heard quite often. Actually, I probably saw those cats more often than other people in my dorm. They were quite popular too, with children always creeping into the bushes to play with them (which was a bit creepy actually; those kids always popped up from a little shrine in front of the bushes... almost as ghosts). Anyway, those cats were good neighbours. Of course, they might also have been evil cats keeping an eye on me.

I loved Morikawa Tomoki's Snow White, and with his third novel out this week, I had to sneak in his debut work with the overly long title Cat Food - Meitantei Sanzunokawa Kotowari to Chuumon no Ooi Yakata no Satsujin ("Cat Food - Great Detective Sanzunokawa Kotowari and the Murders of the House with Many Orders"). Four high school students have won a free stay on a resort island. What they don't know, is that the whole island is a trap set up by... cats. Evil cats. Evil cats who try to take over the world. The world of processed cat food that is. For these cats have come up with a new product for the nouveau riche of the cat-world: cat food made out of human flesh. The four students are the ingredients needed for the first test run of the factory. Of course, this wouldn't be possible for normal cats, but the brains behind the Pluto Meat Company are a group of transforming cats, who can change at will into about everything (humans amongst others). One problem though: Willy, another transforming cat has taken the place of one of their ingredient-humans, but they don't know which of the four is Willy. While cats are allowed to kill humans, they can't just kill other cats (that would be illegal) and thus starts a clash of deductions, with the cats of PMC are trying to figure out which of their ingredients is Willy, who is desperately trying to save everybody without blowing his cover.

Snow White featured a battle of the wits based on a fantasy setting (magic mirrors) and it worked out great there, and the same can be said of Cat Food (I am not going to use the full title). Transforming cats might sound a bit unfair, but there are clear rules (the cats can only change to objects / persons of a certain size, they have to obey the 'cat-laws', the human ingredients have to be processed into food, so they can't just blow up everyone and the island...), so in the end, Cat Food works out as as you would expect from any good deduction battle story. The first part of the story is centered around Willy trying to figure out a way to get everybody of the island safe, while the cats are spying on the humans in the hopes of discovering who Willy changed into. In the second part of Cat Food, Pluto, the leader of the evil cats, asks for the help of her owner, the unscrupulous, yet brilliant great detective Sanzunokawa Kotowari. He agrees in helping finding out which of the humans is Willy (and thus agrees in helping the cats making cat food out of the other humans).

The story consists of several confrontations between Willy and the other cats and Sanzunokawa, with each time one side trying to outsmart the other. The point of view constantly jumps between these two sides and while the reader is shown some of the thoughts/plans of either side, you never really know is going on until the confrontation is over and that is, similiar to Snow White, the best point of the story. You just never know who is going to win each confrontation and the great tempo with which these battles follow each other keeps the reader hooked to the pages.

It's also a fun novel. The whole idea of evil, transforming cats is alluring (and probably not very far from reality...), but the narrative is also always written in a light, humorous tone that works wonderful with the fantasy setting. Considering the basic premise, this could also easily have been written as a horror-mystery novel (the whole humans being made into cat food premise offers enough material for that)... but it's just funnier to read about cute evil cats planning our demise, rather than actually evil and scary cats planning our demise.

Cat Food is a really short novel though, even shorter than Snow White I think. It's great fun while it lasts, but that's not very long and considering Cat Food is released under the prizey Kodansha Box imprint (softcover novels with a sturdy silver cardboard box), I can't really recommend the reader buying this new / for the set price. The same holds for Snow White, but that one actually has a neat thing going on with the box design, while Cat Food's box is... just a grey box (Van Madoy's novels are also published under this imprint, but are much longer).

The setting of  Cat Food - Meitantei Sanzunokawa Kotowari to Chuumon no Ooi Yakata no Satsujin alone makes it worth reading. It's lighthearted fun mystery, but it does leave you wanting for more. Both because it's just plain addicting, but also because it's a bit lacking in volume.

Original Japanese title(s): 『キャットフード 名探偵三途川理と注文の多い館の殺人』

Saturday, June 22, 2013

UN-GO

Two's company, three's a crowd

With more and more English-language blogs on detective fiction popping up, I always hope more on Japanese detective fiction appear... but it never happens. I'll just keep waiting.

During the Second World War, the narrator (a writer) had been staying at his friend Utagawa Kazuma's family mansion. Now two years after the war, the narrator is once again invited to the Utagawa mansion, together with a group of other artists who had been staying there too during the war. However the narrator is relunctant to go, because there are bound to be troubles. Among the guests are: three men, all vying for the hand of Kazuma's sister. Kazuma's wife's ex-husband. Kazuma's ex-wife and her current husband. Another couple of which the wife is in love with Kazuma. And complex human relations is just half of the problem. A threatening letter has been sent to Kazuma, while another letter asking for a detective's help signed by Kazuma was sent, even though he denies having written one. And the day all guests are gathered, a murder happens. And then a second. And a third. But what is the motive behind these seemingly disconnected murders in Sakaguchi Ango's Furenzoku Satsujin Jiken ("The Non-Serial Murder Case")?

A classic scene: the detective (most probably Poirot) gathers every suspect in the drawing room and states everyone in the room had the motive for wanting to have killed the victim. It's only after extensive fingerpointing that he moves on to the real suspect. In Furenzoku Satsujin Jiken, this method would have been a bit troublesome because this novel works, and in a way fails, because everyone has a motive for something.

This works at one hand, because the main problem of this novel is the mystery behind the motive(s) behind the many murders. Is it a serial murder case all done by one and the same person? Or a non-serial murder, with multiple murderers working at the same time? Just as you think you found a pattern, another murder pushes your ideas towards a different direction, keeping you on your toes all the way to the conclusion. You can't accuse Furenzoku Satsujin Jiken of being boring, or at least not after the first murder.

But the story also fails on the other hand, because it is too complex at times. By which I mean, what the heck are all these characters doing in this story?! There are way too many characters here, who are all interconnected. A is married to B but in love with C who is love with D who hates B and E but like F etcetera. So A might have motive to kill C and D, but not E and maybe F. And B might want to kill A, C and D but not F, but.... I didn't count them, but according to Wikipedia, 29 persons, including the servants, are running around the Utagawa mansion and that is just... confusing. Especially with the ridiculous relations between them. Even if you consider that fact that people get killed off rather easily and fast in this novel,Furenzoku Satsujin Jiken overdoes it. There is no correlation diagram in this novel, but I advice people who are going to read this to make one yourself: it will save you.

Also, most characters are absolutely horrible and it makes no sense at all for them to all be at one place. When you read a detective, you won't be surprised when it turns out that everybody had a motive to kill the old man, but you might wonder why the old man allowed all those people who hated him to gather at one place, right? Here we have the Utagawa mansion, where everybody is having an illicit relation with somebody else, or at the very least hoping to have one and they are all artists, which is usually used as another word for 'unpredictable', 'crazy' in these kind of books, so of course something is going to happen. But it is a riddle why all these people would gather here on their own free will! Most of the time, I couldn't care less about who died, as nobody appealed to me. Which is rare.

Oh, and for those interested in linguistics and the Japanese language, this is another of those books where the use of words like kichigai (madman) and semushi (hunchback) is still intact: they are not allowed to be used on TV anymore (political correctness and stuff), but you still occassionally come across them in novels.

Overall, Furenzoku Satsujin Jiken is an okay story. I really did like the main problem, but the book does suffer from misuse of characters. In the Touzai Mystery Best, this book ranked 19th. I certainly wouldn't rank it higher, but it indeed has it's good points. Also, for those interested in Sakaguchi Ango, and not-literate in Japanese, the animated series UN-GO (Ango) is based on his mystery works and available for streaming on websites like Crunchy Roll.

Original Japanese title(s): 坂口安吾 『不連続殺人事件』

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

And On the Eighth Day

「だが、殺人者が、君を殺しにくる可能性もある」
私は最悪の事態を危惧した。
「だったらその時には、黎人宛てにダイイング・メッセージを残しておいてあげるわ。あまりむずかしくないのをね」
『聖アウスラ修道院の惨劇』

"But the murderer might come to kill you."
I feared the worst case possible.
"In such a case, I'll be sure to leave you a dying message. An easy one."
"The Tragedy of Saint Ursula Convent"

You would almost think I read Nikaidou Reito's Nikaidou Ranko series in the weirdest order possible on purpose, if you look at it closely. The following list is of the books I've read of the series so far:

(1) Jigoku no Kijutsushi | The Magician From Hell
(2) Kyuuketsu no Ie | House of Bloodsuckers
(3) Sei Ursula Shuudouin no Sangeki | The Tragedy at the Saint Ursula Convent
(4) Akuryou no Yakata | Palace of Evil Spirits
(5) Yuri Meikyuu | Labyrinth of Lillies
(6) Bara Meikyuu | Labyrinth of Roses
(7a) Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Deutsch Hen | The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Germany
(7b) Jinroujou no Kyoufu  - France Hen | The Terror of Werewolf Castle - France
(7c) Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Tantei Hen | The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Detective
(7d) Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Kanketsu Hen | The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Conclusion
(8) Akuma no Labyrinth | The Devil's Labyrinth

And for some reason, I've read the books in the following order: (2), (6), (7a), (7b), (7c), (7d), (8), (1), (4), (3). The only books I've read in order are Jinroujou no Kyoufu (the individual books of this story have to be read in order, except for maybe 7a and 7b) and Akuma no Labyrinth, but chronologically, these books are set the other way around, just to make things even more confusing. For many series, this isn't really of importance, but Nikaidou Reito has the habit of refering to his earlier books /  adventures, so it is actually better to read them in order. That's why I am stuck in Ayatsuji Yukito's Yakata series at the moment however: the one I'm reading now is almost as long as Nikaidou Reito's Jinroujou no Kyoufu. Which is very, very long.

Brilliant and beautiful detective Nikaidou Ranko (and her brother Reito) return in Sei Ursula Shuudouin no Sangeki ("The Tragedy at the Saint Ursula Convent"), where they are asked by the head of the Saint Ursula Convent to solve the mysterious death of a student one year ago. The girl had been found dead at the foot of a tower and because the door to the room where she had spent her last living breath was locked from the inside, the incident was considered a suicide. Of course, the police conveniently ignored the fact that there were definite signs that she was attacked by someone there. And that around the same time, a headless corpse was found hanging upside down near the convent. And there was something with a strange message the victim left behind. Anyway, something strange has been going on in and it is up to our dynamic duo to solve the arcane mysteries of the Saint Ursula Convent.

Jigoku no Kijutsushi was an interesting take on Edogawa Rampo's novels, Jinroujou no Kyoufu is the world longest locked mystery story and Sei Ursula Shuudouin no Sangeki is... chaotic. A locked room mystery and a headless body and a secret code can work together in theory, but the individual elements aren't very strong and while they work better together (as often in such stories), the complete picture is still not nearly as entertaining as Nikaidou Reito's other books pre-dating Jinroujou no Kyoufu (and he moved towards somewhat... stranger places after Jinroujou no Kyoufu). I do have to note that most of Nikaidou Reito's novels are absolutely packed with detective fiction tropes (c.f. my review of Akuryou no Yakata), which usually works out OK (although, sometimes just barely). It works this time, but Sei Ursula Shuudouin no Sangeki is the weakest link of Nikaidou's Ranko novels up to Jinroujou no Kyoufu.

The locked room problems are better suited for a short story for example and the actual discussion about the headless body, which even in Japanese detective fiction is usually not a convention used just for fun, takes no more than a couple of pages (of a 600 page novel). Nikaidou tries to string everything together by presenting everything as a mitate murder (naturally after the bible, considering the setting of this story), but it is hardly convincing, because the way the murders are supposed to be mirroring biblical events is really weak. No way a reader is going to figure out that before Ranko points out the fact, and even after the reveal, the reader still won't be convinced it is a mitate murder, because it's barely related!

The setting of the convent is used mostly in a very predictable way. Creepy atmosphere, secretive nuns, secret rituals and stuff, considering Nikaidou has always used a lot of esotoric history and conspiracy theories in his novels (Jinroujou no Kyoufu had the Spear of Longinus and Nazi-Werewolves, Akuryou no Yakata witches etc.), so you can guess how Nikaidou uses the convent. The ending does bring something interesting, but it is more of an extra than really part of the detective plot.

I have to admit that I read this book in a record speed though. As a whole, the plot... well, I certainly won't say this is gold material, but by keeping throwing all these elements at you at a steady pace, Nikaidou does keep the reader hooked for most of the book. It's definitely written as entertainment, and I have to admit that it mostly works as such. The whole outshines the individual parts and while not a classic, it's not really horrible (not really praising it either). If you like Nikaidou Reito and can get Sei Urusula Shuudouin no Sangeki for cheap, it's an okay read, I guess. I mean, I paid more for Nikaidou's Zouka Hakase no Jikenbo and that was absolutely horrible. I wouldn't recommend reading Nikaidou Reito starting with Sei Urusula Shuudouin no Sangeki though.

Original Japanse title(s): 二階堂黎人 『聖アウスラ修道院の惨劇』

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Ten Days Wonder

"But while you are doing this important and rewarding work, Mr. Queen, I ask you to keep in mind always a great and true lesson. A truer lesson than the one you believe this experience has taught you."
"And which lesson is that, Professor Seligmann?" Ellery was very attentive.
"The lesson, mein Herr," said the old man, patting Ellery’s hand,"that is written in the Book of Mark. There is one God; and there is none other but he."
"Cat of Many Tails"

In a world where everybody is talking about the upcoming PlayStation4 and XBox One, the one thing that left the greatest impression me this E3 was the inclusion of the Villager in the new Super Smash Bros. Villager!? [/not related to detective fiction at all]

Norizuki Rintarou's Futatabi Akumu ("The Red Nightmare, Once Again") starts with introducing us to Hatanaka Yurina, an idol who has been on the rise lately. She has managed to secure her own group of fans despite still being a minor star in the world of idols and she is rumored to be the main actress in the next movie of a famous director. One night, after a late night radio broadcast recording, Yurina is attacked by a lunatic fan in a storage room of the broadcasting studios and stabbed in her stomach. Or least, she is sure she was stabbed, but when she came to, she found herself to be alive. Not sure what happened, Yurina seeks the help of Inspector Norizuki (and his son Rintarou), but things become messy when they discover that in the park outside the broadcasting studios, a man was found stabbed to death. Indeed, the man Yurina thought had killed her. Was it Yurina who killed the man instead of the other way around?

A difficult book to recommend, mainly because it more or less requires you have have read Yuki Misshitsu and Yoriko no Tame ni and it would also be very nice if you have read Ellery Queen's Cat of Many Tails (and having read Ten Days Wonder would also be to your advantage). Of course, you could go straight for Futatabi Akai Akumu without any knowledge, but you will be spoiled to crucial plot points of all those books. So I really recommend you doing your homework before you start with Futatabi Akai Akumu.

I've mentioned it many times now, but Norizuki often addresses what he calls Late Period Queen problems in his novels. To quote myself:

Norizuki is also a Queen-reseacher who specializes in what he calls 'the Late Period Queen problems': meta-problems concerning the role of the detective in fiction, as addressed by Queen himself in many of his later novels. To reduce it to two main points: the detective (and the reader) can never say with absolutely certainty that he has access to all of the hints and clues that lead to the truth. Except for the (meta) explanation that the writer at one points abritrary decides that the story should end and thus isn't going to offer any new hints. So the solution the detective offers at the end of a story can never be guaranteed to be correct. The second point is that the detective himself is not a omnipotient figure with no relation to the murder drama: his presence alone already has presence on the actions of the other players of the tragedy and who is to say that the real murderer hasn't calculated for the interference of a detective through the use of false hints?

Futatabi Akai Akumu deals with the second point: at the start of the story Rintarou has severe trauma about how he (mis)handled the case in Yoriko no Tame ni, wondering whether things wouldn't have turned out better without his interference. As a result, he's lost most of his self confidence (and he's also suffering from a writer's block). Rintarou initially does not want to get involved with Yurina's case, but with some urging from his father, he finally tries to get over his problems. I have to admit that I'm not a big fan of the angsting detective (I already noted that in my Cat of Many Tails review) and it can become a bit too heavy at times if you're just looking for bloody murder. Good material for those interested in postmodernism though.

The plot of Futatabi Akai Akumu is not particularly clever. The main problem is about figuring out what happened to Yurina that night and who really killed the victim and while the puzzle itself is okay (very Gyakuten Saiban-esque, I have to say), it definitely is not strong enough to carry a complete novel of 500 pages. It might have been better for the main 'trick' to have been used for a short story in my opinion. Okay, there is another subplot that has to do with a murder that happened in Yurina's past to help the book fill its pages, but the solving of that murder is based solely on intuition and the solution is just dropped on the reader. There are also some parts where characters have long monologues about subjects that don't seem particularly related to the main topic, their function seem to be little more than boring padding.

For example, the fact Yurina is an idol provides a legitimate reason to insert segments commenting about Japanese idols, which I really think is an interesting topic on its own. But it has to relate to the story. A list spanning ten or so pages just summing up the major events related to idols (who debuted when, what singles came up etc.) is a) not a story, and b) not related to the main problem at hand at all! It's always a fine line you have to walk when including 'extra' information in a story and I can understand why a writer wants to show he did his homework for a story, but I personally didn't like how it was done here (might be different for another reader though).

Futatabi Akai Akumu is a book I find hard to recommend. It has too many requirements, and I don't really like its themes.If you liked Yoriko no Tame ni though, you're probably going to like Futatabi Akai Akumu though. The heavy atmosphere of the Angsting Detective and the intuitive mode of detecting are similiar and the stories are directly linked. I definitely liked Tasogare a lot more though, which was a very different kind of detective novel with its many logical deductions, despite being the same series.

Original Japanese title(s): 法月綸太郎 『ふたたび赤い悪夢』

Monday, June 10, 2013

「ぶっこわせ そうパズルね!」

"Weet jij het ook?"
"Inspecteur Netjes"

"Do you know too?"
"Inspector Netjes"

I am not a creative writer, so I had no experience in writing fiction before I wrote my guess-the-criminal story in March. Writing it in Japanese was a challenge, but the 'good' thing about guess-the-criminal (hannin-ate) stories are that they aren't really stories, in the sense of 'literary stories'. They lean more towards puzzles and as a writer, you actually want people to solve it. There are therefore written so people can solve them. Constructing such stories means pushing the readers' thoughts towards the solution through hints, without being too obvious. If a guess-the-criminal story is impossible to solve because there are too few clues pointing to the solution, then you can hardly consider it a succesful one (as anybody can construct an unsolvable puzzle).

Nikaidou Reito's novels tend be long. Very long. 600 pages seems to be a minimum for him and heck, his Jinroujou no Kyoufu is still probably among the longest, if not the longest locked room mysteries in existence. So when I came across a short story collection called Zouka Hakase no Jikenbo ("The Case Book of Dr. Zouka"), I was both surprised and excited. These short stories were very short, and I loved Ellery Queen's QBI - Queen's Bureau of Investigation, so I hoped that this book would be similarly awesome. Also, it featured doctor Zouka, Nikaidou's parody of John Dickson Carr's doctor Fell ('Fell' can be written as fueru in Japanese, which means increase. A synonyme for that word is zouka). Just look at the cover! A gigantic man who needs not one, but two walking sticks to support himself! Heck, he is even joined by a policeman called Hatori (= Hadley) in these short shorts featuring locked rooms and dying messages.

Too bad it's a total mess. The problem does not lie in the fact these are short shorts (5~10 pages long): QBI is an example of how it can work. But the twenty-or-so stories collected in this book are really nothing more than puzzles which don't even feel satisfying! To have the solution of a dying message story rely on some obscure fact or specialist knowledge, is usually already vexing enough, but there is no fun to be found at all in this book, because practically all dying message stories feature such, almost cheating, solutions. Many of the solutions can only be solved by someone who is cramming for a high school exam on history, because that's the only time you'll hear about those names and events! It's like Nikaidou just picked a random page of an encyclopedia and wrote stories using the topic of that page.

In some stories, he doesn't even try. The most ridiculous ones are the one featuring the truth and lie club: members of the truth club must tell the truth, the members of the lie club must tell a lie. Yes, these 'stories' don't even move past the realms of the logic riddle. Heck, they are less than that, because the solutions literally don't require logic: the three suspects each tell a story, and doctor Zouka tells you who hid a factual lie in his story. This isn't detecting, this is just an examination of facts!

I personally am not against such detective quiz stories. I loved them as a kid, and I have bought the more recent ones under the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo imprint. But I definitely expected more from Nikaidou Reito. Especially the dying message stories don't work. In a classic dying message story, the author presents several interpretations of the message, which are discarded based on logic, after which the correct interpretation (plus accompanying reasons) is presented. Here, Nikaidou gives you a few interpretations which are never thrown away convincingly, and he the presents the Super-Obscure-Interpretation-Nobody-Could-Have-Thought-About and then decides this was the correct solution (without any justification). The 'stories' collected here might be nothing more than puzzles, but even the solutions should be presented more convincingly: now you're left with a puzzle constructed in a way it is impossible for the reader to solve. 

You know, this is all I can write about Zouka Hakase no Jikenbo. There is really nothing positive about to say about the contents. But the cover is really awesome though. I am not even being sarcastic or anything, I really love that illustration. But that's the only thing likeable about this book.

Original Japanese title(s): 二階堂黎人 『増加博士の事件簿』

Monday, June 3, 2013

Strawberry Jam

「クラーク博士は北海道大学の学生に『紳士たれ』という言葉を残したというけれど、ぼくと小佐内さん も似た信条を持っている。「紳士」によく似ているけれど、それよりはもうちょっと社会的階級が低い。『小市民たれ』。これ。日々の平穏と安定のため、ぼくと小佐内さんは断固とした小市民なのだ。もっとも、その表れ方はちょっと違う。小佐内さんは隠れる。ぼくは、笑って誤魔化す」
『 春限定いちごタルト事件』

"Professor Clark had told the students of Hokkaido University to 'be a gentleman'. Osanai and I had a similar principle. Similiar to "be a gentleman", but ranked a bit lower in society. 'Be a petit bourgeois'. That was it. We decided firmly to be petit bourgeois, for the sake of tranquility and stability. But we executed our beliefs differently. Osanai, she hides herself. And I, I laugh and pretend"
"The Spring Special Strawberry Tart Case"

One thing I'm definitely not missing about Kyoto: the tsuyu rain and the unbelievable heat!

I usually read several books at the same time and I Yonezawa Honobu's short story collection Shunki Gentei Ichigo Tart Jiken ("The Spring Special Strawberry Tart Case"). Kobato Jougorou and Osanai Yuki. He is an ordinary boy with a fairly good set of brains. She is a small small girl with a love for sweet things. They are both first year students at Funato High School. And they try to live their lives in the same way: as what they call the petite bourgeois. Just go with the flow of society. Don't stand out. Don't go looking for trouble. Be one of the many. Just one of the many, yet crucial cogs of the machine that is society. These two, neither lovers nor dependent on each other, just try to be what they believe is the best way a person can live. Their classmate, Doujima Kengo however, always seems to get Jougorou (and to a lesser extent, Osanai) in trouble. Not because Kengo is a bad person: in fact, Kengo is usually a good enough a person to want to help others. But helping people, getting involved with other people's problems is another way of standing out. And so our petite bourgeois-aspiring duo contineously have to decide whether to do the good thing, as a contributing member of society should do, or try to ignore trouble, as a contributing member of society should do.

Shunki Gentei Ichigo Tart Jiken is, like Kanou Tomoko's Nanatsu no Ko, an 'everyday life mystery'. No bloody murders, no mysterious locked rooms. Just little mysteries that you and I might encounter, or might have really have encountered in our daily lives. A stolen bike. A purse gone missing. Like I mentioned in my review of Nanatsu no Ko, I am not really a fan of this subgenre. I'd rather have the bloody murder and the mysterious locked room. Not that a everyday life mystery is always bad though. And I think that Shunki Gentei Ichigo Tart Jiken is one of the books that can prove this case.

For while the scale of the mystery might seem a bit small, one shouldn't underestimate the scale of the deductions Jougorou makes about these everyday life mysteries. The best story in the collection is Oishii Cocoa no Tsukurikata ("How to Make Delicious Chocolate Milk"), where Jougorou and Osanai try to figure out how Kengo managed to make delicious chocolate milk with a limited amount of cups. Yes, it might sound very, very uninteresting, but the way the duo think about all the possibilities and shoot down each other's suggestions is what you'd expect in a Queen-style novel, not 'just' an everyday life mystery. But it works wonderfully here and the solution is in the same light-hearted, yet satisfying style.

The short stories collected in Shunki Gentei Ichigo Tart Jiken are written to form one, bigger story, with hints and events happening in earlier stories all coming together in the final story. Osanai's bike is stolen rather earlier in the collection (together with the last Spring Special Strawberry Tarts available that year she had left on her bike), which is rather troublesome because a petit bourgeois can't go around getting involved with the police (even if it wasn't her fault). But the way Yonezawa placed the hints in the earlier stories is excellent and the deductive chain shown here is quite impressive, especially I hadn't seen such the deductive reasoning approach used in a connected short story collection before (like Mari Yukiko's Futarigurui for example).

Shunki Gentei Ichigo Tart Jiken is a really sweet short story collection. Half daily life mystery, half youth comedy and it works. In a way, this book is like the opposite of Otsuichi's GOTH, both featuring high school students with a particular look at life. This one is more happier and sweeter and cozier, but that really doesn't have to be a bad thing.

Original Japanese title(s): 米澤穂信 『春期限定いちごタルト事件』

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Cards on the Table

白露に風の吹きしく秋の野は 
つらぬきとめぬ玉ぞ散りける
文屋朝康

Through a gust of wind the white dew on the autumn grass
Scatters like a broken necklace
Funya no Asayasu

Things I do when I don't write about Japanese detective fiction: write detective fiction in Japanese.

The title of Takada Takafumi's QED Hyakunin Isshu no Shu ("Q.E.D. - The Curse of Hyakunin Isshu") refers to a famous anthology of Japanese poems (waka) compiled by Fujiwara no Teika. As the anthology's name suggets, the collection consists of 'one hundred persons, one poem each'. The poems of Hyakunin Isshu are also for the traditional uta-garuta (poem card) game, which consists of two sets of cards. The first set, the yomi-fuda, contains cards with the first line of a poem, which are read aloud. The second set of cards, tori-fuda, are placed in front of the players and have the second line of the poem written on them. Players thus try to obtain the correct tori-fuda to the yomi-fuda being read. And it was a yomi-fuda, with the first line of the poem quoted above, which was found in the dead hands of wealthy Hyakunin Isshu karuta fan Masakaki Dairoku, murdered in his own mansion almost a year ago. The case seemingly ended with the suicide of his daughter not long afterwards, but the police still think the murderer is out there. In need of information, reporter Komatsuzaki seeks the help of his old friend Kuwabara Takashi (whose name sounds like a traditional phrase to ward off evil), who besides being a pharmacist, also happens to be knowledgeable about Hyakunin Isshu.

I am not interested in history per se, but I've always had a weakness for ancient conspiracy plots/untold history/folklore etcetera. So Takada Takafumi's Q.E.D. had been on my reading list for a long time, as his books were precisely about linking history with detective plots. QED Hyakunin Isshu no Shu is the first novel in the series and while it has interesting points, I can't but be a bit disappointed by it. The main problem of the book is that it seems like Takada had a whole bunch of interesting ideas, but couldn't find a way to connect all these dots together in a convincing way. The reader is presented with a misty cloud of which the complete form is just vaguely clear.

For example, we are first introduced to the series detective Kuwabara, because he is an expert on Hyakunin Isshu and he might thus deduce the meaning behind the card the deceased had in his hand (spoilers: it was a dying message!). This is a semi-logical relation (I say semi, because I am not sure why Kuwabara was created as a pharmacist who happens to know literature, instead of, I don't know, an expert on literature). And yes, having Kuwabara explaining a bit on the origin of Hyakunin Isshu is also still relevant. But what Kuwabara (and thus writer Takada) does, is not just explain a bit. What Kuwabara does, is hold a complete lecture course on the subject, including presenting an admittedly interesting theory behind the selection process of the poems of the Hyakunin Isshu, but of which only ten percent is relevant to solving the dying message.

Don't get me wrong though, what Kuwabara in the end discovers about the Hyakunin Isshu is quite interesting and it shows the research writer Takada did for the book, but it has too little to do with the murder. Reading QED Hyakunin Isshu no Shu is like reading two barely related storylines. The individual storylines are fine on their own, but there is no reason to force them together in one story. Half of the book could have easily been scrapped (especially as the 'final hint that led Kuwabara to the truth' was something already said early in the grand lecture, the rest was just further exposition...) and you'd still have a coherent dying message story.

So let's look at the two storylines seperatedly, because that makes more sense to me. The secret behind Hyakunin Isshu definitely surprised me, but it requires quite a bit of knowledge on classical Japanese literature and history, which aren't exactly my fields of expertise (I am more of modern literature and history). Fun to read, but written a bit clumsily perhaps, with parts written too theoretically and other parts too repetitive (no, there is no need to give five of six examples, two or three are enough; yes, I see where you're going, you don't have to explain it for five pages...).

The actual murder was... better, but maybe not fair. There is also a kind of impossible situation present besides the dying message and the (weak) link with Hyakunen Isshu does provide a hint to the dying message, but only barely. The solution was sort of funny, in the sense that I was first afraid that it would require specialist knowledge on classical literature; I was spared this, but instead of that, you do require specialist knowledge of psychology and medicine. Which is something I don't have. You might know those stories where all kind of hints lead to a conclusion someone was colour blind, well, those I usually get quite quickly nowadays, but a similarly hinted story for some obscure psychological disorder? How is the average reader supposed to pick that up?! It's even disappointing, because the basic premise / concept behind the impossible situation is interesting, also in the way it links with the Hyakunen Isshu, but the execution...

In the end, QED Hyakunin Isshu no Shu just left me with a great pile of questions. Why force these two storylines together? Why are the parts on the Hyakunen Isshu and the murder part so different in tone? Why does the interpretation of the dying message feel weak/ not conclusive enough? Why a pharmacist if you need a character with knowledge on literature? Why the need for an extra assistent/sidekick role in the story in the form of the fellow-pharmacist Nana, if you already have one in the form of the reporter? Deep in its core, QED Hyakunin Isshu no Shu has some promising elements, but it just doesn't work in the way it is now.

Original Japanese title(s): 高田崇史 『QED 百人一首の呪』