Saturday, December 28, 2013

Turnabout Memories - Part 3

"I have to go over everything that's happened. I have to remember"
Another Code R: Journey into Lost Memories

Like last year, a list post. Because that's what blogs are supposed to do, or something like that. While I posted less on this blog this year, I only worked harder than ever on mystery fiction, because my MA thesis was about the New Authentic movement of Japanese detective fiction. Which was also why I was in Kyoto (and more specifically, the Kyoto University Mystery Club) last year; the gather material. Ah, Jukkakukan no Satsujin, 8 no Satsujin, Mippei Misshitsu and Gekkou Game, the many hours Ive spent with you lot.... And also writing about Van Dine and Knox' rules, about tropes in detective ficton.....  All things I had planned to do ever since I entered the faculty, so that was fun (note: it was only fun in the preparation period and after I had actually written it. The writing process itself was... hard work, but I also discovered that I can write amazing amounts of not entirely crazy text in little time). I also learned the valuable lesson that combining your hobby/interest with a thesis can lead to a bit of stress, because it also means that leisure time will always be partly work time.


But anyway, lists and mentions and stuff! Because it's the end of the year!

Best Project On The Blog!
Reviewing all of the early Ellery Queen novels was something I wanted to do for a long time (if only because now I can link to a review whenever I refer to one of them), but I finally got to it. And I actually think they turned out quite well (I definitely worked harder on them than with my usual reviews), but for some reason these posts didn't attract as many views as I had expected (I had at least expected them do better than my reviews of untranslated Japanese novels...).

The Roman Hat Mystery
The French Powder Mystery
The Dutch Shoe Mystery
The Greek Coffin Mystery
The Egyptian Cross Mystery
The American Gun Mystery
The Siamese Twin Mystery
The Chinese Orange Mystery
The Spanish Cape Mystery

Best Project Outside the Blog!
Writing a guess-the-criminal script

Guess-the-criminal stories are one of the main activities of the Kyoto University Mystery Club and indeed, most of the authors who originate from the club were active writers of such scripts. So when I had the chance to write a script just before I was leaving Japan, I said I would. And then I had problems with coming up with a plot. And writing in Japanese. Especially writing in Japanese. It's kinda weird to think that the very first piece of fiction I've ever written, was in Japanese...

But it went okay-ish, actually, and I was also able to fullfil a promise I had made to someone several years ago by writing that story, so that was good. Since then I've actually developed the habit of writing detective fiction occassionally. But I don't post them here because I write them in Japanese...

Oh, and maybe this is a good time to tell about that short story I translated, which will be published in 2014.... but let's wait a bit with that.

Most Difficult Novel To Review In 2013! Or: The Review That Made Me Question My Sanity
Dogura Magura (Yumeno Kyuusaku)

Ding.....dong.....

Most Surprising Tricks Encountered in 2013!
Tokeikan no Satsujin (The Clock House Murders) (Ayatsuji Yukito)

Okay, I technically read this one in 2012, but because I had read it after the list of last year, I consider something read this year. And this one deserves a mention. After a strange trip with Ningyoukan no Satsujin, Ayatsuji returned to the roots of the series with Tokeikan no Satsujin, which features a grand trick that borders on the demonical. It seems solvable and you'll probably come close, but there always remain some problems that make it seem impossible after all, until Shimada Kiyoshi explains the magic behind it.

'Kaiki Tsukiji Hotel Kan' (The Tsukiji Hotel Ghost Story) (Yamada Fuutarou)

The first mystery after a lengthy prologue in Yamada's Meiji Dantoudai and what a treat! The trick screams Meiji-period, but that is what makes it so great. This is the way to do a historical mystery!

Best Article on Ramen in 2013!
Kyoto's Ramen Street

Okay, so I only wrote two posts on ramen this year, and one of them was about a short detective story collection about ramen, so I admit there wasn't much competition for this one, but I doubt I'll ever make such a comprehensive article about ramen restaurants here again. Then again, I certainly wouldn't mind making another one.

Most surprising Scooby Doo! of 2013!
Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated

I just wanted to mention the series. There.

Most Interesting Lead of 2013!
Shinoda Masashi (Friday) (In: Machi ~Unmei no Kousaten~ (City ~ Crossroad of Fates~))

The evil great detective Sanzunokawa Kotowari was an interesting discovery, who uses his analytical mind for evil, and the unlikely pair of Kobato and Osanai (who only do daily life mysteries) and the Father Brown-esque A Aiichirou made quite an impression too but I had the most fun with Machi's Masashi (Friday). He isn't really a detective, but he is constantly forced into situations that require quick thinking, and by the end of the story, he shows that his powers of reasoning actually aren't that bad. What's most impressive is his amazing ability to adapt really quickly to any situation. Sure, he is a bit confused at first when he's blackmailed into entering a suspicious blackmailing organization (who wouldn't?), but he quickly picks up the tricks of the trade and even more, and by the end of the game... Masashi's still the simple self he was at the beginning of the story, just a little bit wiser and experienced. That's also what makes Masashi so memorable: he messes up (often), but we actually see him learn from that, and the gap between his 'normal' self and his 'awakened' self, on full throttle, using everything he heard and saw just the last few days and outsmarting people who have been in the trade for years, is just amazing. 

Best deductions seen in 2013!
Kyomu he no Kumotsu (Offerings to Nothingness) (Nakai Hideo)

An unlucky year for Berkeley. Normally, I'd be now talking about how The Poisoned Chocolates Case shows the unlimited potential of the human imagination and deduction.... but the range of the deductions there don't even come close to what Nakai Hideo did in Kyomu he no Kumotsu. You will be overwhelmed by deductions, you will drown in them and in the end you'll be left... with nothing. Kyomu he no Kumotsu is a fantastic mystery, and anti-mystery at the same time.

Honorable mention: Jooukoku no Shiro (The Castle of the Queendom) (Arisugawa Alice): in the world of normal deductions, you'd be king. Or queen. Of the year.

Most Interesting Game. Played in 2013 But Probably Older!
Super Danganronpa 2 - Farewell Academy of Despair

This was a fairly easy win for Super Danganronpa 2. Games like Shin Kamaitachi no Yoru and Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silver Earring were disappointing, while The Testament of Sherlock Holmes and Detective Conan - Marionette Symphony had their high points, but also their share of problems. Super Danganronpa 2 on the other hand improved on all aspects of the original game; the story was much better (also on a meta-level) and the mysteries were much, much better. It's also the reason why I enjoyed it even better than my long awaited Gyakuten Saiban 5, a good game on its own, but less innovating in terms of story and plot.

And a special mention for Machi ~Unmei no Kousaten~ which isn't a detective game (well, it is one partially), but definitely one of the best games ever.

(Other non-detective games I enjoyed this year: Time Travelers, Luigi's Mansion 2, Attack of the Friday MonstersPokémon X/Y, Batman: Arkham Asylum.

And finally, just a list.

 The Just-Ten-In-No-Particular-Order-No-Comments List:

And this is the last post of the year. But with Sherlock starting on the first day of the new year, I guess it shouldn't take long for me to resume posting again.

Friday, December 27, 2013

『街中 Sophisticate』

いつも探してる みんな歩いてる 
けれど まだどうにも見つからない事ばかり
だけど探してく ずっと歩いてく 
誰もが皆それぞれの自分生きている 
『One and Only』 (鈴木結女)

Everyone is searching, everyone is walking
But there are still things they can't find
But they will keep on searching, they will keep on walking
Everyone is living their lives
"One And Only" (Suzuki Yume)

Last review of the year!

October 11. Shibuya. Home of the most famous scramble crossing. Home of Hachikou. Home of major department centers. Fashion center. Home of one of the liviest shopping and nightlife districts in Tokyo. City of hope, city of dreams. City of despair, city of misery. And home to the eight protagonists of Machi ~Unmei no Kousaten~ ("City ~Crossroad of Fates~"). Each of them have their own worries, their own dreams, their own story. Yoshiko needs to lose weight fast or else her boyfriend will break up with her. Umabe is working on a comeback as an actor. Masashi is being blackmailed into entering a blackmail organization. Youhei is told by one of his flings she is carrying his child. Keima is working hard to stop a terrorist attack on Shibuya. Ichikawa is struggling with his fame as a scriptwriter and the wish to write real literature. Takamine has deserted from the French Foreign Legion and has come back to his home town. Ushio is a ex-yakuza who accidently gets involved with a robbery. Eight persons, eight lives. They don't know each other. The one thing they have in common: they all live in Shibuya, and the following five days will be remembered forever by both them, and the players of the game.

Machi ~Unmei no Kousaten~ (available on Saturn, PlaySation and PSP) is not very famous outside of Japan, but it is considered a masterpiece there; in a 2009 poll of an All Time Top 100 by gaming magazine Famitsuu, Machi ended up ranking in at fifth place, beating many major titles like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Dragon Quest IVConsidering that Machi ~Unmei no Kousaten~ is a sound novel, that's quite impressive. A sound novel is a game where the story is told through prose (i.e. text appears on the screen like a novel, accompanied by music and background still pictures) and where you occcasionally have to make decisions that determine the outcome of the story, like an adventure-book.


In Machi ~Unmei no Kousaten, you'll have to guide each of the eight protagonists to the end of the day, making the right choices on the way (or else you arrive at a bad ending). For the scenario with Yoshiko for example, you might want to avoid going to places with a lot of restaurants if you want her diet to be succesful. But, even though the eight protagonists don't know each other, each and every action undertaken by any of them, might unknowingly have influence on someone other's fate! One early example is when Yoshiko is out jogging, when she is hit by a truck. Takamine however was having a row with the driver of that truck just a few minutes earlier, and while it has no impact on Takamine's story whether you get into a fight with the driver or not, if you choose to knock the driver out, he won't be able to hit Yoshiko with his truck later on, changing her fate. So by 'zapping' between all eight storylines, you as the player need to find the right combination of choices that will get every character safely to another day. Indeed, Machi ~Unmei no Kousaten~ was actually the first Chunsoft sound novel with the zapping system, a game mechanic I have also praised in my reviews of Detective Conan: Marionette Symphony and 428 ~ Fuusa Sareta Shibuya de.

428 ~ Fuusa Sareta Shibuya de and Machi ~Unmei no Kousaten~ are considered standalone games, but they are both set in Shibuya, they share the zapping system, and little notes and small references show that the two stories are in fact set in the same world (with 428 taking place ten years after the events in Machi). Amemiya Keima was originally scheduled to appear in the 428 as a guest character. I loved 428 ~ Fuusa Sareta Shibuya de, but I think I like Machi ~Unmei no Kousaten~ even better! The games are very much alike, zapping between protagonists to accomplish goals, but 428 was in the end about getting the five protagonists to work together to stop a terrorist virus attack on Shibuya. Machi ~Unmei no Kousaten~ however takes a slice-of-life approach: the eight protagonists do get connected at some level, but it is not like one big epic where everybody gathers to fight evil. The eight storylines are distinct from each other and fairly 'normal'. It's this sense of 'normality' that makes Machi ~Unmei no Kousaten~ an experience, as there are just few story-based videogames that have this slice-of-life atmosphere (as opposed to games like Animal Crossing or Boku no Natsuyasumi which aren't story-based per se).


I praised the way 428 made me realize how every little interaction with other people can have huge influences in the long term, but it is done much better in Machi ~Unmei no Kousaten~ because it's a set of slice-of-life stories. The way it conveys the feeling of anonymous people living in a big metropolis, all with their own lives and goals, yet having influence on each other lives through small actions is just wonderful. It's a bit It's a Wonderful Life-esque, actually, with you seeing how even the small action of closing a door can help out another person. The interconnections between the scenarios (even if small) really make Shibuya come to life as a background. And speaking of backgrounds, sometimes it's just fun to see some of the other protagonists just pop up in the background of another scenario. It really nails the feeling all these characters are living in the same space in the same time.


Another mechanic that deepens the experience is the so-called TIPS system. It's basically the option to hightlight specific keywords for more information (i.e footnotes). Some TIPS give explanations of complex words, while others are just hilarious observations. Even more important are the TIPS that describe a side of Shibuya you'll only see a glimpse of in the 'main' game; only by reading the TIPS you'll discover why that policeman is always talking with another dialect every time another person meets him, or why that convenience store is run by the same guy for five days, day and night. I am not a fan of footnotes per se (thank you, Van Dine), but when it's done like in Machi, to expand the world, I can only say yes, more please.

But even if I say Machi ~Unmei no Kousaten~ is slice-of-life, you can expect a lot of craziness in the scenarios here. I mean, getting mistaken for a gangster or getting to hear an old fling is carrying your baby, while an even older fling has already given birth to your child (note: Youhei is a high school student) is probably not something that happens every day. But it's not mystery per se. 428 ~ Fuusa Sareta Shibuya de can be called a detective game because of its goals, but Machi ~Unmei no Kousaten~ can't be called that in general. So why do I discuss the game here on the blog? Well, it's a masterpiece, and it's not a detective game in general, but there are two scenarios that actually can be considered as such and that's why I discuss those two in detail.


Run, Otaku Detective! is the 'main' scenario of the game. Police detective and full-time gamer Amemiya Keiba witnesses the screening of a mysterious message on the big TV screen mounted on a building. Decoding the message reveals a bomb threat, but his senior officer thinks it's just a hoax. The five days of Machi has Amemiya running around solving devious codes sent by the terrorist, who has hidden small bombs in videogame arcades all around Shibuya. Think Detective Conan: The Time-Bombed Skyscraper.

This is one of the more 'game-like' scenarios (see the similarities with 428's story) and while the first day is a bit easy, you'll have to solve the codes yourself in later days, which make it more exciting. And, something really surprising, like Chunsoft's own Kamaitachi no Yoru, you'll actually have to input the name of the culprit yourself at the end of the game (which caught me off-guard...). As a detective game it's a bit different from Kamaitachi no Yoru, because it's mostly solving codes (instead of a murder), but not less entertaining (and some of the bad endings are fantastic).


"You'll be Friday". The Seven Days Club starts with the student Shinoda Masashi being blackmailed by a mysterious beauty with the codename Sunday. He gets a discount (he only needs to pay 10.000 yen), but in return must enter the Seven Days Club. As its newest member Friday, Masashi will need to blackmail seven people himself, before he's free. Masashi has no idea what's going on at first, but he quickly develops a knack for blackmailing, making use of his fast brain and ability to adapt quickly. But he also has a soft spot for his victims, and he soon turns into a model, nice blackmailer. But what is the goal of the Seven Days Club? Why is their slogan chinchicole? That is a question Masashi asks himself (as will the player), and that is what makes this scenario the best of the game.

The whole idea of being blackmailed into a blackmailing organization that only asks for 10.000 yen is just ridiculuous, but the crazy people in the Seven Days Club (which include a high school student, a tranvestite and a hippy), as well as the people Masashi blackmails make this the funniest scenario. But the way Masashi slowly learns how to play his victims, reminds of Liar Game, whereas the latter part of the scenario, where Masashi slowly deduces the true goal of the Seven Days Club, is pure detective magic (and I will admit that I was actually surprised at the amount of foreshadowing/hinting that was done across the game).

The other scenarios are not mysteries, but again, in the end all these stories are interconnected, and Machi ~Unmei no Kousaten~ is definitely something that should be experienced. In fact, I consider Machi ~Unmei no Kousaten~ as one of the best games I've played this year. Heck, one of the best games I've played ever. I'll admit that 428 is better as a consistent game, because the boring parts of Machi ~Unmei no Kousaten~ are worse than those of 428, but at its best, I prefer the more free, less concentrated and more 'realistic' slice-of-life approach of Machi ~Unmei no Kousaten~. It's a masterpiece in narrative and characterization in videogames and you should really try it out if you have the opportunity.

Original Japanese title(s): 『街 運命の交差点 特別篇』

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Phantom Lady

Cherchez la femme

I should have finished this book and the review last week already, but then Meiji Dantoudai and Tanteibu he no Chousenjou popped up...

Miyabe Miyuki is one of the most famous Japanese writers of fiction, with works ranging from fantasy to mystery. I haven't read much of her (actually, I think I've only read R.P.G. (released in English as Shadow Family), but her most famous work is probably Kasha ("Fire Chariot"; released in English as All She Was Worth).  Honma Shunsuke, a police detective on leave because of an incident, is asked by his deceased wife's nephew, Kazuya, to find his fiancée. He was all set to marry Sekine Shouko, but she disappeared without any trace when he discovered her credit history was tainted with bankruptcy. Honma starts his investigation for the missing fiance by finding out more about Shouko's bankruptcy in the past, but is surprised to learn that the name Sekine Shouko belongs to someone else than Kazuya's fiancée. Who is the woman who has disappeared and where is the real Sekine Shouko?

Kasha is an exceptionally well-received novel. It is the highest ranking novel (fifth) in the new Tozai Mystery Best 100 (2012), that was published after the release of the original list (1985). It has been made into a TV drama twice. There is even a South-Korean movie released just last year. It's also been available in English for a long time now, and the novel is overall considered (both in the home country as outside) a fine example of the shakai-ha style of mystery: mystery novels providing social commentary.

For Honma's search for the disappeared lady touches upon aspects of Japanese society many people probably don't know about. The bubble economy. The 'normal' credit economy as well as the underworld credit world. The workings of the family register. Urbanization and anonymity in Tokyo and other large urban areas. Kasha offers explanations and criticism, usually written in a very readable format (save for an absolutely horrible explanation / lecture course on the credit economy) and if you're interested in these social problems, Kasha offers a great read, coupled with an interesting story. One might also find it interesting to read this in conjunction with that other shakai-ha classic, Matsumoto Seichou's Suna no Utsuwa ("The Sand Vessel", available in English as  Inspector Imanishi Investigates"), as it offers social commentary on similar topics. The first part is also very similiar, with a search across Japan based on a single hint.

But there is a reason I don't discuss a lot of shakai-ha mystery novels here. Social commentary an sich is not that bad, but I am just more of a fan of the more fantastic and exciting, I gues. Reviews also have a tendency to... become like what I just did above; commentating on Japanese society and maybe rave about well the novel forms a mirror of modern society and how it manages to expose the cruel truth of the credit economy as well as the many flaws that exist in the Japanese family register system. Like I said in my review of Matsumoto Seichou's Ten to Sen, I admit social conciousness plays a role in the story, and it is well done, but I don't read mystery novels just for that.

As a mystery novel, Kasha can feel a bit slow, even though there's always something going on. Honma's investigation moves at a slow, but steady pace, and Miyabe always manages to lure you into reading the next chapter, because you know something interesting will pop up. It's quite amazing how she does that for practically the whole story, considering it's a fairly novel. Yet the investigation never feels dragging. As a mystery, Kasha might lack the atmosphere of a classic style murder mystery (heck, it's a missing person's investigation),  but as a mystery novel where you slowly learn more about a missing person, a novel where you piece together the background of the fiancée, where you build up a character study of "Sekine Shouko", Kasha is a good read. It will keep you And heck, I'll be the first to admit that the last half even has some good surprises in terms of a... semi-impossible situation. I won't comment more on it as it involves developments in the latter part of the story, but I was definitely pleasantly surprised with it.

Kasha is definitely not the sort of mystery I usually read, and I might attach less importance to the social commentary it offers than other people, but the mystery of "Sekine Shouko" is definitely an interesting one. It excels in characterization, and while I wouldn't name it one of the best mystery novels of all time, the captivating story will offer you a pleasant read.

And to end with some trivia: did you know that Miyabe Miyuki and Ayatsuji Yukito celebrate their birthday on the same day (December 23)?

Original Japanese title(s): 宮部みゆき 『火車』

Friday, December 20, 2013

Turnabout Academy

「へえ、容疑者が三人かあ。ちょうどいい数だね。それ、教えてよ」
「いいけど、『ちょうどいい』ってなんだ? なにが、『ちょうどいい」んだ?」 
「霧ヶ峰涼と瓢箪池の怪事件」

"So there are three suspects. Just the right number. Tell me who they are"
"Okay, but what do you mean with just the right number? The right number for what?"
"Kirigamine Ryou and the Strange Incident at Gourd Pond"

Of course, now I regret not having waited with posting my translation, but for those who want to get into a Chrismas detective mood, I recommend my translation of Oosaka Keikichi's short story, Kan no Yobare I posted two months ago. It has Santa Claus disappearing in the snowy sky, what more do you want?

Koigakubo Academy Detective Club series
Manabanai Tanteitachi no Gakuen ("The School of the Detectives Who Don't Learn")
Satsui wa Kanarazu Sando Aru ("Murderous Intent Always Comes Three Times")

Spin-off series
Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni ("After School, Together With Mystery")
Tanteibu he no Chousenjou - Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni 2 ("A Challenge to the Detective Club - After School, Together With Mystery 2")
 
Higashigawa Tokuya might be best known for his Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de series, which has also been made into a succesful TV series, motion picture, but it's not my favorite series by him. Nor is it his Ikagawashi town series (which is also being made into a TV series). No, my favorite is the Koigakubo Academy Detective Club series. Or to be precise, the spin-off series of that. I absolutely loved the misadventures of high school girl Kiragamine Ryou in Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni, and by now I have written reviews of the NHK radio drama, the Momogre audio drama, the stories that weren't adapted and even made translations of two stories (here and here), in case you hadn't noticed I had a weak spot for the series. So when I heard the second volume, Tanteibu he no Chousenjou  - Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni 2 ("A Challenge to the Detective Club - After School, Together With Mystery 2"), was released, I knew I had to read it immediately. Like the first volume, Tanteibu he no Chousenjou is a short story collection starring the vice-president of the Koigakubo Academy Detective Club, Kirigamine Ryou. And make no mistake: the Detective Club is not a club where they read and write mystery fiction (like the Kyoto University Mystery Club), but a club where the members try to solve real-life cases (they don't really have results, so the school just barely acknowledges them as a club though).

The main Koigakubo Academy Detective Club follows third year students Tamagawa (club president), Yatsuhashi (fake Kansai dialect speaker) and second year student Akasaka Tooru (duped into becoming a member) as they get involved with murders and other heinous crimes (they never manage to solve the crimes themselves though). The Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni spinoff series however has less bloody crimes: Kirigamine Ryou's misadventures all spring forth from non-bloody, normal school activities. The first volume had fellow students assaulting each other, people disappearing from hallways and more of these (mostly) non-violent, yet not less mystifying puzzles. Tanteibu he no Chousenjou continues this tradition with another set of impossible school mysteries.

The first three stories are set in the fall, with school activities like the sports festival and the school festival on the mind of both students and teachers. In Kirigamine Ryou to Watarirouka no Kaijin ("Kirigamine Ryou and the Phantom of the Passageway"), (self-proclaimed) superstar of the trackfield, Adachi Shunsuke, is once again knocked out by someone, this time in the middle of a covered hallway connecting two buildings. The hallway also divides an inner court in two, and because the exits into the buildings were locked, the assailant could only have fled into either side of the inner court. The problem: witnesses on both sides say nobody fled through there, and footprints on the wet ground proof that. How did the assailant get away? The solution is a bit difficult to deduce, maybe, but it works because of the school setting of this series, as well as the humoristic tone of the story and the characters. Not the best of Kirigamine's impossible capers, but fun.

Kirigamine Ryou to Hyoutan Ike no Kaijiken ("Kirigame Ryou and the Strange Incident at Gourd Pond") is a special story, even if only for the fact that this is the first time the vice-president of the Detective Club actually meets the protagonists of the main series! Like they comment: 'they must have just missed each other all those times they were involved with cases'. The case itself involves a student infamous for his aggresive love life being assaulted by a girl during the school festival. The members of the club happened to witness the incident and they all swear the victim was attacked with a stick-like object, yet the victim has distinct cutting wounds, and no weapon was found despite the assailant having fled without anything in her hand. Where did the weapon go? The idea behind the disappearing murder weapon is great and really fits the setting of the story (the school festival), but pulling off the trick seems much more a hassle than worth it. The final story of the collection, Kirigamine Ryou to Oreimairi no Nazo ("Kirigamine Ryou and the Mystery of The Getting Even Tradition") is very similar as it also features a disappearing weapon (with a teacher being assaulted by a graduating student as a way of 'getting even' for the past three years), but this one works better because of the better hinting and foreshadowing (though it lacks the chaotic antics of having all members together at the school festival).

And the school festival is a very popular day for cases, because immediately after the Gourd Pond incident, another one pops up! In Kirigamine Ryou he no Chousen ("A Challenge for Kirigamine Ryou), our heroine is fooled into entering the Koigakubo Academy Mys-Contest. Not Miss Contest. Mys-Contest. As in Mystery Contest. Kirigamine Ryou has made a name as a (self-proclaimed) detective beauty, but she'll have to fight for that title now, as she is being challenged by the club president of... the Mystery Club (i.e. the school club where they read and write detective fiction, as opposed to the Detective Club, where they solve crimes). Can Kirigamine Ryou solve the locked room murder (it's murder because the student playing the victim has a piece of paper on him saying he's dead)? Is it a fair mystery? Yes... and no, but this story once again shows that Higashigawa Tokuya is really good at combining humorous storylines with good detective plots with well-written hints and foreshadowing. The competition element only adds to the fun of this story. This is done again in Kirigamine Ryou he no Nidome no Chousen ("The Second Challenge for Kirigamine Ryou), where Kirigamine Ryou is challenged to solve the murder on her fellow member Akasaka (once again, he's dead because he is holding a piece of paper saying so) and a variation on the footprints-in-the-snow puzzle. Once again hard to say whether this was a fair story, and the solution is not particularly original (in fact, I am pretty sure I've seen a variotion on it in another Higashigawa story before), but the whole rivals element does make it one of the more memorable stories in the collection.

In Kirigamine Ryou to Juunigatsu no UFO (Kirigamine Ryou and the December UFO"), a priest is knocked out in the middle of a muddy church court, with no footprints but that of the two first on the scene, Kirigamine Ryou and her geography teacher, Ikegami (who still has that obsession for aliens). With no footprints and a witness saying she saw something fly away, it seems like an UFO might have been responsible... Very similar to the first story in the collection in idea, yet very different in execution and pretty funny too (especially because of the enigmatic (foreign) sister, whose Japanese is... very interesting). A trick that would only work because of the setting and atmosphere of this series, but it works well because of it.

Kirigamine Ryou to Eigabu no Misshitsu ("Kirigamine Ryou and the Locked Room of the Movie Club") is a varation on a plot that was featured much in the first collection, the disappearance from a building of which the exits were watched. The TV from the Movie Club (they don't just watch movies, they make them) was stolen from the club room and found damaged behind the incinerator, but the two exits to the club room building were under constant observation by the drama club members and a smoking, delinquent student. How did the culprit carry a 40 inch TV out of a building without being seen? Probably the easiest to solve of the whole collection, but even then one has to admit that some of the hinting was done really well.

Like Hoch's Dr Sam Hawthorne series, the Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni series features mostly impossible crime situations in a limited setting (Koigakubo Academy). The way the stories develop is as predictable as the Dr. Sam Hawthorne series, but they do feature similar situations very often. Footprint-less paths, disappearing weapons and disappearances from observed locations cover about 80% of the series, and it can feel a bit tiring. Kirigamine Ryou to Hyoutan Ike no Kaijiken and Kirigamine Ryou to Oreimairi no Nazo for example are extremely similar, and it's like Higashigawa came up with two solutions for the same situation, and decided to use both of them. I would't have minded a bit more variety.

Though I must say this again (I say this every time I do a Higashigawa Tokuya review), but I really, really love how he manages to combine the humorous aspects of a story with his mystery plots. At his best, Higashigawa can show you a vital hint ten times without you even realizing it's a hint, simply because it's so well hidden within the humurous parts of his story. And then you realize that the gag wasn't just a gag. He does it with all his stories, but I've always thought it worked best with the Koigakubo Academy series, because the light-hearted school setting seems the best fit for his style. Some tricks you can only pull off with the energy and imagination of kids.

And this is the first time Kirigamine Ryou actually meets the other members of the club, which is fun, yet a bit strange. Yet, I hope that Kirigamine Ryou's adventures stay as murder-free and light-hearted. I definitely wouldn't want her to appear in the main Koigakubo Academy Detective Club series with 'normal' murders and such, because it doesn't really fit her character. But the ending of this volume really makes me wonder how both this spin-off series, and the main series are going to continue.

Tanteibu he no Chousenjou  - Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni 2 was not as surprising as the first volume, but it still offers a unique experience as a humorous collection of impossible crimes incidents set at a high school. You don't need a corpse for a good mystery, no matter what Van Dine might say.

Original Japanese title(s):  東川篤哉『探偵部への挑戦状 放課後はミステリーとともに2』: 「霧ヶ峰涼と渡り廊下の怪人」 / 「霧ヶ峰涼と瓢箪池の怪事件」 / 「霧ヶ峰涼への挑戦」 / 「霧ヶ峰涼と十二月のUFO」 / 「霧ヶ峰涼と映画部の密室」 / 「霧ヶ峰涼への二度目の挑戦」 / 「霧ヶ峰涼とお礼参りの謎 」

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Heads You Lose

青き空よ、果てしなき空
光がそこにある限り
熱く強く 俺達は生きてゆく
愛をかざし 守りたい
永遠の未来
『永遠の未来』 (アニメタル)

Oh blue sky, neverending sky
As long as light exists there
We will live passionately, strongly
Holding up love, I want to protect
The eternal future
"The Eternal Future" (Animetal)

And just as I had made plans to finish the book I'm reading now within the next two days, some new books are delivered. Temptation to start in new books... too...great..to...resist...

Yamada Fuutarou was a prolific writer of mystery and historical novels and is nowadays probably best known for his many historical, ninja novels (including Kouga Ninpou Chou, which set an example for battle manga later). He also wrote many novels set in the early Meiji period (usually referred to as meiji-mono/Meiji stories). Meiji Dantoudai ("The Meiji Guillotine") is one of these historical mystery novels. It is 1869, one year after the infamous Meiji Restoration, which meant the end of the Shogunate and restoration of imperial rule. The ports of Japan were opened for foreign visitors for the first time in 400 years, marking the start of modernization. The new government has its hands full with guiding the country towards industralization and catching up with the west, but also with the aftermath of the revolution and corruption within its own administration. The danjoudai, the Imperial Prosecuting and Investigating Office, is an office reinstated from the ancient Ritsuryo legal system, dedicated to hunt down and punish corruption and rebels. To help in their fight against evil, the danjoudai even imported a guillotine from France to instigate fear upon its enemies. Two of the danjoudai's stars are Kawaji Toshiyoshi  (who would later play a large role in forming the modern Japanese police force) and Kaduki Keishirou (who always wears a suikan). It was Kaduki who brought the guillotine to Japan, together with Esmeralda, a spirit medium and heir of a family of guillotine constructors. During their investigations, Kawaji and Kaduki come across crimes which seem impossible, from ghostly rickshaws to people being cut down by unknown, supernatural forces, but by summoning the spirit of the dead, Esmeralda always manages to bring light into darkness.

I hardly read any historical detective novels, but if they were all like Meiji Dantoudai, I would definitely be reading them much more often. For Meiji Dantoudai is a masterpiece. It's easily one of the best novels I read this year, and will also be remembered as one of the best mystery novels I've ever read. When I first heard people saying they liked Yamada Fuutarou's mysteries, I wasn't sure what to think of it (as I only knew his name from his ninja novels), but I apologize! I was wrong! There's nothing wrong with liking his mystery novels! If anything, why wouldn't you like them?!

I have to admit that Meiji Dantoudai has a slow start though. It is in principle a short story collection, but the first two stories just serve as an introduction to Kawaji, Kaduki, Esmeralda and a group of five lazy and corrupt rasotsu ('policemen', 'footsoldiers) who work are forced to work under Kawaji and Kaduki. By the time you've gone through them, you're already at a quarter of the book.

But then the stories really start and it is amazing. Meiji Dantoudai does exactly what I'd expect, what I'd want from a historical detective and pulls it off perfectly. The 'easy' part is probably putting the story in a certain historical context (or else the 'special' setting wouldn't really be necessary). Yamada is best known for his historical work, so it shouldn't be surprising to see that this part is done really well. Historical events and characters pop up in surprising ways in each of the stories, but never in a way as to overwhelm the main mystery plot. Kawaji Toshiyuki is a historical person too, of course, but the use of characters like James Hepburn's assistent Kishida Ginkou is also done very well, but never intrusive. The story is set just afer the Meiji Restoration, which was done with quite a bit of assassinations on high officials on both sides (those who wanted to restore imperial rule, and those opposing that), so one can imagine that both sides still had scores to settle. These events form an important background to Meiji Dantoudai and the way history is weaved with Yamada's fiction is really captivating. I guess the one thing I know that even gets close to this is Rurouni Kenshin (which is also set in Meiji, dealing with the aftermath of the Restoration), but Meiji Dantoudai is much more grounded in actual history.

Of course, a bit of historical knowledge does really add to the experience. I am the first to admit that I was unfamiliar with many names at first, but even without knowing everything and the precise details of every event refered to, you can still enjoy Meiji Dantoudai as a historical novel. Yamada's prose is great, really bringing the world to life both through 'plain' narration as well as well-written lines (this is the sociolinguistician in me speaking).

But good historical background alone does not make for a great mystery short story collection. But good prose and historical research aren't the only things to be found here. Meiji Dantoudai offers some of the best impossible crime situations in a historical setting. What is most impressive is that they all feature very Meiji-esque elements, which reinforces the historical detective element. America yori Ai wo Komete ("From America, With Love") for example has a great variation on the no-footsteps-in-the-snow trope, with a victim apparently having been driven by a rickshaw, without a puller. Just the rickshaws prints remain on the snow. The fact that the ghost of war criminal thought to have fled to the United States is said to be haunting the neigbourhood isn't making things less scary. Or what about Engankyou Ashikiri Ezu ("The Leg Amputation Telescope Illustration"), where the rare, modern object the telescope allows for surprising discoveries, including the accidental witnessing of a murder. Eitaibashi no Kubitsuribito ("The Hanged Man of Eitai Bridge") is a great alibi deconstruction story, where you really feel how smaller the world has become since the Meiji period. Comparing the alibi deconstruction plots in this story with stories like Matsumoto Seichou's Ten to Sen or Ayukawa Tetsuya's Kuroi Trunk and you'll see how a historical setting can offer much surprise to an old trope. Onore no Kubi wo Daku Shitai ("The Body That Carries Its Own Head") is in comparison a bit boring in its execution of a familiar trope, but once again makes great use of the setting. The best story is the first mystery Kawaji and Kaduki encounter though, Kaidan Tsukiji Hotel Kan ("The Tsujiki Hotel Ghost Story"), which features the best example of a mystery making the best use of its (limited) setting. The plot oozes Meiji-atmosphere, and features a trick that seems like something Shimada Souji would write (save for the fact Meiji Dantoudai was written much earlier).

In a way, I think that in a sense, historical mysteries don't differ much from other 'special' settings like a science fiction setting (like The Caves of Steel), a pure fantasy setting (like Professor Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban or Snow White). As long as the reader is made aware of the characteristics of the setting (be it the absence of technology/knowledge of the present, or the presence of magic or robots), and is told what the limits are (i.e. rules for magic and robots, or what is available in a certain historical setting), a great, fair-play puzzle plot is always possible and can be made even more fun because it has a setting you usually don't come across. I for one really enjoyed Professor Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban because it was a totally fair mystery story, which made great use of a device like magic. A historical setting sets limits on a fair-play plot, but also offers surprising possibilites you might not even consider because it utilizes technology/knowledge the modern man doesn't think of. Meiji Dantoudai is a great example of how to do it right.

And just as you think that Meiji Dantoudai has given you everything it has, the last story, Seigi no Seifu Wa Arieru Ka ("Can There Be A Just Government?") shakes things up by forming a perfect epilogue to the short story collection. It connects every short story up until now into one surprising, complete narrative, transforming the whole structure of the book. I have read a couple of connected short story collections, but never seen it done as good as here. The one thing I can think of that comes close is the videogame Gyakuten Kenji 2. With short story collections, it can be tempting to just read the stories in any order, depending on your mood, but Meiji Dantoudai really shows the potential of connected short story collections.

Meiji Dantoudai is in short a must read for any fan of the genre. It's a great mystery short story collection, it's a great impossible crime collection, it's a great historical detective, it's a great connected short story collection.... it does everything I would want from such a book, and does it excellently.Yamada Fuutarou has Kawaji Toshiyuki appear in some more of his other Meiji novels, and I will definitely make more trips in the future, to this fantastic past world Yamada writes about.

Original Japanese title(s): 山田風太郎 『明治断頭台』: 「弾正台大巡察」 / 「巫女エスメラルダ」 / 「怪談築地ホテル館」 / 「アメリカより愛をこめて」 / 「永代橋の首吊人」 / 「遠眼鏡足切絵図」 / 「おのれの首を抱く死体」 / 「正義の政府はあり得るか」

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Butterfly in Shades of Grey

ゴキゲンな蝶になってきらめく風に乗って
今すぐ キミに会いに行こう
Butter-Fly (和田光司)

I want to become a happy butterfly, and ride on the glittering wind
I am coming to see you now
"Butter-Fly" (Wada Kouji)

When in doubt of what to read, I usually go for something written by Edogawa Rampo or Yokomizo Seishi. Partly because I always have something unread of them lying here, partly because they're easy to get into. And yet that Edogawa Rampo pile never seems to shrink. The Yokomizo Seishi pile however is finally done for the moment; I still have two or three unread novels somewhere, but I have seen adaptations of them so I am not in a hurry to read them.

Yokomizo Seishi was one of most famous Japanese detective writers, and his creation Kindaichi Kousuke is basically the quintessential Japanese private detective. A great number of Kindaichi Kousuke novels are still considered to be among the best of Japanese mystery novels (including Gokumontou, Honjin Satsujin Jiken and Inugamike no Ichizoku). And then there are the lesser known Kindaichi Kousuke novels. Mitsu Kubi Tou? Yoru Aruku? People might know them by name, but fewer have actually read them. Fushichou ("The Immortal Butterfly") is also one of the lesser known stories. There were once two wealthy, rival families in the town of Imizu, the Yabe family and the Tamatsukuri family. And like a Romeo and Juliet story, Shinichirou, the eldest son of the Yabe family, fell in love with Tomoko, daughter of the Tamatsukuri family. They even made plans to elope, hoping to escape through the set of caves that connects their houses, but their plans failed. Horribly. Shinichirou was held captured by his father, his younger brother was found stabbed to death in the caves and no sign of Tomoko: it was thought she must have killed the brother and then commited suicide by jumping in a deep crevice in the cave.

Twenty-three year later, the Tamatsukuri family plays host to three Japanese Brazilians visiting the home country: the wealthy heiress Mari, her mother Kimie and the companion Asako. The head of the Yabe family however swears he recognizes Kimie as Tomoko, and suspects she must have fled to Brazil all those years ago, only to come back to her family now. Private detective Kindaichi Kousuke is hired to investigate the case, but little did he know that the caves were to be the stage for a new murder.

Well, actually, by now he should know, because it more often than not that people start to die after Kindaichi Kousuke's arrival on the scene, a trait he shares with his grandson.

If I were to explain Fushichou in short, I would just say it reminds me of that one Kindaichi Kousuke classic, Yatsu Haka Mura. We have the two rivaling families, the backstory with murder and of course, the caves. Much of both stories happen within the caves (heck, half of the Yatsu Haka Mura game was just cave exploration...). Add in a bit of Yoru Aruku (sleepwalking) and Inugamike no Ichizoku (uncertainty about the identity of a person) and there we have Fushichou.

As a puzzle plot, it's decent and unlike Yatsu Haka Mura, actually done carefully with proper foreshadowing and hints. A bit too neatly maybe, as it's pretty easy to arrive at the solution of the puzzle. Also, the murder happens quite late in this novelette, with subsequent events following each other in rapid succession, making the first half a bit slow, and the second half a bit too fast. It's all in all a decent Kindaichi Kousuke story, with all the right elements you'd expect from such a story, but definitely not near the level of Yokomizo's best.

Fushichou is a novelette, and my copy also includes the short story Jinmensou ("The Face Sore") to fill up the pages of the volume. Kindaichi Kousuke is on a resting holiday together with his old friend inspector Isokawa, and one night, Matsuyo, one of the maids makes a suicide attempt, saying she has killed her little sister again during one of her sleepwalks. Her sister is indeed found dead later, but it seems Matsuyo she had an alibi for the time of her sister's death. The following day, Kindaichi and Isokawa start to investigate the history behind the sister, Matsuyo and the strange swelling on her body that resembles the sister's face.

A jinmensou is a swelling of the flesh that resembles a face. I first came across the phenomena in a famous chapter of the medical science fiction series Black Jack, but the Jinmensou is also known as a youkai, being a creature that manifests itself as face on someone's body. And it's creepy. In fact, most of Yokomizo's short stories don't do too well in the atmosphere department compared to his novels, but Jinmensou does it very well, with the creepy face, the suicide attempt and the sleepwalking (again!). The way Matsuyo's jinmensou is explained and how it ties up to the main plot is also surprisingly good.

As a puzzle plot, Jinmensou is not very special though. Actually, most of the story is spent on the explanation of Matsuyo and her sister's relation, and then the solution basically just presents itself. It is thus more a story where you just enjoy the atmosphere, rather than actively try to solve the crime. It's not a bad story by any means, but again not one of the classics.

Fushichou is an okay volume, but definitely not required reading material. It has the usual Yokomizo Seishi elements, but it misses that extra little bit that make it classic material. If you have already gone through all the major Kindaichi Kousuke novels and you want to start with the rest, then Fushichou is a decent candidate.

Oh, and I quite like the cover, actually. There are no transforming butterfly-humans in the story though...

Original Japanese title(s): 横溝正史 『不死蝶』: 「不死蝶」 / 「人面瘡」

Monday, December 16, 2013

Little Wing

「世の中甘くみてるなら安心だ。どこにも光がないと絶望してるより」
『麒麟の翼』

 "I'm relieved you can still look lightly at the harshness of society. It's better than only feel despair without any hope of light"
"The Wings of the Kirin"

As always using this first paragraph to say something random: I had played Broken Sword 3: The Sleeping Dragon only once, when it was first released and remembered it as the game where you had to solve a crate pushing puzzle every two minutes. But thinking I might have just made it seem more horrible in my memory, I played the game again recently. But it turns out Broken Sword 3 was indeed riddled with crate puzzles. Sigh. But now back to today's topic.

Kaga Kyouichirou series
Sotsugyou ("Graduation") (1986)
Nemuri no Mori ("Forest of Sleep") (1989)
Dochiraka ga Kanojo wo Koroshita ("One of the Two Killed Her") (1996)
Akui ("Malice") (1996)
Watashi ga Kare wo Koroshita ("I Killed Him") (1999)
Uso wo Mou Hitotsu Dake ("One More Lie") (2000)
Akai Yubi ("Red Fingers")  (2006)
Shinzanmono ("Newcomer") (2009)
Kirin no Tsubasa ("The Wings of the Kirin") (2011)
Inori no Maku ga Oriru Toki ("When the Curtains of Hope Come Down") (2013)

It is said that Nihonbashi is where all roads start in Japan, being the starting point of the Edo five routes. To Aoyagi Takeaki, Nihonbashi Bridge meant the ending point of his life. Aoyagi was stabbed in a underpass near the bridge, but for some reason walked, staggered all the way to the bridge, without asking for help from anyone, only to pass away in front of the winged Kirin statue on Nihonbashi bridge. Why was he so anxious to get to the Kirin statue? Around the same time, a young man Yajima Fyuki is found holding Aoyagi's belongings, but he is hit by a car during a chase by policemen. How are the two incidents connected? Kaga Kyouichirou from Nihonbashi station sets out once more to find what tragedy lies behind this all in Kirin no Tsubasa ("The Wings of the Kirin").

As you can see above, I've reviewed most of Higashino Keigo's Kaga Kyouichirou series, though it's not just novels; the reviews of the books until 2000's Uso wo Mou Hitotsu Dake are all based on the novels, but I wrote my thoughts on Akai Yubi and Shinzanmono based on their TV adaptations starring Abe Hiroshi as Kaga Kyouichirou. Kirin no Tsubasa (2012) is the motion picture set in the same series, with the same actors / production team behind it.

As a mystery film, Kirin no Tsubasa leaves a lot to be desired for. Like Shinzanmono and Akai Yubi, most of the film you'll be seeing scenes of how those left behind (Aoyagi's family and Yajima's girlfriend) are coping with their losses and how the police investigation forces them to rethink what a family is. Kaga is always there, doing his work, but he serves more like a bridge between these more emotional scenes. This was admittedly also the case with Shinzanmono and Akai Yubi, but they worked in their own, specific ways: Shinzanmono was a TV show, so you had a conclusion of some sorts every episode (every episode a small mystery was solved), while Akai Yubi was an inverted detective, where you know the family in focus was actually involved with the crime, so you had a sense of suspense watching how the family stuck together in an attempt to deceive Kaga. With Kirin no Tsubasa, you're just watching and waiting for something to happen. And you will have to wait for a long, long time for anything to happen (but crying and yelling).



And then the production team suddenly remembered this is a mystery film and they have a dead guy in their story. In the last thirty, forty minutes of the film, the viewer is suddenly presented with a lot of information and developments which kinda come out of nowhere, without proper foreshadowing and hinting. And before you know it, the case is solved.

I was stumped.

The last half of the film basically said,  "A large part of the first part of this two hour film you're watching, well, you can forget about that. That one character we paid so much attention to? Forget her. We will too. Oh, you need clues? Well, we kinda forget them in the first half, so we'll show them to you now, right before we use them to progress in the story. That way, you can't say there were no hints!". Storylines pop up from nowhere, and a lot of the parallel storytelling and linking up to the Winged Kirin statue disappear. As if you're watching two different films.

Kirin no Tsubasa in the end is more of a character study than a proper mystery film, and while Higashino Keigo's works often walk along a vague line of mystery/character drama, I can't help but feel that either he, or the film production committee went overboard with the human drama stuff. Of course better for the general public and the Shinzanmono, Akai Yubi and Kirin no Tsubasa productions might indeed purposedly focus more on human drama, but even within this set Kirin no Tsubasa feels off.


But this might be said of the Kaga Kyouichirou series in general. The earlier novels like Sotsguyou are classic puzzle plots, and Dochiraka ga Kanojo wo Koroshita and Watashi ga Kare wo Koroshita are fun puzzle experiments due to those stories not having a proper solution (i.e. the hints are there and it is possible to deduce the murderer, but names are not mentioned in the text itself), but the last few entries in the series are lighter on mystery and heavier on drama. Though that might be because I only saw the adaptations.

Shinzanmono had a whole season to flesh out the city of Ningyouchou as a setting and did that wonderfully; Kirin no Tsubasa had only two hours to do the same and it didn't work out that well. Nihonbashi bridge does form an excellent starting point of the film, and it is wonderful how the story keeps leading us back to this starting point of all roads, but even though the rest of Nihonbashi is also important to the story, there is just too little time to really present it as a believable setting; they're just points on a map. A shame, because I thought setting was one of the things Shinzanmono did really well.

I haven't read the original novel, so I don't know how faithful the Kirin no Tsubasa film is to the original, but it does not work as a mystery film. It just doesn't. It drags on, it offers little payback and the things that made Shinzanmono work as a human drama - mystery film hybrid, are precisely the elements that are not present in this production.

Original Japanese title(s): 東野圭吾 (原) 『麒麟の翼』

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Paging the Crime Doctor

Primum non nocere 

Not sure whether I was influenced subliminally or not by the subject of this review, but I have been playing the classic game Theme Hospital lately. Many, many moons I played the game, but never finished it. And now., many years later.. it's still a fun game. I play a lot of games, but I have never really gotten into strategy/management games... except for this game, and Rollercoaster Tycoon. Maybe I should read a detective featuring a rollercoaster...

A year ago, I reviewed Edward D. Hoch's Diagnosis: Impossible, the short story collection featuring Dr. Sam Hawthorne solving the most incredible impossible crimes. Well, to be exact, it was the Japanese version of that collection, which added an extra Hoch story. Also, there have only been two Sam Hawthorne collections published in English (I have been told a third is on its way), but the complete Dr. Sam Hawthorne series has been available in Japanese for years. Which is also sitting here in my bookcase. And so we move on to the third Japanese volume, which has the English subtitle of Diagnosis: Murder 3 - Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne. General practictioner Dr. Sam Hawthorne has been living in the small New England town of Northmont for a long time now, which has proven to be a great home to him, despite a rather big part of the population consisting of mastercriminals who specialize in impossible crimes and a declining population rate because of said crimes (murders). But a town is just a part of a greater country, and thus we see nationwide socio-economical changes like Great Depression and the Prohibition form the background of this set of Dr. Sam's adventures.

This is either a hard to describe short story collection, or a very easy one.. It's basically the same as the first collection. And the second. One might have noted that this review is about the third collection. Where's the review of the second one? Well, I had skipped writing one, because I couldn't think of anything to add to my review of the first collection! I could have reposted that review, just swapping the titles. And to be honest, I could have done the same for this third collection...

Which probably makes it sound like Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne is a boring set of stories, but again, it isn't! It's a very solid collection of wonderfully constructed impossible crimes, each of them a great example of how to write a mystery short story! The way Hoch manages to present a new impossible crime and flesh out the background setting every time perfectly in just that amount of pages per story is amazing! Many writers would commit an impossible crime to have such a talent.

The 'problem' is that Hoch manages to keep a fairly high standard, every time, always.  The first collection is not much different from the second or the third. They're all good, but it would be difficult to describe the differences between the collections, because there are few. Sure, I could do a short summary of every story, but I once again choose not too, because considering the length of the stories and their set-up, it would be very easy to spoil some of them. But they are good. Of course, not every story is as good as another, but the 'lesser' ones are good stuff. In Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, I liked The Problem of the Snowbound Cabin (well, snow + impossible crime = you can guess), The Problem of the Invisible Acrobat (acrobat disappearing during act) and The Problem of Hunting Lodge (murder scene without foot prints), but every story is worth reading.

The fact is though that a lot of the stories are actually very similar. Like a Scooby Doo episode, you can guess the following is present. 1) Sam Hawthorne meets a fellow townsman whom we have never met before, but Sam is acquainted with (in same cases a recurring character). Said character is involved in way or another with whatever the title of the story is. 2) Sam is witness to the impossible crime. He usually just happens to be there (often doing his rounds). There is a moment where all witness lose sight of the subject or object of the crime. 3) The trick behind the impossible crime was done in that split moment nobody could have seen anything, be it a switch, or setting off a mechanism. 4) The story ends, and Sam alludes to his next adventure. Most adventures follow this scheme, making it easy to guess what's going on. If you'd just read the stories seperatedly, this might not seem to obvious, but as every collection has about ten stories you read in one go, yeah, this pattern tends to become obvious.

And now I noticed I already said this in my review of the first collection. Aaah. Like I said, the collections, and thus the reviews, are not very different....

Well, there are some minor changes. The background setting of Northmont keeps developing throughout the stories. Minor storylines like Sam's car and his assistent keep popping up, providing a lively world in which all these crimes happen. And while I said all the stories are very much alike (also in their high standard), there are some little surprises here and there, like stories like fake solutions. Which considering the length of the stories, is actually amazing. To do a great impossible crime story, in a believable setting, and a fake solution, all of that in a limited amount of pages...

This Japanese volume also contains a bonus Hoch story, The Nile Cat. It's a short crime story about figuring out the motive for a crime. Short, but good. Not much to tell about without getting into spoilerific territory.

In short, Diagnosis: Impossible 3 - Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (the English release will probably feature a different title, I guess?) is a great impossible crime short story collection. If you liked previous collections, you're bound to love this one too. If you got bored by the formula though, you won't find anything new here.

Original title(s): Edward D. Hoch 『サム・ホーソーンの事件簿』Ⅲ: 'The Problem of the Hunting Lodge' 「ハンティングロッジの謎」 / 'The Problem of the Body in the Haystack' 「干し草に埋もれた死体の謎」 / 'The Problem of Santa's Lighthouse' 「サンタの灯台の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Graveyard Picnic' 「墓地のピクニックの謎」 / 'The Problem of the Crying Room' 「防音を施した親子室の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Fatal Fireworks'「危険な爆竹の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Unfinished Painting'「描きかけの水彩画の 謎」 / 'The Problem of the Sealed Bottle'「密封された酒びんの謎」 / 'The Problem of the Invisible Acrobat' 「 消えた空中ブランコ乗りの謎」 / 'The Problem of the Curing Barn' 「 真っ暗になった通期熟成所の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Snowbound Cabin' 「雪に閉ざされた山小屋の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Thunder Room' 「窓のない避雷室の謎」 / 'The Nile Cat' 「ナイルの猫」

Friday, December 6, 2013

Three Days to Heaven

思い出はいつもキレイだけど
それだけでおなかがすくわ
「そばかす」 (Judy and Mary)

Memories are always beautiful
But my stomach feels empty with just that
"Freckles" (Judy and Mary)

And because I always use this first paragraph to talk about random topics: Broken Sword 5 - The Serpent's Curse Episode 1 was great! Muuuuuch better than the previous two games, and a great, humurous adventure on its own. But now I'll have to wait another two months before the final episode is released.... And talking about stories split up in two volumes...

I had a lot of fun with the game Danganronpa and its sequel Super Danganronpa 2 is probably the best detective game I played this year. The story of a group of students of the Hope Peak's Academy forced to commit the perfect murder and the surviving members trying to find the murderer in classroom trials was incredibly exciting, and this quirky mix of Battle Royale, Gyakuten Saiban and the psychedelic atmosphere proved to be a great hit in Japan, which in turn spawned a mountain of related merchandise and other releases. Among them is the novel Danganronpa / Zero (written by Kodaka Kazutaka), which serves as the prequel to the games. Set in a time when Hope's Peak Academy was just a school for super class students, when people weren't forced to kill each other yet.

Or maybe not. A certain incident has happened within the grounds of Hope's Peak Academy, leading to a very big group of unhappy students, despite the school's council efforts at a cover-up. The situation is looking grim and it seems like a violent storm might take over the school any day. But Otonashi Ryouko has little to do with that. Mostly because she is suffering from severe amnesia, which causes her to forget pretty much anything, including the tension in the academy. The only thing she remembers is her friend, Super Class Neurologist Matsuda, who is treating her. But it seems that even her forgetfulness might not be enough of an excuse, because despite her best efforts at not getting involved, Ryouko seems to be unable to avoid getting in the center of events. What is the incident that caused this, and what has it to do with her lost memories?

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. How to talk about Danganronpa / Zero. First of all, forget about reading this before playing Danganronpa. Heck, you might even consider playing Super Danganronpa 2 first. Sure, this is the prequel and set before all of the events in those two games, but it also spoils a lot of the plot twists you're supposed to uncover yourself in those games. Most important of all, despite being a prequel, Danganronpa / Zero will spoil the identity of the big bad of the first game. Furthermore, Danganronpa / Zero is actually quite badly written, so you really need the background information available in the games to even start thinking about enjoying Danganronpa / Zero. Many references and allusions to certain events and characters only make sense if you have played the games, and the world setting as presented in Danganronpa / Zero is very vague, showing just a glimpse. It's basically impossible to get a clear idea of the world of Danganronpa through just this novel, even though it's a pretty important aspect of the story.

One of the problems of the story as it is told, is it lacks any sense of direction. We're introduced to the amnesiac antics of Ryouko, and then stuff just happens to her. A lot of stuff, including murderous attempts at her life and Ryouko being framed for a murder. And Ryouko just flows along with the events. The whole story is seen from a very passive point of view, which is a bit hard to believe considering the seriousness of the events. Sure, Danganronpa always had a bit of a weird atmosphere ("Oh, one of us got killed... the murderer is among us... wanna go on a date? I have a present for ya!"), but Danganronpa / Zero takes a long time to get an interesting point. Add in that Ryouko's narration is a bit... tiresome to get through and you might understand why even though it's a very short story, it's pretty hard to get through.

As a detective novel, it's a bit strange too. The Danganronpa games were basically courtroom dramas in the spirit of the Gyakuten Saiban games; uncovering the murder through debates, finding contradictions and coming up with over the top deductions. The atmosphere might be pop'n psychodelic, but the mysteries are as classic as you can get, with the player/detective slowly getting closer to the truth. Danganronpa / Zero is nothing like that. Stuff just happens, and then the truth is suddenly revealed. And to be very honest, the truth that was revealed wasn't too surprising either, as I suspected that at the end of the first volume (of two), though I have to say that the hints were laid down very neatly.

As a mystery novel, Danganronpa / Zero is a bit disappointing. As a stand-alone novel Danganronpa / Zero is impossible. You really need to have played the first Danganronpa (and preferably Super Danganronpa 2 too) to even want to understand it, and even then it's just a mediocre story. It gives a bit more background information, but nothing groundbreaking. This is really just for the hardcore fans who just need to have more Danganronpa in their life.

Original Japanese title(s): 小高 和剛 『ダンガンロンパ  / ゼロ』