Thursday, January 29, 2015

Psycho

「つまりさ・・・・・、たとえばハリウッド発の映画を見ていて、一時間が経過してもまだヒロインの女優が登場しなかったり、ハイジャックもビルジャックも起きない、エイリアンすら現れない、そんなことがあると思う?」
「確実にありえませんね」
「推理小説を読んでて、総ページの半分が終わっているのに誰も殺されない、名探偵すら出てこない、そんな推理小説ある思う?」
「確実にありえませんね」
『サイコロジカル (上) 兎吊木垓輔の戯言殺し』

"Ever heard of a Hollywood movie where one hour in, the actress playing the heroine still hasn't made an appearance, no hijack or building hijack has happened, not even an alien showing up?"
"That's absolutely impossible"
"Ever heard of a mystery novel where halfway through, nobody has been murdered yet, and the great detective still hasn't made an appearance?"
"That's absolutely impossible"
"Psycho Logical - The Killing Joke of Utsurugi Gaisuke"

I mentioned I had read the prologue of Arisugawa Alice's Sweden Kan no Nazo at least six times. I think I've read the prologue of today's book even more often! And of course, when I finally got through that hurdle, I sped through the story in record time...

Zaregoto series:
『クビキリサイクル 青色サヴァンと戯言遣い』 | Deheading Cycle: The Blue Savant and the Nonsense Bearer
 『クビシメロマンチスト 人間失格・零崎人識』 | Strangulation Romanticist: Human Failure - Zerozaki Hitoshiki 
『クビツリハイスクール 戯言遣いの弟子』 | Hanging High School - Disciple of the Nonsense Bearer
『サイコロジカル (上) 兎吊木垓輔の戯言殺し』、『サイコロジカル (下) 曳かれ者の小唄』 | Psycho Logical - The Killing Joke of Utsurugi Gaisuke (Part 1) / Kouta's Bluff (Part 2) 

The narrator and Kunagisa "Dead Blue" Tomo make their way to the research facility led by Shadou Kyouichirou, which lies somewhere far away in the mountains. Their goal is get Utsurugi "Green Green Green" Gaisuke out of the facility. Utsurugi used be a member of Tomo's team of hackers which surprised the world several years ago, but is for some reason now working for professor Shadou. Forced to work might be a better expression. Anyway, negotiations with Shadou don't go very well, even if Tomo and the narrator do get a chance to have a talk with Utsurugi and everyone agrees to continue the talk the following day, but plans change when the following day, Utsurugi is found murdered in his own research building. And with murdered, I mean that his eyes were poked out with a scissor, his stomach was cut open and his arms sawed off. What's more baffling is that the logs show that nobody had entered or left their own research building, meaning that nobody could have murdered Utsurugi. Can the narrator and Tomo find out who killed "Green Green Green" and how the murderer managed to commit a locked room building murder in NisiOisiN's Psycho Logical?
 
Psycho Logical is the fourth book in NisiOisN (Nishio Ishin)'s Zaregoto (joke, nonsense) series and is split up in two volumes, Utsurugi Gaisuke no Zaregotogoroshi ("The Killing Joke of Utsurugi Gaisuke") and Hikaremono no Kouta ("Kouta's Bluff"). The zany light novel series stars an unnamed narrator who has a tendency to get into strange adventures and murder mysteries thanks (?) to his curious friends and acquaintances, among them the genius hacker Tomo and the "World's Strongest Private Contractor" Aikawa Jun. But despite all the locked room murders this series features, the biggest mystery remains the narrator himself. He has a distinct speech style where he talks around, in, out, besides and over any topic, earning him the name of "nonsense bearer". Add in the fact he is quite negative and easily lies to everyone (including himself and the readers) and you have one of the most unreliable narrators in fiction ever. I quite like his narration, but I can imagine it can be a bit tiring too and the fact you can never really get into the narrator's head, might be a bit distracting for those who want to focus on the story and the murders.

Setting-wise, Psycho Logical is similar to the first book in the series, Kubikiri Cycle: a locked room murder mystery with the narrator and "Dead Blue" Tomo in an isolated setting (Tomo wasn't present in the second and third book). Thematically, there are also similarities, including an on-going discussion on geniuses, but a quick look at the two titles immediately shows the biggest difference. Kubikiri Cycle was NisiOisiN's first book and was a murder mystery with quirky characters. As the series continued, NisiOisiN slowly expanded the world of Zaregoto and by Psycho Logical, one could say that the characters are the main, the murder mystery is just a side course. Psycho Logical gives a look into both the narrator's and Tomo's past and the relation between the two and the actual murder of Utsurugi Gaisuke doesn't happen until the very, very end of the first book. The focus of the series has definitely shifted by now and because I heard that the mystery element is all but gone in the last two titles in the series, I think this is the last time I'll do a Zaregoto review here.

Psycho Logical's locked room building murder is quite fun, I think though. Sure, it keeps in the tradition of a certain trope I already mentioned in my review of Kubikiri Cycle, but I quite enjoyed the idea behind the locked room mystery and is definitely quite original. And because I already did a spoiler section in that review, another one:

Spoilers for Kubikiri Cycle, Kubishime Romanticist, Kubitsuri High School and Psycho Logical!! (Select to read):

It's actually quite interesting to see how parts of the human body are being used again and again in this series: as a step, as a transporting vessel, as a key and now as a piece of rope (in the narrator's solution). I don't know if NisiOisiN is trying to say something, but the constant de-humanizing of the err... human body in this series is somewhat disturbing. Now that I think about it, unlike Danganronpa, practically all of the geniuses and super-humans in this series are mental geniuses. I guess that Aikawa Jun is a physical monster, but she is also feared for her mind and not just her raw power...

The setting of the scientific facility and the heavy security reminds me of Mori Hiroshi's Subete ga F ni Naru / The Perfect Insider. I don't think it's a really rare setting in mystery fiction (if anything, the use of keycards / logs / security cameras et cetera make it ideal for it), but I can't actually remember other stories with a similar setting except for that one Kindaichi Shounen story...

I will admit that I am overall a very pragmatic mystery reader. If you have browsed this blog, you have probably noticed that I mainly focus on elements like structure, plot and tropes. The way a story is written, let's say the literary qualities of a story, usually don't matter to me that much. But I absolutely looooooove NisiOisiN's writing style! The wordplay, his roundabout way of talking, everything. Each of his Zaregoto books have been filled with quote-worthy material (something I am very grateful for). And even if you're not very proficient in Japanese, it's still very readable: the vocabulary itself isn't very difficult, but NisiOisiN's just has a great sense of playing around with written words. Like the series title says, it's all nonsense and jokes, but great nonsense and jokes.

Overall, I quite enjoyed Psycho Logical. Sure, the murder mystery appears quite late in the story, but it is a fun, even if simple locked room murder and the narration is still absolutely fantastic. But, as it seems the mystery element basically disappears in subsequent books, I think this will be the last time I'll write about the Zaregoto series on this blog, even if I might still read them just to see how the series ends. But for now, I've read enough nonsense.

Original Japanese title(s): 西尾維新  『サイコロジカル (上) 兎吊木垓輔の戯言殺し』  / 『サイコロジカル (下)曳かれ者の小唄』

Saturday, January 24, 2015

End of Rain

"Oh shit, it's dim sum time!"
"True Crime - Streets of LA"

I know some people like to collect their books from the same publisher / with the same style. With English releases, you can often choose between (at least) an UK and US release, so sometimes you gotta pay attention when purchasing books. I myself usually don't mind what edition I get, by the way. Still, I find it quite surprising to see that even though I own less than ten Judge Dee novels, they come from like four or five different publishers...

The Chinese Gold Murders was about Judge Dee's first appointment as a town magistrate in ancient China, but by the time of Robert van Gulik's Murder in Canton, Judge Dee has worked his way all the way up to Lord Chief Justice. Only special cases can bring the judge and his subordinates outside the Imperial City, and the disappearance of a court censor is such a case. Judge Dee and two of his faithful fellows Chiao Tai and Tao Gan, make their way to the southern harbor city of Canton, where the censor was last seen. The search for the censor is made difficult because of the delicate political and social circumstances of Canton: many Arabs reside in the city for the trade, as well as a great number of the Tanka people. Can the judge find out what happened to the censor?

I should probably do some research on books before purchasing them, rather than just going by the cover. I was unaware that Murder in Canton would be (chronologically) the last in the series. I haven't read the Judge Dee books in order, and it's not really necessary to do so (in fact, I read them criss-cross), but I had kinda wanted to keep this book for last. But ah well...

To be honest, I found Murder in Canton to be one of the less entertaining novels in the series. Sure, the basic premise is still the same, even if Judge Dee is in a higher position now: like always, he's new in town, he has his small group of subordinates with him and he gets involved with three mysteries that end up connected. No surprises there. Well, except for the fact that because Murder in Canton is set so late in the Judge's career, some of his faithful followers have other obligations that prevent them from joining Dee on his new mission (but that happened in some other novels too).

I wasn't too charmed by the novel's mysteries though. All the Dee books are about the Judge investigating multiple mysteries at the same time (because it wouldn't make sense for the highest judicial and investigating official in a district to work on only one case at a time) and the first couple of books had these mysteries intertwine in suprising ways. But these mysteries, even though connected at some level, were often seperate storylines. Murder in Canton is promoted again as being a story of the Judge investigating three cases, but it is clear right from the start that these aren't three storylines that happen to be connected, they are all one and the same plot, just different ends and I wonder why Van Gulik so desperatedly tried to sell it as three mysteries again.

Of course, this wouldn't be a problem per se, but I thought that the (single) story of the disappeared censor was a bit chaotic and boring. Coincidence has always been a staple of the Judge Dee series, but Fate must have had a very busy day with Murder in Canton, and the story seems to meander a bit aimlessly in the middle part of the book. Also, some stories might work with midget assassins and foreign assassins and I'll admit that at least the special setting of Canton makes it somewhat more plausible, but still, I had to raise an eyebrow (figuratively speaking. I can't actually...). The confrontation at the end of the story is a great effort at bringing the cool logic of a Van Dine school novel in an usually more vague, intuition-based series, but it lacks a bit of convincing power, both seen as a 'logical' deduction scene, as well as a classic 'Judge Dee' confrontation scene.

I liked the multi-cultural aspect of Murder in Canton though, something also seen in some of the other novels (like The Chinese Maze Murders). And atmosphere and random trivia on ancient China is something Van Gulik, a famed Sinologist, always excelled in and he delivers in this novel too. No worries about that.

Overall I'd say I thought Murder in Canton was a mediocre Judge Dee story. It has some points that make it special, especially as it's set as the last novel and thus ties up some of the characters overarching storylines, but as a standalone mystery novel, I thought it a bit disappointing compared to earlier efforts.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Mysterious Eyes

気が付けば求めていて
同じじゃない愛すれ違う
形のないものに焦がれて
true heart of mystery eyes 
「Mysterious Eyes」 (Garnet Crow)

You were looking for it before you realized it yourself
And passed by a different kind of love
Longing for something without any form
True Heart of Mystery Eyes
"Mysterious Eyes" (Garnet Crow)

TheJapanese silver screen often features mystery films, but most Japanese mystery films are usually spin-offs of TV series (which in turn may be based on novels/comics). It's seldom to see a novel-to-film adaptation that skips the TV series stage, so I was fairly surprised by the subject of today's post!

Rinda Rika is the 'All-Round Appraiser Q', a specialist in appraising everything and anything. From the price of jewels to the authenticity of documents, she can appraise anything thanks to her amazing powers of observation and knowledge about pretty much anything. These powers also helped her uncover a jewel heist-in-progress. The owner is very thankful and reveals he is the Japanese agent who is arranging an upcoming visit to Japan from none other than the Mona Lisa. He sends Rika to Paris and the Louvre to take a test for determining the local curator be in charge of the Mona Lisa during its stay abroad. Rika passes together with Ryuusenji Misa, a specialist in art and they undergo even extra training in recognizing the real deal and fake paintings back in Japan, where people are eagerly awaiting the smile to arrive. But there is some secret hidden within the eyes of the Mona Lisa which proves even difficult to Rika in the 2014 film Bannnou Kanteishi Q: Mona Lisa no Hitomi, or the official English title: All-Round Appraiser Q: The Eyes of Mona Lisa.

All-Round Appraiser Q (Bannou Kanteishi Q) is a fairly popular novel series by Matsuoka Keisuke and while The Eyes of Mona Lisa is the first time the series made the jump to live-action, it's actually based on the ninth book (of twelve) in the series. Why an adaptation of a late entry in the series? Well, The Eyes of Mona Lisa was co-produced in both Japan and France, so they needed a France-related story, I guess. The film does feature some elements of the other volumes; a lot of the backstory as portrayed in the film, as well as Rika's first meeting with the journalist Ogasawa Yuto, is taken from the first volume.


As a detective series, All-Round Appraiser Q is not a particularly fair one. Like Sherlock Holmes' infamous Sherlock Scans, most of the deductive developments in the plot are made only possible because of the All-Round Appraiser's incredible powers of observation coupled with even more incredible and detailed knowledge about the most random things and events. There is no way a normal human being (the viewer) is supposed to solve this on their own and the series is more focused on making Rika look absolutely awesome with all her deductions.

Which can work fairly well. The Eyes of Mona Lisa for example has a great opening scene that shows off Rika's observational and deductive powers. It's not fair at all, but it does a good job at letting the viewer know how Rika's mind works and how she makes her deductions. Sherlock showed us that even super-complex-deductions-that-the-normal-viewer-can't-do-themselves can be fun if presented well and it works for The Eyes of Mona Lisa too most of the time.
 
 The middle part of the film is a bit slower, with less mystery-solving and a lot more normal art appraising, but is helped by a rival-figure in the form of fellow curator Misa. I guess that the dynamics are the same as in 'normal' rivalry in detective fiction and appraising is a lot like detecting, but because you don't see any reasoning of why and why they think picture X is fake and picture Y is real, the middle part can feel bit a boring. The finale brings everything together though and even though there are some hiccups in the plot, overall, I think The Eyes of Mona Lisa works as a light mystery film with an emphasis on the characters. Which is probably true to the original novels.


This film does feature some nice shots (of the pieces of art), and I think this was the first Japanese film to be shot at location in the Louvre. While story-wise, the narrative doesn't always provides the viewer with much to look at, luckily most of the visuals manage to do a reasonable job.
 
Hmm, now I think about it, a mystery story filmed at the Louvre about a secret hidden within the Mona Lisa... Sounds kinda familiar. The Eyes of Mona Lisa is quite different from The Da Vinci Code though, from how the story is told to the stakes in each story. The rather slow middle part of The Eyes of Mona Lisa is pretty much the opposite of cliffhanger-marathon The Da Vinci Code...

All-Round Appraiser Q: The Eyes of Mona Lisa is a fairly amusing mystery film that has an interesting angle with the art appraising story. And the Mona Lisa of course.  The plot occasionally stumbles over its own feet and for some, the appraisal angle can be a bit boring, but nice visuals and the not-too-heavy story did provide me with two hours worth of entertainment.

Original Japanese title(s): 松岡圭祐(原) 『万能鑑定士Q モナ・リザの瞳』

Thursday, January 15, 2015

End of the Line

今はもうレールだけが残されてるこの広場で
私はまだ列車を待ってる
この場所から離れゆく日 思い描き今日も待ってる
「Rusty Rail」(Garnet Crow)

At this square with only rails left
I'm still waiting for the train
I wait, thinking of the day I'll leave this place
"Rusty Rail" (Garnet Crow)

The upcoming And Then There Were None and Tommy and Tuppence series of the BBC might be the Agatha Christie TV adaptations that get the most attention in the Western world, but the last few months my attention was all focused on a certain Japanese production.

1933, Shimonoseki. Having successfully solved a murder case in a militairy camp, the great detective Suguro Takeru returns to Tokyo by the luxary sleeper express Touyou, which provides a straight connection between Shimonoseki and Tokyo. Because of full bookings, Suguro is unable to find a sleeping compartment on the train, but a chance encounter with his old friend Boku, who works at the Ministry of Railways, he managed to get safely aboard the Touyou Express. The train goes off in the night and Suguro and Boku enjoy a good meal in the luxary train, while meeting the colorful cast of fellow passengers. Among them is Toudou, an unpleasant businessman, who tries to hire Suguru to protect hem from a hidden enemy. Suguro declines, saying he only takes cases that interest him personally, as well as confessing to simply not liking Toudou, but the following day, the discovery of the corpse of Toudou in his sleeping compartment proves that he was indeed in grave danger. The express got snowed in, meaning the murderer must be one of the guests in the train, but who? It is up to great detective Suguro Takeru to solve this murder on the Touyou Express in the TV special Murder on the Orient Express (or Orient Kyuukou Satsujin Jiken).

Oh, what, Murder on the Orient Express? Yes, Murder on the Orient Express is a two-part 2015 TV special based on Agatha Christie's famous novel featuring the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. That fact alone might be interesting to a lot of viewers outside Japan, but in Japan, I think this special was especially anticipated because Mitani Kouki wrote the script. Mitani Kouki is a playwright/director, originally connected to the Tokyo Sunshine Boys theater troupe. Known for his comedic style, he has directed some fantastic slapstick-inspired comedy movies like Radio no Jikan (AKA Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald), The Uchouten Hotel, The Magic Hour and Suteki na Kanashibari. One of his better known plays was Juuninin no Yasashii Nihonjin ("12 Gentle Japanese"), a fantastic parody on the courtroom drama classic 12 Angry Men. But he is also an important person in the context of this blog: he wrote Furuhata Ninzaburou, the fantastic Japanese Columbo and Ellery Queen-inspired TV show (he also wrote the novelization of the first season, a translation of the first chapter available here) and he runs an interesting TV show called Sherlock Holmes at the moment which features not actors, but puppets! Anyway, I've been a big fan of Mitani for quite some years now, so I was very curious to this marriage between Christie and him.


Mitani's Murder on the Orient Express is a two-part TV special, each part more than two hours long. The first "night" (episode) aired on Sunday, January 11th and introduced the viewer to great detective Suguro Takeru. As you can guess from the summary I gave above, the whole plot of the original novel was relocated to Japan and instead of a funny Belgian with a mustache, we know have Suguro Takeru, a Japanese detective with a funny mustache. While all names have been changed to Japanese names, the new names are actually quite close to the original names (Boku instead of Bouc, Hirude instead of Hildegarde etc.). And while some might think that these kind of changes are always for the worse, but I think that last year's The Long Goodbye proved that it can work out perfect.

In fact, the first episode is too loyal to the original work and especially the 1974 film of Murder on the Orient Express. While the first episode is a pretty decent TV dramatization of the original story, it's almost impossible to detect Mitani's touch. Sure, there are the lush sets, the bright colors and the faces we've come to expect in a Mitani film (Nishida Toshiyuki, Satou Kouichi, Kobayashi Takashi and Yagi Akiko among others are familiar faces in Mitani movies). But almost everything, from the lines down to many of the camera angles and shots, seem to be inspired very much by the 1974 film adaptation starring Albert Finney. Nomura Mansai's Suguro Takeru (the Poirot substitute) is also very much like Finney's Poirot, down to the strange voice and occasionally weird expressions (though Suguro is even sillier than Finney's Poirot). In the end, I did not feel like this production did anything substantionally better than the 1974 film production it obviously was imitating. There's some good acting going on (like the 1974 film production, this TV special also features an all-star cast), but I was not a fan of Suguro himself (who was arguably the worst of the cast).


As a detective story, I still think Murder on the Orient Express is a very enjoyable story. Sure, the impact it had originally might have weakened a lot because the story is fairly well-known, but I still love the dialogues between the varied members of the cast, the way the investigation develops and the shocking truth revealed in the conclusion. It's a timeless story, I think, and I enjoyed it this time too, even after having experienced the story countless of times in all kinds of media.

Interesting was the fact that Murder on the Orient Express consisted out of two parts though: the first part is a complete adaptation of the novel and covers exactly the same ground the novel and the 1974 film did. So what was the second episode?
 
The second episode, which aired the following day on Monday, January 12th, is actually an inverted detective story and tells the complete story of Murder on the Orient Express the other way around, from the viewpoint of the murderer(s), starting with the motive and then all up to how the murder was prepared, committed and consequent happenings on the Touyou Express. It's a daring move, as I don't think there are many adaptations of mystery stories that suddenly change a 'normal' detective story in an inverted one.  Also, storywise it necessary has little to add to the story told in the first episode. but I thought this second episode was pretty decent. I can't say too much about it, because it would obviously spoil who's guilty of the murder in the Touyou Express and the set-up, but freed from the shackles of the original story and film, Mitani finally manages to sneak in a little of his own touch. A lot of Mitani's movies are about 'backstage' worlds: Radio no Jikan was about the production of a radio drama, The Uchouten Hotel about a hotel staff. So 'backstage' of a murder actually fits Mitani's interests quite well. It is definitely not the witty, chaotic comedy you usually associate with Mitani, but there are some heartwarming and funny scenes in there that are definitely Mitani, and still fit within the world of Murder on the Orient Express. The moments were Mitani and Christie both have a chance to do their thing at the same time are sadly enough quite rare, but those rare moments are definitely highlights. Also, I think that Mitani came up with better explanations for some of the events in Murder in the Orient Express than Christie did in the book, which are explained in this part.


I suspect that Mitani actually wanted only to do the second episode. Like I said, he has experience with 'backstage' stories, as well as inverted detective stories with Furuhata Ninzaburou, so I can totally imagine him proposing the inverted take on Murder on the Orient Express, only to be told by the higher-ups they want a 'normal' take of the story. So he then made two episodes.

The special has some great music tunes though and I was kinda surprised to see Kusabue Mitsuko in the role of Countess Todoroki (Princess Dragomiroff in the original): she often starred in Ichikawa Kon's Kindaichi Kousuke films. The overall production value is fairly good.

In the end, I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed in Mitani Kouki's Murder on the Orient Express. As a mystery story, I still enjoy it a lot, but the first episode is basically a copy of the 1974 film, with little new to add. Mitani's writing is nowhere to be seen and Suguro can be a bit irritating. The second episode on the other hand is highly original, being an inverted take on the story. It's here where he managed to add a bit of himself, but still, I have questions about the necessity of this episode, because most of the information given here, we already figured out in the (orthodox) first episode. The first episode is probably fun if you have not read the original novel or haven't watched the 1974 film, others can just skip to the second episode, I think.

Original Japanese title(s): Agatha Christie (原)、三谷幸喜(脚本) 『オリエント急行殺人事件』

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Phantom Fingers

"You don't stand a ghost of a chance, Yugi, because..."
"How many times are you going to use that line?!"
"Yu-Gi-Oh! Abridged"

Almost through my backlog of Japanese translations of (originally) English novels! I'll probably still occasionally get one if the original release is hard to get, but I have to say, it feels good to see the pile disappear, as it usually takes a lot more time / effort to go through a translated book.

The return of actress Vera Vane from Hollywood to her husband's side, the famous best-selling author Amos Cottle, is reason for a little party at his publisher's. To be exact: everyone who knows Amos is desperate to keep Vera away from Amos, because she has a rather negative influence of the drinking kind on him and they try to keep her happy with the party. A game of 'two-thirds of a ghost' is played (a quiz parlour game), but the guests discover at the end of the game that Amos Cottle has written his last word and has gone to join the heavenly scribes. Unwillingly though, it seems, as someone slipped some cyanide in his drink. Among the guests is the famous psychiatrist/criminologist Dr. Basil Willing, who will act as our detective in Helen McCloy's Two-Thirds of A Ghost (1956).

Through A Glass, Darkly was the first McCloy I ever read, about two years ago, and I quite liked the mystery with a supernatural twist. Two-Thirds of A Ghost has been in my to-be-read pile for a long time now, as I think I bought my used copy not long after reading Through A Glass, Darkly, but you know how things go. The first thing that I thought interesting was that the series detective, Dr. Basil Willing, actually acts as a series detective! Might sound strange, but I tell you, Willing's appearance in Through A Glass, Darkly is rather bland and subdued and during a book club discussion on the book, we found that actually most people didn't realize that Through A Glass, Darkly was a series novel starring Basil Willing ('wait, he's the protagonis?!'). Anyway, this time we actually see Dr. Basil Willing employing his grey cells from a relatively early stage in the story on and he keeps in charge throughout, so no confusion there.

What might seem a bit confusing, is the direction of the investigation in the early parts of the story. With a poisoning and a parlour game, I thought Two-Thirds of A Ghost would be about figuring out how someone managed to poison Amos during the game, but the main focus of this novel lies not there, but on a different problem that I'd better not reveal here. Willing's investigation is instead focused on literary detection: we follow him as he reads memos, notes, letters, book reviews of Amos' books and other texts, which also appear in the novel itself. And of course, through a close reading of these documents, Willing will discover something shocking that leads to the murderer of Amos. Literary detection is not an extremely rare thing in mystery, though the whole literary background of Two-Thirds of A Ghost does add to the experience. Literary detection is also usually not the most prominent mode of detection in most mystery novels, but I quite like the somewhat meta-method of mystery-solving.

Other examples I've discussed on the blog are the bibliomysteries Biblia Koshodou no Jikentechou ("The Casebook of the Antiquarian Bookstore Biblia") and Murderer's Items, which are often about the contents of the books in the spotlight. The most extreme example is Yumeno Kyuusaku's Dogura Magura, which might be about a madman trying to unravel a mystery through documents written by himself. Or another madman. Or maybe it was all a dream. Let's stop talking about Dogura Magura now before I get sucked into its spiraling madness once again.

McCloy makes great use of the literary background and it's not only just the mode of detection. There's also room for some literary criticism and topics like 'true literature', authorism and 'what sells' are featured quite heavily during the discussions between the actors of this story. Yet these discussions never feel unnatural, nor does Two-Thirds of A Ghost feel too much as a vehicle for McCloy to spout her thoughts, as these topics are naturally of importance to characters like literary critics, agents and publishers. I liked the final confrontation with the culprit also connected with these themes at some level, just like how Through A Glass, Darkly's ending also interacted in a meaningful way with its overal supernatural theme.

I like the overall themes of Two-Thirds of A Ghost, though I have to admit that especially in the first half of the novel, I was kinda bored as the story didn't seem to move at my prefered speed. But I guess your mileage may vary on that. On a thematic level, this is a good novel though.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Cloudy Skies

「あの、私は今から鹿児島にいくのですけど、どちらに行かれるのですか?」
「一緒だ! バカかてめえ。 鹿児島行きの便だろ、これ」
 『哀川鳥』 (サンドウィッチマン)

"I'm going to Kagoshima today. Where are you heading?"
"The same place of course! Are you stupid?! This is the plane to Kagoshima!"
"Aikawa Chou" (Sandwichman sketch)

Am I the only person who for a long time, kept confusing Freeman Wills Crofts and R. Austin Freeman? Also, I keep writing Will instead of Wills!

The retired Andrew Crowther's daughter Elsie has been in an accident in Paris, and now the old man, his son-in-law and granddaughter are on their way to France on (Freeman Wills Crofts') The 12.30 From Croydon (1934). When they arrive in France though, they discover that Crowther has not survived the jump over the pond. Flashback some weeks earlier, where we learn about Crowther's nephew Charles Swinburn and the imminent danger his factory is facing because of the Great Depresson. Pleading with his wealthy uncle doesn't help, as Crother thinks Charles isn't doing his best and he should try harder. But trying harder won't help a business that will go belly-up in maybe two weeks, so Charles decides that to save the factory, his employees and the chance to marry his love, Crowther must die, so he can inherit. Charles concocts an intricate plan to poison his uncle, which succeeds, but after the crime other problems pop up he hadn't foreseen, one of which the famous Inspector French.

Two years ago, I read Freeman Wills Crofts' Mystery on Southampton Water and I loved the thrilling inverted adventure. In fact, I loved it so much I bought The 12.30 From Croydon soon after finishing that book (a Japanese translation because I was in Japan at the time). And it took me over two years to read it. Well, it took me three days once I actually got started, but I have read the prologue at least five times the last two years... I should probably just read Crofts in English, instead of an old Japanese translation...

Anyway, so the only other Crofts I've read is Mystery on Southampton Water, which is very similar to The 12.30 From Croydon: they were published in the same year (1934), both are inverted mystery stories starring Inspector French, both are about a man trying to save a business in trouble, both plans initially work, but other unforeseen problems pop up that force the protagonist to take emergency measures..  So I am very tempted to compare the two novels, and in my opinion, The 12.30 From Croydon is the less entertaining one. Not that it is bad, but it I find it less alluring. One of the reasons I liked Mystery on Southampton Water was the tension of the story and the presentation: it starts out as an inverted mystery with spy-thriller theme, jumps to a police procedural part starring Inspector French and turn jumps back to a second inverted mystery plot, and even though the writing style (in the Japanese translation) was very bland and dry, I was still captivated from start till finish.

The 12.30 From Croydon however sticks with Charles for practically all of the story: French appears a few times, but he is only allowed to talk about his investigation in the final two chapters of the novel. Until that part, we just follow Charles in his adventures and even though there are some thrilling events after the murder on Crowther, especially past the 70% mark when everything starts to fall apart, the story misses a kind of tension because the reader doesn't know why everything is going wrong. Suddenly the police is very suspicious of Charles, and neither he nor the reader knows why. It just happens and the reader and Charles just have to sit still and accept it all. Of course, Inspector French does explain how he first came to suspect Charles in the end, but I didn't like the way the story suddenly switched to a very passive role for Charles.

In Mystery on Southampton Water, we saw a lot more of Inspector French's investigations, so we knew why he started to haunt the suspects. It's the same with Columbo: after the murder, the murderer and Columbo usually share screentime and we see how both sides react to each other. Tension is created, because the reader is aware of what is going on at both sides (to an extent), like seeing a chess game. In comparison, The 12.30 From Croydon is like watching a chess game where you only see the white pieces and you're only told what happened and where the opponent's pieces were after you lost the king. Emphasis lies on the criminal's psychology and the thoughts he has as he reacts to each new development, which can be fun, I guess, but I personally prefer the excitement of seeing how both sides react to each other, rather than just one side of a game with an inverted mystery.

The 12.30 From Croydon is an okay inverted mystery, but so many of its elements are featured in the more amusing Mystery on Southampton Water, I am tempted to say you're better of reading that novel than Croydon. If you're more into criminal psychology and so, Croydon might have more to offer than Southampton though.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

F Album

「命題は証明された」
『すべてがFになる』

"The proposition has been proven
"Everything Becomes F"

The TV series in today's review ended just before Christmas, but an animated adaptation is already planned for later in 2015. And there's a reasonable chance I'm going to watch that too.

Subete ga F ni Naru ("Everything Becomes F") is a 2014 TV series based on the S&M novel series by Mori Hiroshi. The series borrows its title from the first book in the mystery series (reviewed here) and adapts five of the ten novels (each story consisting of two episodes). Like in the original novels, Subete ga F ni Naru is about the often impossible crimes the duo Saikawa Souhei (assistant-professor in Architecture) and Nishinosono Moe (student) encounter (thus the name S&M). Moe is the one who gets interested in cases and tries her hand at solving them (helped by the fact her uncle is a high-ranking police officer), while Saikawa is usually just dragged along against his will. It is always Saikawa however who solves the crime, though he only does so because he is interested in the problem itself and wants to know the answer (and is not particularly interested in denouncing the murderer).

The mysteries often have an impossible angle to them and also often feature a scientific tone to them. The first novel, Subete ga F ni Naru, is well remembered as groundbreaking as a scientific mystery novel, as it incorporated elements like computers, networks, viruses and virtual reality in its plot, which was all relatively new technology to consumers when the book was first released in 1994. Mori Hiroshi has an engineering background, which apparently often comes back in his books (I haven't read enough of his work to really add to that).


The series makes a fairly solid start with Tsumetai Misshitsu to Hakasetachi - Doctors in Isolated Room ("The Cold Locked Room and the Scientists - Doctors in Isolated Room"). Saikawa and Moe are visiting a research laboratory where they witness an experiment conducted in a super-cooled room, with lab assistants walking in and out the room in body suits. Saikawa and Moe join the little afterparty, which turns into a grieving party, when they discover the bodies of two lab assistants who had participated in the experiment inside a locked segment of the experiment room. The problem: from the moment the experiment started until the afterparty, the single entrance to the experiment room had been under constant observation, so how did the bodies get inside?

This was published as the fourth book in the S&M series, but was actually the first story Mori wrote: the manuscript of Subete ga F ni Naru just happened to win a prize, which became his debut novel (he had to shuffle with his stories because of that). Anyway, the setting is pretty cool (observed experiment, bodies popping up out of nowhere) and while it's quite easy to roughly guess what has happened, I think as a first episode, Tsumetai Misshitsu to Hakasetachi does a great job at presenting a solvable, but not too easy locked room murder, as well as introduce the major characters of the series. I just thought it a bit of a shame that the supercooled room wasn't of real importance to the mystery plot: I had kinda hoped that supercooling something was part of the mystery. Because you don't see that often.

Compared to the first episode, Fuuin Saido - Who Inside ("Sealed Once More - Who Inside") feels a lot more old-fashioned. No scientists and experiments, but a cursed box and vase which has made several victims inside a locked room. During a visit of Moe and Saikawa to the family, the curse takes another victim, so the two decide to solve the mystery. There is one part of the mystery I absolutely love for several reasons. I have actually also played with a similar trick in my head, so it was pretty cool to see a possible way of using it in a detective story, but I also managed to catch on it quickly because of that. The 'type' of trick is something I'd associate more with Mori's 100 Years series, but it works quite well here too. I thought the rest of the story not particularly memorable though and the mystery around the cursed box a bit too unbelievable.


I refer to my review of the novel if you want to know more about Subete ga F ni Naru - The Perfect Insider ("Everything Becomes F - The Perfect Insider") in detail, but in short, it's about the murder of the genius scientist Magata Shiki (who will turn out to be a pivotal figure in all of Mori's series), who until her escape from life lived inside a locked room inside a laboratory on an island. Moe and Saikawa happen to be in the facility when the dead body of Magata wearing a wedding dress is discovered, but no murderer is found inside the room where Magata had lived half her life. And what was the meaning of the words she spoke to Moe: they'll meet when everything becomes F?

Underwhelming might be the word I'm looking for. This is a TV drama, so it has budget limitations, but I had always imagined something... grander and more hi-techy from this story than what was presented here. I do have to say, part of this is because the drama is set in modern days, while the book was originally published in 1994. In twenty years, concepts like computers, networks and Trojan Horse viruses have become common knowledge in society, but they talked about these things in this episode like it was all magic, even though it's set in 2014. It just doesn't work. Also the first episode did way too little to set-up the story, resulting in something that felt rushed. As a mystery story, Subete ga F ni Naru is still fairly cool (even if not completely fair in my opinion), but I feel this adaptation could have been much better.

I do have to say, re-experiencing the story made me realize Subete ga F ni Naru is thematically a lot better than I had remembered. Not that the themes are presented particularly well in these episodes though, it definitely needed more screentime to really develop. But it reminds of Kyougoku Natsuhiko's Mouryou no Hako ("Box of Goblins") in a certain way at the core, which is not a bad thing at all.


Suuki ni Shite Mokei - Numerical Models ("A Figure of Ill-Fortune - Numerical Models") starts with the murder on a model actress (and decapitation!) in a locked room during a figurine convention. The obvious suspect is the only other person inside the locked room, but he happens to also be the main suspect of another locked room murder that happened at the same time at his university. What follows is a mystery story that is more focused on motive than the circumstances of the double locked room murder (which is actually rather simple) and while not bad per se, these two episodes are easily the weakest of the whole drama. I do have to admit, the setting of figurine collectors is an interesting one and while it is quite different from 'usual' business of the S&M series, I quite enjoyed seeing this background.

The final story Yuugen to Bishou no Pan - The Perfect Outside ("Limited and Very Little Bread - The Perfect Outsider") gives us a parade of impossible crimes commited in an amusement park: a body disappearing from a church, a woman killed in her hotel room with the police standing in front of the only exit and a man stabbed by a ghostly walking armor during a virtual reality demonstration. The only thing Moe and Saikawa do know is that Magata Shiki (who appeared two stories earlier) is behind this all. The episode itself is okay, with a rather daring solution to all of the murders that is elegantly simple, but I have the feeling that it just didn't work really well as a TV episode. I usually try to look at tricks & stuff in mystery fiction seperate from the plot, but this was definitely a story that would benefit a lot from better synergy between the mystery and the theme/story and I have the feeling that this is in fact the case for the novel. I suspect that simplifying the plot for 2x50 minutes just didn't work well for this story, as the story felt a bit underwhelming, despite obvious points of interest that could have been much more (the same holds for the adaptation of Subete ga F ni Naru by the way).

All in all, Subete ga F ni Naru was a fairly decent mystery series. I haven't read enough of the original novel series to comment on how the adaptation was (though I do remember being surprised at Saikawa being a Windows user in the TV series), but I do have the feeling that some of the more interesting parts of Mori's books (themes like the exact sciences and parts about conciousness) didn't really work out that good on screen and at times the series did feel a bit lacking. That is, while the TV series was okay, I could catch glimpses of themes and ideas that I'm quite sure are developed better in the original novels. An adaptation doesn't have to be an 1:1 copy of the original, of course, but with Mori's stories, I often feel that his mystery plots do benefit a lot from supporting themes. If you have the chance, I think the books have much more to offer, but if the TV series is your only choice, it's an amusing enough adaptation.

Original Japanese title(s): 森博嗣(原) 『すべてがFになる』

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Purloined Letter

「何となれば、探偵小説において、第一の容疑者は九部九厘まで決して犯人ではないからである。数々のもっともらしい証拠を、その物語の残りの頁の厚みが、全能神のごとくに粉砕する。 (風太郎曰く、誰か、環に紙を綴じた、探偵小説用の円い書物を発明する人はありませんか?」
「厨子家の悪霊」 (山田風太郎)

Because in mystery novels, the first suspect is almost certainly never the murderer. No matter how much unmovable evidence there is, it will all be smashed in pieces by the wrath of the remaining number of pages of the story. (Is there someone who can come up with a round-type of book especially for detective novels, with the pages bound like a ring?, says Fuutarou). 
"The Evil Spirit of the Zushi Clan"  (Yamada Fuutarou)

Happy New Year! I'm kinda ridiculously far ahead with writing reviews, so I'm writing this very first post of the year 2015 in August of 2014. Who knows what happened between my writing this post and it appearing online?!

Kyozou Inraku ("Virtual Carnal Pleasure") collects nine of Yamada Fuutarou's early short stories, originally published in the period between 1947 and 1953. Unlike the Yamada Fuutarou short story collections I've discussed earlier on the blog (Meiji Dantoudai, Youi Kinpeibai), Kyozou Inraku is just a random collection of short stories, without any connection whatsoever between them storywise. Formwise, these early stories do already feature certain familiar tropes Yamada Fuutarou likes to use in his later detective stories and is thus quite interesting for those who want to dig a bit deeper into Fuutarou's writings. A notable omission in this collection is Yamada's debut story, Daruma Touge no Jiken ("The Darma Pass Case"), which dates from 1947, like many other stories in the collection.

One interesting motif in this collection is the use of letters as a plot device. Almost all stories feature a letter in one way or another and some stories consists even only out of letters, presenting the mystery and solution in one or multiple epistles. The opening story, Ganchuu no Akuma ("The Demon In Her Eyes"), for example, is one long letter, written by the narrator to his brother to explain his sudden flight from home. Like so many with Yamada's stories, his tale is that of unrequieted and unfulfilled love and it takes a while before a mystery of sorts presents itself to the reader. The basic premise is one Yamada Fuutarou simply loves and often reuses in different forms, and while this effort wasn't bad, Yamada has certainly written better variations on this story.

Renzai ("Sin of Love") consist out of a series of letters written to "Yamada Fuutarou", a certain famous mystery writer. An old school mate tells Yamada about how he happened to have met his old sweetheart, how sad he was to hear she was already married and the mysterious murder of the woman's husband some time later. He implores Yamada Fuutarou to help clear his sweetheart's name, who is the main suspect because she was the only other person in the house during the murder. The impossible crime aspect of the story is a bit unbelievable, but it works in the world Yamada has sketched within these letters and the story is actually quite well written, with the tone of each letter changing slightly, and with the reader's view on events described in previous letters changing with each subsequent letter.

I can't talk too much about Rounin ("The Wax Person"), as it kinda spoils the interesting points of the story, but it starts with the narrator receiving a letter from a friend who has recently died; the letter was written before his death. The truth behind his death becomes clear as he reads the letter. This story is more a horror-mystery story than a pure mystery story, despite the presence of a locked room mysery, but I quite like it.

Shisha no Yobigoe ("The Call of the Dead") is where Yamada Fuutarou goes Inception with the letter motif: it is (1) a story, where in (2) a letter is read, which chronicles past events, in which (3) another letter is read. So a story within a story within a story. The focus of everything is the second-level story, about the ex-husband who had been receiving letters from his deceased wife every week after her death for some years. The letters were without a doubt written by his dead wife, but can one really believe that the postman of Hades makes his round all the way to the world of the living? The mystery makes use of a familiar Yamada Fuutarou trope, but I liked it how it was done here and this story is fun to read, because as you go deeper in each level, you gain new questions and answers about the previous level. Kinda like how the consequent letters of Renzai work.

Letters are also used in Zushike no Akurei ("The Evil Spirit of the Zushi Clan") and Kokui no Seibo ("The Madonna Dressed In Black"), but less prominently: letters are usually just used to deliver the truth, rather than being a formal part of the story structure. Zushike no Akurei ("The Evil Spirit of the Zushi Clan") reminds of Yokomizo Seishi or Takagi Akimitsu, with twisted family relations, family curses about a one-eyed dog, logical chains based on the criminal's actions, but is nonetheless very Yamada Fuutarou-esque story. A lot happens within the just short of hundred pages though, a bit too much: by the end of the story, you'll have lost count of the number of surprise twists.

Kokui no Seibo ("The Madonna Dressed In Black") on the other hand is a very different kind of story, about a man and his relation with a female medical student who has to sell her body to feed her and her baby. The man especially feels attracted to the gap between the girl 'in the light' and the girl in bed. It would kinda spoil the story if I go on, so I'll just stop here, but once again a letter explains everything about a mysterious event later in the story. Truly shocking, it is not, but I liked the writing of the story: Yamada Fuutarou does these kind of stories about almost fetish-like love quite well.

Kyozou Inraku ("Virtual Carnal Pleasure") is one of Yamada Fuutarou's better known stories. Actually, all of the stories in this collection are well known, but this one in particular. A woman who has swallowed mercury is brought to the hospital by her little brother-in-law. The woman used to work there as a nurse and everyone is curious to what has happened. It appears the woman's husband was responsible for this, but why? What lies behind this initial event is a wonderful, but absolutely frightening spiraling madness which only Yamada Fuutarou could have come up with. Seldom have I seen such a motive, such twists in such short a story! It reminds of Rampo's ero-guro-nonsense ideas, but this goes deeper than Rampo, and the story actually works quite well as a fair-play detective story. Probably the best story in plotting and execution. And it has one of those titles that make absolutely sense in hindsight.

In Sayounara ("Farewell"), a town is evacuated and sealed because of the discovery of the Black Plague in a dead mouse. Two veteran cops who patrol the town think something fishy is going on and they get the shock of their lives when they realize that this certain part of the town, is built precisely the same as a town they both remember very well: ten years ago, during the war, they were trying to arrest two persons just as US bombers flew over the town and destroyed it completely. A whydunnit that isn't much of a mystery, but a very heartwarming, and heart-rending story.

Kiiroi Geshukunin ("The Yellow Boarder") is strangely enough a Sherlock Holmes-pastiche. Like Shimada Souji's effort, this is a funny crossover with Holmes and the famous writer Natsume Souseki, who had studied in London. Holmes and Watson take on the case of the mysterious disappearance of a certain Mr James Phillimore, whose name should sound familiar to Holmes readers. What follows is a story with many twist and turns, murder and a surprising ending, but I liked it more as a detective story than a Holmes pastiche. Not to diss Holmes, but this story was way too complex for a Holmes pastiche. As a mystery story, it's great though, I just don't think it really fits the form of a Holmes story.

EDIT: The Holmes story is available in English by the way.

As a collection, Kyozou Inraku has some great stories, but one can't deny that a lot of the nine stories resemble each other. Yamada Fuutarou really likes letters, twisted love (sometimes of the sadomasochistic kind) and a certain kind of story structure I can't specify for fear of spoilers, and while he can certainly do great things with these ingredients, it can become a bit boring if you are served the same constantly. I wish the editors had made a more varied selection of stories (of course, if Yamada Fuutarou's short stories are really all alike, then there's not much they can do, I guess...). I wouldn't recommend Kyozou Inraku as an introduction to Fuutarou's short stories (Meiji Dantoudai and You Kinpeibai are much better), but if you have already read some of his works and want to move to his earlier works, Kyozou Inraku is an okay volume. 

Original Japanese title(s): 山田風太郎 『虚像淫楽』: 「眼中の悪魔」 / 「虚像淫楽」 / 「厨子家の悪霊」 / 「蠟人」 / 「黒衣の聖母」 / 「恋罪」 / 「死者の呼び声」 / 「さようなら」 / 「黄色い下宿人」