Tuesday, March 11, 2014

E.M.C. 1988.04-1989.04


"And that is how the Eito University Mystery Club and I met"
'The Maison Lapis Lazuli Case'

I lived near a lot of bookshops when I was in Kyoto, a great number of them second-hand bookshops. The most pleasant in my opinion was Furuhon Ichiba, which followed the familiar Book Off formula (but had the advantage of not being located uphill, as was the Book Off closest by), with a big assortment of games and books. But the most interesting was Comic Shock, just across the street with Furuhon Ichiba. Comic Shock was definitely the underdog, with slightly higher prices (overall) and being much smaller. But with more rare and older books, the late, yet long opening hours of from noon to midnight, as well as the amazing habit of wrapping each and every single book they had in plastic, made quite an impression. Every time I walked inside, someone was busy wrapping books in plastic.

And usually, I can't remember where I bought what book (though price tags usually help), but the plastic wrapping tells me that today's book was bought at Comic Shock. And that's my amazing deduction for today. Ahem.

Student Alice series
Gekkou Game - Y no Higeki '88 ("Moonlight Game - The Tragedy of Y '88")
Kotou Puzzle ("The Island Puzzle")
Soutou no Akuma ("Double-Headed Devil")
Jooukoku no Shiro ("The Castle of the Queendom")
Egami Jirou no Dousatsu ("The Insight of Egami Jirou")

April 1988. 18 year old Arisugawa Alice has just entered the Law faculty of Eito University in Kyoto and is still looking for a club to join. After a little accident, a short talk and the words "Wontcha join us?", Alice finds himself as the newest member of the Eito University Mystery Club. The EMC is a very small club, with just three other members: Egami Jirou (president of the club and long overdue for graduation), Mochizuki Shuuhei (Ellery Queen fan) and Oda Koutarou (hardboiled fan). But the four members have great fun writing / talking about detective fiction, and just hanging out together. And the members also have a knack for attracting all kinds of cases. Maybe not all of a criminal kind, but the members of the EMC (and especially their leader Egami) are definitely not going to let any case go unsolved. Arisugawa Alice's Egami Jirou no Dousatsu ("The Insight of Egami Jirou") collects a series of adventures the members of the EMC had in the academic year 1988-1989.

Egami Jirou no Dousatsu is the first short story collection in Arisugawa Alice's Student Alice series and it took a long time for it to be finished. The book was published in 2012, but the stories were written in a period of over twenty years: the earliest story dates from 1986, while the newest dates from 2012. It is also a notable release, because it is quite different from the other books not just in format (short story collection), but also in atmosphere. Up until now, the Student Alice series had always been about murder cases in closed circle situations. Starting with 1989's Gekkou Game, the members of the EMC somehow kept running into murder cases while isolated from the outside world, be it stuck on an active vulcano, or on an island etcetera. The adventures in Egami Jirou no Dousatsu however happen in open circles, mostly around Kyoto (more specifically, around Eito University) and  have a lighthearted feeling to them (the same feeling the other Student Alice stories also have, before they realize they are cooped up somewhere with a murderer). Yet this doesn't mean that that other characteristic of the series, Queenian logical deductions, is gone.

Take Rurisou Jiken ("The Maison Lapis Lazuli Case") for example, where Mochizuki is accused by one of his fellow housemates of stealing a college note (with notes so good, you're guaranteed to pass the class). It seems that at the time of the theft, the only persons present in the building were Mochizuki and the victim himself (their two other housemates had gone to the public bath), and because Mochizuki had a row with the victim a while back, everyone thinks he stole the note out of spite (and to pass the course). Hoping to prove his innocence, Mochizuki asks his fellow EMC members to help prove his innocence. A chain of deductions built around a lightbulb in the washroom, and a neatly hidden hint form a great start of this collection, even though some of the 'conditions' of this crime do feel a bit dated (then again, it is set in 1988). (and bonus points for being set near where I used to live in Kyoto!)

Hard Rock Lovers Only is a very short story, just a couple of pages long and deals with a very small problem: why did that girl ignore Alice when he called for her, even though they had a nice talk in a cafe just earlier? The solution is simple, just like you'd expect from such a small story. Nothing surprising, just a very simple, very short story.

Yaketa Senro no Ue no Shitai ("The Body on the Faded Railway") on the other hand is a pretty complex story. It is also the oldest story of the bunch, published in 1986 and actually Arisugawa's first published story (Gekkou Game being his first published novel). The gang learns of a mysterious death on the railway tracks during a holiday at Mochizuki's maternal home. There are two suspects, but both of them have an alibi for when the body was thrown on the rails. Being an alibi-breaking story with trains, this story feels a bit like an Ayukawa Tetsuya story, who was actually the editor who decided to publish the story. But it is actually a neat, and fairly realistic modernized version of a pretty famous short detective story, but I won't go in details for fear of spoiling the fun. Also points for the little references of the gang preparing for another holiday in the mountains: Gekkou Game shows that that holiday will go horribly wrong.

Sakuragawa no Ophelia ("The Ophelia of the Sakura River") is the other story that features death, though maybe not murder. Egami Jirou introduces the other three (younger) members to Ishiguro, one of the founding members of the club. Ishiguro works as a freelance writer nowadays, but he needs the brain of Egami to solve a problem from his past. When he was a high school student, a classmate drowned in the river in his hometown. Recently, Ishiguro has been helping a friend, also a classmate from that time, who has been hospitalized. While cleaning the friend's room, he discovered photographs of their drowned classmate, but these were surprisingly made before the body was formally discovered. Ishiguro wants Egami to explain why his friend's got these pictures. The solution is simple, as not only Egami, but every EMC member manage to correctly deduce the solution to this problem. Note also the references to a strange new religion which has its homebase near Ishiguro's hometown ...

Yonpunkan de wa Mijikasugiru ("Four Minutes Is Too Short") is a very fun take on Harry Kemelman's famous short story The Nine Mile Walk. Hanging around in Egami Jirou's room, the EMC members want to play a game. Alice remembers a strange line he overheard at the station's public payphones: "You only have four minutes, so hurry. Don't forget your shoes... No... After A" and the members try to deduce what the meaning is behind this line. Like the original, the deduction session leads to a very surprising conclusion. The story does feel a bit chaotic though, because the deduction session is interrupted by a somewhat long discussion on Matsumoto Seichou's Ten to Sen (with spoilers!), but it does strengthen the feel of just a group of friends hanging together and wasting time by talking about a variety of topics without any direction. Overall, one of the better stories of the collection.

Akazu no Ma no Kai ("The Mystery of the Sealed Room") has the EMC members going on a ghost hunt in a decrepit hospital, which features a 'locked room', i.e a room sealed by supernatural powers. They actually hear a ghost walking around the building, but they quickly figure out it's just a prank of Oda, and the three remaining members chase the 'ghost' down to the little room before the locked room... only to find nobody there. Oda has to have gone inside the locked room, but that door is bolted, and covered up with wooden planks from their side of the door. How did Oda disappear into the locked room? The situation is really fun, with Oda basically challenging the other members to solve his own locked room trick, and the trick is actually pretty neat, though I have seen (a variation of) it before. Most points for this story go to the light-hearted spirit which really fits these characters (too bad they are usually thrown into life-threatening situations).

A cheap painting is stolen from Mochizuki and Oda's professor, and the thief demands a ransom money of no less than a thousand yen (about seven euro, ten dollars) for its safe return. Why steal a worthless painting and ask such a small amount? The professor suspects his brother stole the painting, but he has no idea how his brother could have stolen the painting from his house: his brother left the house completely empty handed yesterday, a fact Mochizuki and Oda (who had been drinking at the professor's house) will also confirm. How did his brother manage to steal the picture (without folding it up or harming it in anyway), is what the professor wants to know in Nijuuseikiteki Yuukai ("A Twentieth Century Abduction"). The solution Egami comes up with is great in its simplicity and it is worked out thematically very well. Not genius maybe, but a really well written story.
Joya wo Aruku ("Walking on New Year's Eve")  on the other hand is less well written, in my opinion. Alice hangs out with Egami on New Year's Eve, and what follows is a series of random discussions about mystery fiction and the reading of a guess-the-criminal story written by Mochizuki, which Alice found in Egami's room. So Joya wo Uruku is part random talk, part story-within-a-story, but the guess-the-criminal story is pretty basic (as Egami and Alice both comment) and the random talk is really just random talk. Joya wo Uruku is not a really coherent story, which makes it the most boring to read of the whole collection. Which is a shame, because the guess-the-criminal story-within-a-story format can work, something Maya Yutaka had already shown.

The final story, Toujin ni Kansuru Ichikousatsu ("An Observation Regarding Squandering") is a great Holmesian story, where the members of the EMC want to find out why the old owner of a second-hand bookshop has been so nice to everybody lately: he is known to have been giving away his books for nothing, but also treating people in restaurants. The solution is not really surprising (there's only so much you can do within the length of these stories), but once again, the hints are laid done well and it is a fun story to read. Which is also because this stories features Maria, the EMC's first female member. In this story, the members of the EMC are trying hard to get their first female member and she'll play a crucial part in the (phenomenal) Kotou Puzzle, which is set some months after this story.

What I think of this short story collection in general? Well, it's definitely not as deep as the novels of the same series, that's for sure. Arisugawa touches upon the lenghty deductions chains of the novels in some stories (like Rurisou Jiken and Yonpunkan de wa Mijikasugiru), but for the real deal, you really should read the novels. But Egami Jirou no Dousatsu is definitely 'easier' to read, with a light-hearted touch to everything. Discussions on famous mystery novels are also present in the novels, but these carefree talks between the EMC members definitely work better in their 'home environment' of the university. Egami Jirou no Dousatsu is at its best when it manages to combine the free-style talk of these members and pretty nonsensical problems with deep deduction chains, best done in (once again) Yonpunkan de wa Mijikasugiru.

As an extra, I did like seeing the EMC members actually in Kyoto. The novels always place them in some remote place... Eito University is modeled after Doshisha University and most stories are set in the area around it, and while I myself attended Kyoto University last year (on the other side of the river), I'm also familiar with the neighbourhood there and it's always fun to see a location come to alive like this in my reading materials.

Anyway, Egami Jirou no Dousatsu is an okay short story collection. It's definitely must-read material for those who have been following the series, but I think it also works as a good entry point for the series (despite being quite different from the novels), because the characters come better to life here. The series is planned to fnish with one more novel and one more short story collection, and I am looking forward to more adventures of the EMC members.

Original Japanese title(s): 有栖川有栖 『江神二郎の洞察』: 「瑠璃荘事件」 / 「ハードロック・ラバーズ・オンリー」 / 「やけた線路の上の死体」 / 「桜川のオフィーリア」 / 「四分間では短すぎる」 / 「開かずの間の怪」 / 「二十世紀的誘拐」 / 「除夜を歩く」 / 「蕩尽に関する一考察」

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