Sunday, August 30, 2015

Growing of My Heart

「忘れ咲き」(Garnet Crow)

That day you looked all grown-up even though you were still a boy
I was unable to say goodbye, hidden beneath my umbrella
Misunderstandings, what-ifs...
Sometimes these feelings bloom late
"Wasurezaki" (Garnet Crow)

The last couple of years, I've been grouping reviews of the new volumes of Detective Conan together with those of The Young Kindachi Case Files in short short reviews, as their release dates were always on more-or-less the same day. But a slight change in publication schedules has come up, so I'll probably discuss two volumes of Young Kindaichi next month. Anyway, this is the first full-length standalone review of a Detective Conan volume in over a year!

Detective Conan manga & movies:
Part 1: Volumes 1 ~ 10
Part 2: Volumes 11~20; The Timebombed Skysraper (1)/The Fourteenth Target (2)
Part 3: Volumes 21~30; The Last Wizard of the Century (3)/Captured in Her Eyes (4)
Part 4: Volumes 31~40; Countdown to Heaven (5)/The Phantom of Baker Street (6)
Part 5: Volumes 41~50; Crossroad in the Ancient Capital (7)/Magician of the Silver Sky (8)/Strategy Above the Depths (9)
Part 6:  Volumes 51~60; Private Eyes' Requiem (10)/Jolly Roger in the Deep Azure (11)
Part 7: Volumes 61~70; Full Score of Fear (12)/The Raven Chaser (13)/Lost Ship in the Sky (14)
(You will find the links to the reviews of volume 70, 72~76, 78, 82~86, and the films Quarter of Silence (15), The Eleventh Striker (16), Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17), Dimensional Sniper (18) in the library)

With almost 90 volumes out, Detective Conan has become a rather stable factor in my life. Every two, three months I'll check whether a new volume with the pint-sized detective is out, order and read it, and then wait again. Rinse and repeat. The release of volume 87 took a bit longer than usual however, because Aoyama Goushou had to go to the hospital for an operation in March. While usually a chapter is released every week (meaning there's enough material for a new volume every two/three months), the series had to go into a short hiatus (which was filled with reprints of older Conan chapters) in March/April so Aoyama could recover. And with a delayed serialization of the chapters, volume 87 was also delayed slightly. Anyway, volume 87 opens with the last two chapters in the long-running Kawanakajima Murder Case which started the previous volume. As practially always with stories featuring Inspector Yamato and Morofushi of the Nagano Prefecture Police, this is a dark serial murder case: this time a cop-killer is on the loose and Inspector Yamato is the main suspect, as the case appears to be connected to the death of an old childhood friend of Yamato's, who was killed by a trigger-happy policeman many years ago. Meanwhile, Conan suspects that someone connected to the investigation might be Rum, a new Black Organization member.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed in the case actually. The story has some parallels wih volume 19's Naniwa Serial Murder Case, but never becomes really as exciting as that case. The solution to the case is also a bit convoluted: it includes vague mechanical tricks, but also hard-to-solve wordplay based on Japanese (war)-history. Granted; all cases with Yamato and Morofushi have to do with Japanese or Chinese war-history (often thematically), but this time it was going a bit far as the story expected you to deduce the identity of the murderer based on rather extensive knowledge of it. Also; the "could Yamato be a cop-killer (who leaves evidence)" plot doesn't really work here: it's already been established that Yamato and Morofushi are extremely competent and fair policemen who at times can even outsmart Conan. Even if either of them were cop-killers, they'd be much better at it! In the end, the presence of Conan wasn't really even really needed for this story, I kinda wish this had been an exclusively Yamato/Morofushi story actually.

A Blog Leading to Death is a rather standard howdunnit story: Conan and the rest of Detective Boys meet two actresses in a hotel: the two women are rivals, and co-star in a new TV drama shot at the hotel. Later, one of the actresses is found beaten to death in her hotel room, but her room key is found inside (and there's no auto-lock). Conan suspects the other actress is the murderer, but has to overcome two obstacles: how was the room locked from the inside and where's the murder weapon? This is not a particularly inspiring story, with basically all elements (including the trick) lifted from previous stories. Yet, there's something alluring in the fact as how Aoyama "updated" it all. This is definitely a 2015 story, and could not possibly have been written, 10, 15 years ago. Detective Conan has been running for over twenty years, and it is interesting to see how Aoyama keeps the series close to the modern day society, using concepts and objects from now, and not from many years ago. Still, I wish he had used these 'new' elements in an original story, rather than in a redressed old story.

With 87 volumes, I don't think you'd be surprised if I tell you I think the cast of Detective Conan is slighly bloated, but this is the first time in 87 volumes I had no memories whatsoever of a recurring character. Even after looking up in which volumes/stories she appeared, I still can't really remember her.

The concept of Ran GIRL & Shinichi BOY is also something Conan-fans are familiar with: a story set in the past focusing on the relation between Ran and Shinichi (before the latter was turned back into a kid and had to assume the Conan identity). Basically every Conan movie features some sort of flashback. Ran GIRL & Shinichi BOY is special in the sense that it focuses on the very first time Ran and Shinichi met. It is a cute story set at nursery school and has links with the everyday life mystery genre, with a young Shinichi having suspicions about one of the teachers at the nursery school.

This was a fun story: the plot structure is completely original and something Aoyama has never done before and it works out really great for this story. The mystery itself is a bit underwhelming (which is often with everyday life mysteries), but the storytelling really makes up for it. One big problem I have with the story is with how the kids are portrayed though. There is NO WAY kids at nursery school talk and behave like that. Shinichi in particular is obnoxiously impossible as a kid. I don't read Detective Conan for the realistic portrayal of children (c.f. the Detective Boys), but nursery school Shinichi is reeaaaaaally impossible to believe.

The volume ends with the first chapters of The Secret of the Big Couple, which in theory is about a murder on the owner of a restaurant, but in reality is about a rumor of soccer player Higo and idol singer Youko dating, and the hilarious jealousy of Mouri Kogorou (Youko's number 1 fan) and.... Haibara, who apparently is a really, really, really big fan of Higo. Seriously, I don't even care about the murder anymore, I just want to see more grumpy Haibara.

All in all a more-than-decent volume. Detective Conan 87 does start off in a predictable manner, which isn't really surprising after that many volumes, but Ran GIRL & Shinichi BOY shows that Aoyama still dares to do new things with his storytelling. Just looking at the puzzle plots, I'd say this is a below-average volume, as none of the stories have really shocking plots or tricks, but the second half of this volume shows so much potential for future writing, I can't help but feel pleased with this volume.

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン』第87巻

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Case of the Missing Lady

風とrainbow 追いかけて
「風とRainbow」(Garnet Crow)

Wind and Rainbow, chase after them
Like the seasons you see in your dreams
"Wind and Rainbow" (Garnet Crow)

Going through this book took me much longer than expected...

Three small-time ex-jail birds want to put an end to their criminal life by pulling off one big grand job. After deliberation, the three set their hopes on ransom money. They decide to kidnap the 82-year old Yanagigawa Toshiko, better known in Wakayama Prefecture, no, throughout whole Japan as "The Lady". Lady Toshiko owns huge tracts of lands and mountains in Wakayama and is easily one of the wealthiest persons in Japan. Her warm heart and caring for the local people also makes her one of the most admired people in Japan. And to the kidnappers, her fortune and her age make her the perfect target. But things don't go precisely as planned. Lady Toshiko manages to convince the kidnappers to leave her young companion alone in exchange for her full cooperation. Despite her age, the Lady also points out that their plan is full of holes and that the police will be on to them soon. But having promised her full cooperation (and a Lady's word is a lady's word), she agrees to help her three kidnappers in contacting the family and police for the ransom money in Tendou Shin's Dai Yuukai ("A Grand Kidnapping", 1978).

Dai Yuukai carries the subtitle Rainbow Kids, which is also the title of the 1991 film which has been released in North America. Dai Yuukai is also one of the best regarded Japanese mystery novels: in the original 1985 Tozai Mystery Best list, it ranked 12th, but it climbed to the 7th position in the 2012 version. 7th position of all time. So I had pretty good hopes that Dai Yuukai would prove to be interesting.

And it is. It is a very funny novel, as the reader soon finds out that the three kidnappers really aren't up to the job, but because the Lady promised to help them, she is in the end the one who plans out their whole campaign. Note that this is not about Stockholm syndrome: Lady Toshiko made a deal with her kidnappers and to her, her word is everything. In the course of the novel, the reader will also find out that Lady Toshiko's mind is at a much higher level than her social status and the schemes she comes up with to fool the police are quite ingenious. There is a certain chessboard atmosphere throughout the book, as the police and the kidnappers (Lady Toshiko) try to outwit each other and I enjoyed looking at the game as an onlooker, in turn trying to guess what each party was trying.

Dai Yuukai actually has a very unique position in the top ten of the 2012 Tozai Mystery Best: it's the only novel that doesn't feature death (Miyabe Miyuki's Kasha/All She Was Worth (5th) eventually features a death of sorts), while also the only novel that could be considered a humorous novel (some of the other novels in the top ten of course do feature some comedic parts, but aren't 'comedy mysteries'. Except for maybe Dogura Magura. But that book can be everything). So it is quite surprising it ranked so high.

Personally, I think Dai Yuukai is a fun mystery novel, but way too long for its own good. There are basically three important points in the book (the kidnapping, contacting the family and the exchange), but it just takes too long to go through those parts. The narrative would have been better in my eyes with fewer pages. I'm afraid to say I was a bit bored at the end, because the pace was just slow, even though the plot itself was still exciting. But of course, that's something where your mileage could vary.

Dai Yuukai is an entertaining novel, that could need a bit trimming perhaps. The 1991 film Rainbow Kids has been released in North America on DVD at one time, and the few scenes I saw make me I think it's a fairly faithful adaptation (and very well received), so I'd actually recommend going that route if you want to experience the story.

Original Japanese title(s): 天藤真 『大誘拐』

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Long Way Down

「親方! 空から少女が!」

"Boss, a girl came falling from the sky!"
"Laputa, The Castle in the Sky"

Note to self: don't forget annual viewing of Laputa, The Castle in the Sky.

The first death was thought to be a normal suicide. A lonely young man, living on his own, who jumped out of his apartment room. Sad, but not uncommon. The one thing that was uncommon was a sign that was drawn with lipstick on his forehead, resembling the Greek letter θ (theta). The second death raised questions. A nurse had jumped from the hospital's roof. Once again, not uncommon when viewed as a seperate incident, but there was a scarlet link: the sign was also found on the second body. By the third time somebody jumped from a high building with the sign on his body, the police knew these deaths were all linked, but how? Nishinosono Moe's interest in the case is piqued when she is told about it her friend Ai (her university was asked to analyze lipstick samples) and like always, she uses all of her connections and friends to get hold of the truth in Mori Hiroshi's θ wa Asonde Kureta yo ("θ Played With Me"), which also bears the English title Another Playmate θ (2005).

θ wa Asonde Kureta yo is the second book in Mori Hiroshi's G series, a spin-off to his more famous S&M series. But this book might as well have been just been part of the S&M series, because the plot of this novel is mostly driven forward by characters from the S&M series (especially Moe), while the proper protagonists of the G series (the students Megumi, Yamabuki and Kurage) have to be content with staying mostly in the back in their second book.

In fact, I'd say that to enjoy this novel to its fullest, the reader would need at least some of knowledge of the characters, especially those who hail from the S&M series. The cast this time is fairly big and they're basically all recurring characters from different Mori series (the S&M series, the V series and the G series) and while θ wa Asonde Kureta yo is readable even if you don't know anything about the series and its characters, you might have trouble keeping an eye on all those characters and the relations between them. I for example know nothing about the V series, but one part of the novel was obviously alluding to events and characters from that series and it felt like I was missing something. The previous book, φ wa Kowareta ne, wisely focused on its own protagonists, but this time the gloves are off and Mori throws recurring character upon recurring character at the reader. The reader is warned.

As a mystery novel, and specifically a missing link story (a mystery plot focused on finding a link between multiple victims), I was slightly disappointed in θ wa Asonde Kureta yo. The plot was very similar to a certain episode of a famous Japanese mystery show I won't name and while a bit of redressing can help, θ wa Asonde Kureta yo resembled that episode just too much, so it was quite easy to figure out the missing link (that said, I think that the mystery was simple enough that even without that foreknowledge, any reader could have guessed the truth behind the missing link). Like in the previous novel though, I liked how the plot developed through the discussions of the many, many characters. I've always been more of a 'theory' person than an 'crime scene investigation' person when it comes to mystery fiction.

Like φ wa Kowareta ne though, 'details' like motive and other little things are left vague on purpose in θ wa Asonde Kureta yo. Partly because it's just the way Mori's plots often develop: a big cast of characters all play amateur detective, discussing the case over and over, until the 'real' detective (Saikawa in the S&M series and Kurage in the G series) state their definitive theory. Theory, as both Saikawa and Kurage don't have any interests in solving the case in the sense of the police getting their hands on the culprit and figuring out all the details and logistics. Saikawa and Kurage just pose hypotheses based on the available information that can explain all mysteries. This is something I don't have any trouble with. But there are also other details that are clearly left open to be picked up in later entries in the series (or even other series?), which is a bit annoying, as I already think the G series feels a bit heavy on background lore. As a standalone work, θ wa Asonde Kureta yo does not satisfy.

While I quite enjoyed the first book in the G series, I thought that the second effort was a bit disappointing. θ wa Asonde Kureta yo is as a mystery not particularly exciting and it feels a bit alienating at times with characters from different series popping up. If you're well-read in Mori Hiroshi's series, I think θ wa Asonde Kureta yo offers great fanservice, but the downside is that it makes less accessible to the uninitiated. I hope the next volume is more enjoyable to read as a standalone mystery novel.

Original Japanese title(s): 森博嗣 『θ(シータ)は遊んでくれたよ ANOTHER PLAYMATE θ』

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Lady in Waiting

「星のかがやきよ」 (Zard)

Oh starlight, always shine upon us
On the childhood dreams I don't want to lose..
"Oh Starlight" (Zard)

Today a writer of whom I've read almost all his published works without me even realizing it.

A visit from the college student Aya means the end to the lack of clients for private detective Jinguuji Saburou. Aya is looking for her boyfriend who disappeared a couple of weeks ago. The only clue she has is a phone call she got after his disappearance, saying he was alright, but that he was being chased by some dangerous people. Fearing for her boyfriend's safety, but also wanting to protect his plea of not calling in the police, Aya decides to hire Jinguuji to find him. Jinguuji quickly discovers that the boyfriend was caught up in some kind of drugs racket, selling the stuff in secret as an extra to his part-time job in a club. The detective also finds out (the painful way) that a group of foreigners is also hunting for the boyfriend and realizes that he must work fast if he wants to bring the boyfriend back to Aya alive in Kodaka Kazutaka's Tantei Jinguuji Saburou - Kagayakashii Mirai ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou - A Bright Future", 2007).

Tantei Jinguuji Saburou is a long-running videogame series I've written about quite often on this blog. Since the first game in 1987, private detective Jinguuji Saburou has been solving cases mostly around Shinjuku, Tokyo on a myriad of game systems, always accompanied by a pack of cigarettes and jazz music. Kagayakashii Mirai is one of a handful of novels based on the series, originally published in 2007. Writer Kodaka Kazutaka is nowadays mostly known as the scenario writer for the Danganronpa game series, but he was also the scenario writer for the Detective Conan & The Young Kindaichi Case Files DS video game and several of the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou mobile phone games (some of the best, actually). Kayakashii Mirai is Kodaka's second attempt as a novel writer: he had written another Tantei Jinguuji Saburou novel one year earlier. Kodaka is mainly a video game scenario writer, which explains why all of his novels are based on video game series (two Tantei Jinguuji Saburou novels and Danganronpa/Zero).

As a detective novel, Kagayakashii Mirai is nothing special, but it also does nothing really wrong. It is really just what you'd expect from a Tantei Jinguuji Saburou story: a case that starts out simple but is soon revealed to be much more sinister. Like in many of the games, the case is linked with yakuza groups and the foreigners-in-Japan angle is also one occasionally seen in the games. I'd say that this is also what makes and breaks this novel: for the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou fan, it's quite fun to see the familiar settings and the familiar faces in this new and reasonably amusing Tantei Jinguuji Saburou adventure. It feels like a genuine Tantei Jinguuji Saburou story and I can easily imagine how this story would have been as a game. For readers who have not played any of the games and go in this novel without any kind of attachment to the series however, Kagayakashii Mirai is just an okay, maybe even boring mystery novel with little to offer. The original characters of the novel are passable, but little is shown about the recurring characters and that the reader might feel that they miss something. Kagayakashii Mirai does very little to attract new readers.

From a purely mystery plot angle, there is little remarkable about Kagayakashii Mirai. It's focused completely on the hunt for the missing boyfriend and I noticed a bit late that Jinguuji Saburou's presence in the plot is actually not that vital: he finally does something really important at the end, but for most of the investigation, he's actually not even needed as the plot would go the way it goes even without his interference! I was kinda disappointed that the plot was all about the search and there was little detecting or puzzle solving: the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou games that Kodaka wrote often featured puzzle plot mysteries and tropes like locked rooms and I had hoped that Kagayakashii Mirai would also be like that, but alas.

Something that bugged me was the third person narration. The games are always narrated in the first person. Occassionally you get to control someone different from Jinguuji, but it's always in the first person. Kayakashii Mirai however is written in the third person and it just feels wrong. The story also jumps between Jinguuji and the boyfriend, which also feels strange, for this never happens in the games (even if you get to control a different person, it's always someone on the investigating side). Of course, Kagayakashii Mirai is a novel so Kodaka can do differently from the presentation in the games, but still, I wish that he had at least wrote the novel in the first person, for that really adds to the whole Jinguuji Saburou atmosphere.

Overall, I think that Tantei Jinguuji Saburou - Kagayakashii Mirai is an okay Tantei Jinguuji Saburou novel, that for the most part manages to emulate the atmosphere of the games quite well, but I doubt it would really impress people who have never touched the games, nor will it convince them to try the games. But speaking as someone who has played basically all of the games, I can say I thought it was an amusing read.

Original Japanese title(s): 小高和剛 『探偵神宮寺三郎 輝かしいミライ』

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A Clue for Scooby-Doo

Warning: I wrote this post pretty much without any planning, so it might sound a bit chaotic. I probably should stick to 'safe' reviews.

What is a mystery story? I've always been partial to Edogawa Rampo's definition. "A mystery story is a type of literature that focuses on the amusement derived from solving a complex mystery (usually of the criminal kind) step by step, in a logical way". This definition addresses all the points I find important: the story must feature some kind of mystery to be solved, it is solved in a logical manner and it is fun. The definition also leaves room for variation: like Van Dine I'm always in for a body or two, but if the mystery itself is interesting enough, a lack of dead people certainly doesn't ruin my enjoyment of a mystery story. Logic is also relative and as long as the reasoning is sound within the confines of the story, elements like magic and unknown technology can still result in very good mystery fiction. As you can guess from this definition, I am a fan of puzzle plot mystery stories: "orthodox" mystery stories about giving the reader an intellectual Challenge to solve.

Fair play is often mentioned together with orthodox mystery stories. Fans of the genre have probably heard about Ronald Knox' Decalogue and Van Dine's Twenty Rules For Writing Detective Stories; sets of rules that are intended to make sure any mystery story is actually fair to the reader (i.e. it can be expected from a person with average to above average intellect they can solve the cases based on the clues in the story). Personally, I've never been really convinced by Knox and Van Dine. The only rule that should matter for a puzzle plot mystery story is whether it is fair, and while that is a very subjective criteria, I don't think a hard quotum on twins or hidden passages will help make a mystery story more fair intrinsically.

It is for this reason that for me, Ellery Queen is the pinnacle of the fair play mystery story. His early books features Challenges to the Readers: he would simply stop at a certain point in the story, address the reader directly and state that at that point, all the necessary clues to logically deduce the identity of the murderer were given to the reader. This action alone was more important to making detective stories fair than the Thirty Rules above. Here was an author who made it clear that all the puzzle pieces were in place at that point and that the reader wouldn't need to worry anymore about important clues dropping down from the sky at the last second. The reader could turn back the pages and go over everything again just to make sure. The Challenge to the Reader gave the reader a defined range and all the puzzle pieces and that relief of mind appears to me to be of more importance than knowing no Chinaman would appear.

But I think that Queen's Challenge to the Reader on its own wouldn't have been nearly as impressive without the types of clues and hints Queen utilized in his novels and I think that's a topic seldom addressed. His types of clues were perfect for the fair play model, because at the core, it was basic logic and inference. With Carr and Christie, you often need sudden genius insights or psychological analysis, both means which are not particularly 'fair'. With Queen however, the mystery stories are constructed as fair puzzles and if necessary, it's actually possible to solve them with simple determination, rather than a genius mind.

In early Queen novels, solving the crime = identifying the culprit usually boiled down to two basic questions:
1) What are the attributes of the culprit?
2) Who of the suspects answers to all of those attributes?
Sounds simple, and it is actually. Suppose you have a corpse who has been strangled to death by a pair of big hands, and all suspects but one are armless, you have a pretty good idea who the murderer is. Suppose two of them have arms, but you also know the murderer must have entered the crime scene through the little window in the bathroom, you know it was the midget and not the giant man. This method of determining the murderer is very simple in design and absolutely fair. No fantastical ideas or deep psychological analysis. You can just cross off a list of attributes.

Obviously, the trick behind the Queen novels is that is not that easy to figure out what the criminal's attributes are. Let us suppose for this text, that "a clue" is something that came to because of an action, or in-action of the criminal. "Something" is taken in the broad sense of the word, so it can be a phsyical object, but also a state or situation. There's tons of Locked Room Lectures out there, and I've even read essays on all types of mystery stories or typologies of motives in mystery stories, but I still have to read one on clues. So I sorta had to come up with one by myself  just now (probably full of gaps, but it'll do for the moment). Clues can roughly be categorized in these four groups:

The clue can be the result of an action, or in-action of the culprit. And these clues were left either intentionally, or unintentionally by the culprit (for convience's sake, we also assume the culprit acts logically and has a sense of self-preservation). Let's try to build on the example above (with the arms) to see how these clues lead to the murderer. Say the ringmaster of a circus was killed in his office room on the second floor of their sleeping/working quarters. Also, because of security measurues we know the murderer must be someone connected to the circus (because that's a lot more convenient).

1) Action/Intentionally: The handmarks left on the neck of the victim. The action is obviously the strangling and in this example, the murderer left the marks as is. We can assume the murderer left the clue=marks as were intentionally: if they really wanted to mask the fact the ringmaster was strangled, they could have cut the neck off and even if suppose there was nothing to cut the head off with at the crime scene, we can assume the murderer was aware of the fact marks were left on the neck and thus left it so knowingly so (even if under different circumstances, they might've cut the head off).

2) Action/Unintentionally: Let's use Holmes' curious incident of the dog in night-time. The ring master kept a dog in his office that hardly does anything dog-like, except for barking at everyone except a select few. The dog was still on the crime scene when the murder was discovered. Nobody heard the dog bark during the time of the murder. Thus the action of the culprit entering the room, plus the fact the dog did not bark, means the dog was on friendly terms with the assailant.

3) Inaction/Intentionally: A button was found lying next to the body, and it did not come from the victim's clothes. The location of the buttom makes it very unlikely the murderer missed it on the way out, so it was left intentionally. Apparently, it is a button from the jackets performers of the circus troupe wear and because of their line of work, it's actually quite common for them to lose buttons all the time. In fact, police investigation showed that everyone with a jacket was missing at least one button (and some of them recent). In this case, the murderer figured that leaving a button wouldn't be enough to identify the murderer (I ignore the possibility of it being a fake clue for convenience's sake).

4) Inaction/Unintentionally: Investigation showed the murderer didn't enter and leave simply through the office door, but through the bathroom door. Which in hind-sight, was a good move, because it just happens that that day a security camera was installed in the corridor. But only a select group of people knew it was being installed. So by avoiding the camera, the culprit also let us know he was in possession of that certain piece of knowledge.

So in our practice case, we've now got four clues that tell us about the attributes of the culprit. 1) The murderer had hands. 2) The murderer must have been on friendly terms with the dog. 3) The murderer was one of the performers (with a jacket). 4) The murderer must have known about the security camera to have acted like that. Note that 1, 2 and 3 are about physical and typical attributes of the murderer. 4 on the other hand is about knowledge of the murderer. In our case, it happens that there were only seven performers with a jacket on the circus site around the time of the murder. Only four of them were on friendly terms with the dog. Only two of them knew about the camera. And only one of those final two had arms. Ergo, the midget was the murderer!

Note that attributes of the other characters aren't clues an sich. Some might be called some form of foreshadowing, but the fact that the midget has arms isn't a clue on its own. It only becomes a clue in combination with the realization that the murderer must have had arms. Note that sometimes, it takes several more logical deductions from the initial clue to reach the correct attribute of the murderer (i.e. a dying message left by the victim could be an Inaction/Unintentionally clue, but you'd need to solve the dying message before it becomes a clue pointing to an attribute).

And the above was a simple example of how clueing and deductions work in Queen(-inspired) novels. There are thus two distinct phases: one is identifying the attributes the culprit must have. The second one is comparing those attributes to those of the suspects and eliminating the suspects until the murderer is left. Note that most of the time, clues tell the reader something concrete about the murderer. The murderer was left-handed! The murderer was color-blind! Or also very popular: the murderer must have known certain facts! The latter in particular is in my opinion a very rewarding type of clue. It usually takes another extra step to deduce the knowledge the murderer must have based on their actions, so when you do realize the murderer must have known about X because they did, or did not, do action Y, it feels very satisfying.

For me, Queen's method especially works because at the core, it's such a simple concept. You don't need Papa Poirot's insight in human psychology. You don't need the genius insight capable of figuring out two impossible crime situations and the identity of a Hollow Man. You just need to determination and a piece of paper to write a little list on. What did the culprit do? What does that tell you about the murderer? Who else has the exact same characteristics? Compare lists, cross off people who don't fit the profile and you're done. You know the murderer is left-handed? Go back through the story and make a note of all the characters to see who is left-handed. The culprit must have been at least two meters high? Check what is noted about the height of each of the characters. In my opinion, these kinds of clues (and method of mystery solving) are about as fair as you can get, as it mostly about combining facts in steps, and doesn't ask for leaps in thinking from the reader.

The thing about Queen novels (and of other people in the Queen school, like Arisugawa Alice and Norizuki Rintarou) is that to determine the culprit, you usually have to combine a lot of these attributes together in order to solve the case, resulting in long chains of deduction. You can guess that with each extra attribute, a story becomes more complex (and boy, these authors can come up with complex plots!), but the building stones of these deduction chains are always of the same variety and while it thus can ask a lot of patience of the reader, these puzzle plots can definitely be solved by going through it one step at a time. A clue of the sort of the slip-of-the-tongue ("Only the murderer would know that!") might be a lot more easier to comprehend, but is not nearly as satisfying as when you managed to combine facts A, B and C to infer X, Y and Z and in extension, the identity of the murderer. To me, this is an extremely fair way to do a whodunit story, because it's essentially a variation of the most basic whodunit possible: One person was killed by a left-handed person. A is left-handed. B is right-handed. There's no discussion about strength of motive here, or about whether someone has the 'mindset' to kill. Just means and opportunity.

On the blog I've often written about the whodunit / guess-the-criminal games at the Kyoto University Mystery Club (where many contemporary Japanese mystery writers originate from). Readers are given the first part of a whodunnit mystery story which ends with a Challenge to the Reader. Participants are challenged to find out who the culprit is before the time limit (usually an hour) and have to explain how they arrived at their answer logically. Most often, these whodunnit scripts follow the method as explained above, for the simple reason it is a very fair way to do a mystery story. Usually, you go through the text hunting for clues the murderer left behind intentionally or not, deduce the set of attributes the murderer must have and then compare that list to the attributes of each of the suspects. While it might sound a bit repetitive, the model has more than enough room for variations and there's nothing that beats that feeling when you've correctly identified all the attributes of the murderer and can logically declare that only X could be the murderer and nobody else.

Obviously, this method of clueing doesn't work well with all mystery stories. Impossible crime stories in particular often ask a bit of daring imagination of the reader, while in the clueing method above, imagination isn't nearly as important as simply being careful in noticing all the attributes. Though it is certainly not impossible to combine the two. Arisugawa's Sweden Kan no Nazo for example features an impossible crime, which is solved by the clueing method above. However, it is a rare example.

Recently, I've been thinking about The Decagon House Murders (for obvious reasons), which is modeled after Christie's And Then There Were None. The latter is a masterpiece of mystery fiction, but is it completely fair? The epilogue refers to three hints, but I'd say that at least two of the three are at the best very vague hints, while the remaining one would still ask of some (uncertain) imagination of the reader. Similarly I've seen people comment that The Decagon House Murders too might be not fairly hinted. True, I too was not sure whether it was completely fair when I first read the book, and unlike And Then There Were None, The Decagon House Murders does not end with a recap of all the important hints. But as I was translating the book, I realized it's probably a lot more carefully hinted than most people (including myself) would suspect at first. Sure, there are no obvious hints like handkerchiefs with initials or deflated balloons lying around, nor are there people who make a fatal slip-of-the-tongue, but The Decagon House Murders's main mystery can be solved by applying the deduction method explained above. By focusing on the actions the murderer took and the knowledge they showed they have, it's absolutely possible to solve the case, as the story is almost surprisingly detailed in its clues (as expected from author Ayatsuji, who wrote a lot of whodunit stories at the Kyoto University Mystery Club). The Decagon House Murders does not follow the method 100% and does ask of a bit of audicity in thinking at one certain point in the deduction chain, but you'd surprised at how much of the truth can be logically deduced by combining and comparing the attributes the murderer must have. The thing is; this is never mentioned within the story itself, so readers are very likely to miss it.

This post has become way too long as is, even though there's still a lot I could talk about: from the way this method of hinting/solving a crime works as a rough guide to mystery story writing to the significance of the 'fake/planted' clue; but I might do that another time. Anyway, clues, good. Any types of clues you particularly like or clues that made an impression on you?

Thursday, August 6, 2015


Glory spent many hours with crosswords, Double-Crostics, anagrams, and detective stories (the classic bafflers of the field--she had no use of the sex-and-violence or psychological mysteries that began to clog the paperback racks after World War II)
"Face to Face"

It's been many, many years, but I've finally worked myself through all of the Ellery Queen novels. Well, there's still the non-series Cop Out, the real crime based The Woman in the Case and the critical works left, but my primary interests have always been the writer Ellery and Drury Lane series, so now I'm done! Today, no less than three Queen novels in one post!

In Ellery Queen's Face to Face (1967), Ellery and the Scottish private detective Harry Burke have just returned from Europe when they are contacted by Roberta, a pretty girl who says she was once the lover of the infamous womanizer 'count' Carlos Armando, current husband of the famous retired singer Gloria Guild. Or to be exact: ex-husband, for Gloria Guild was murdered that evening. Roberta tells the two that half a year ago, Armando had made her an offer: she would kill Gloria (for Armando, as the prime suspect, needed an alibi) and the two of them could share the inheritance. Roberta refused, but now that Gloria has indeed been murdered, she is convinced that Armando found another silly girl that fell for the count's charms and commited the murder for him. Ellery and Burke try to find out who the mysterious aide of Armando was, helped by a dying message by Guild in the form of four simple letters: f a c e.

I have to admit that I didn't have very high expectations for these last couple of left-over Queens, for the simple reason that I had been going through them in order of interest and opportunity: I hadn't read these Queens only because they didn't look too interesting and I just happened to never come across them. But I concede, Face to Face was actually quite enjoyable. I do think that is partly because so many elements feel almost eerily familiar and whether you consider this good or bad: Face to Face is a rearrangement of previously seen plots developments and other elements. For we have already seen the dying message (oh so often with Queen), the love-stricken private detective helping Ellery (Terry and Beau), the dangerous womanizer, shenanigans with last wills, the mysterious person from the past popping up. Even the overly dramatic ending seems lifted from an older Queen.

But on the other hand, these elements do work fairly well together in Face to Face and there is a good pace throughout the story. Also, while the dying message 'f a c e' returns in the title and it is fairly important to the plot, it luckily is not the only element carrying the mystery plot: dying messages just don't do very well as cornerstones of novel-length mystery stories. On the other hand, the most vital clue to the solution is classic Queen and I quite love it. It is fair, it's almost in your face and yet so easy to overlook. The chain from hint to solution is a bit short and thin, but overall, Face to Face is more than decent.

The Last Woman in His Life (1970) is set just after Face to Face, with Ellery in need of a vacation. He and his old man go to good old Wrightsville, taking on the offer to stay in one of two holiday houses of John Levering Benedict, wealthy jetsetter and proud owner of no less than three ex-wives. Benedict, his laywer (and his secretary) and the ex-wives all gather in the other Wrightsville hideout, talking inheritance businesses. That night, Ellery is called by a dying Benedict, who leaves him the dying message 'home'. At the crime scene, the police discovers a dead Benedict and no less than three crucial clues: the wig of one ex-wife, the dress of another ex-wife and the evening gloves of the last ex-wife. But why these clues and what did Benedict mean when he said earlier that he had decided on 'the last woman in his life'?

Another Wrightsville story (by now Ellery should be denied access to the town), another dying message story and also one that shows that dying message stories don't lend them too well for longer stories. Stuff happens, discoveries are made, but ultimately everything can, and is revealed through Benedict's dying words. So a good part of the book feels like padding. The hint is too ingenious for its own good. There is absolutely no way that that particular sitation could have led to that particular dying message, despite Ellery's very very detailed explanation and his answers to all of the old man's (very natural) questions. The reasoning appears to be sound, but if you realize the utterance was made by a man dying with little time left, than it kinda falls apart. Also, the motive also makes the book feel quite dated. Good stuff is done with the wig, dress and gloves (reminding of an early Queen novel), but overall, I think The Last Woman in His Life would have worked much better as a simpler short story.

Middle-aged millionaire Ashton McKell, his wife Lutecia and their writer-son Dane may seem like the typical well-off family, but the three also form a triangle surrounding Sheila Grey,  the famous haute couture designer and self-made woman who occupies the penthouse in the same luxury apartment building where the McKells live. Sheila is Ashton's mistress, Lutecia is aware of her husband's infidelity with Sheila and Dane tries to steal Sheila way so his father returns to his mother. This sitation is of course already quite unsightly, but the consequent murder on Sheila Grey naturally does little to help it: investigation by the police quickly puts the initial spotlight on Ashton, but further developments make it hard to determine which side of the McKell triangle was reponsible for the murder in The Fourth Side of the Triangle (1965).

The Fourth Side of the Triangle was one of the ghost-written Queen novels: it was written by Avram Davidson based on an extended outline by, and also edited by the Queen cousins. It was also turned into the pilot film Too Many Suspects of the excellent Ellery Queen TV series starring Jim Hutton. In fact, I like the Too Many Suspects version better than the original novel version. Both versions are not particularly inspiring stories, but there are quite some setting changes between the two. The ending of the original novel however is just disappointing: a deus-ex-machina just pages before the ending leads to the solution and basically everything you've read feels like a waste of time because if a decisive clue is coming falling out of the sky anyway, at least do it right away after the murder and don't try to fill up time with plot developments that prove to be useless. This is luckily changed in Too Many Suspects and while still a bit shakey on the question if it's completely fair, it's doing a lot better than the novel and looking at the whole of things (for example, the new solution ties in wonderfully with the TV/radio setting often utilized in the Ellery Queen TV shows), I think Too Many Suspects is the superior version.

I knew from the start that I wouldn't find The Greek Coffin Mystery-quality mystery novels in these remaining three Queens, but I have to say, I was quite surprised by Face to Face. The rest isn't really must-read material, unless you're trying to go through all of Queen. Anyway, that was it for today and so long Queen, thanks for all the fish.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Nostalgia Station

オレンジ色した極楽特急に乗り込んで 彼に会いに行くよ
心がここにない私にね 何言ってもムダだよ 
「恋の極楽特急」 (小島麻由美)

I jump in the orange Heaven's Express of love to go see him
I fly across stations with tremendous speed
to that little room
It's no use talking to me, my mind isn't here anymore
"Heaven's Express to Love" (Kojima Mayumi)

Each time I read an alibi deconstruction story, I chuckle, thinking how horribly impossible it would be to pull one off perfectly with the Dutch railways.

Nishinohata Gousuke, owner of the Touwa Spinning Company, may have won the battle against the labor union and their strike, but he lost something more important: his life. The body of the much-hated C.E.O. was found on the tracks of a train and after blood was discovered on top of a train carriage, the police managed to figure out that the man was shot and thrown off a bridge, on top of a riding train. The case starts easy enough, but the police soon finds out that Nishinohata had more to fear than just the labor union: the Shaman, a shady new religion, was also after his head. But even though there are a lot of suspects and an abundance of significant clues, perfect alibis and dead ends forces the investigation into a wall. That is, until Inspector Onitsura is set on the case in Ayukawa Tetsuya's Kuroi Hakuchou ("Black Swan", 1960).

This year is rather heavy on alibi deconstruction stories, it seems: there was that little Crofts boom I had early in the year, and Matsumoto Seichou's Jikan no Shuuzoku a couple of months ago. Ayukawa Tetsuya was also famous for his alibi deconstruction stories (as well as impossible crimes and guess-the-criminal stories... I guess he did everything). Three years ago, I reviewed Kuroi Trunk ("The Black Trunk"), which was also an Inspector Onitsura case and a great, but perhaps too complex an alibi cracking story involving the movements of a black trunk containing a dead body across Japan. In Kuroi Hakuchou, the movements of a dead body by train once again forms the focus of the investigation, but the atmosphere is completely different from Kuroi Trunk. The investigation itself does bring Onitsura to Kyoto and Fukuoka (Kashii!), and I am starting to suspect that famous Japanese alibi deconstruction stories have a rule about featuring both Tokyo and Fukuoka (Ten to Sen, Jikan no Shuuzoku and Kuroi Trunk).

And the change is sometimes good, sometimes not as good. For example, Kuroi Trunk was way too focused on just the movements of the titular trunk, and it resulted in an investigation where the police would try to determine the exact location of the trunk down to the minute, across a space of Tokyo-Fukuoka (for those who don't know: it's a very large distance in time and space). It was at times too specific, too detailed and too focused. Kuroi Hakuchou on the other hand features a much more varied investigation, with lots of clues in different directions and even a much more dynamic way of presentation: in the course of the book, no less than three parties contribute to the hunt for the murderer, with series detective Onitsura only making his late first appearance in the second half of the story. The flow of the story thus does more to attract the reader: oh, this clue leads to a dead end? Let's go in this direction then? Oh, this gave us a new suspect, let's go in that direction for a bit, etc. On the other hand, especially in the first half of the novel I had the feeling the story wasn't moving forward at all, only sideways, which I thought a bit tiring and boring. The jumping between investigating parties was also part of that; especially as I had to wait half the book for Onitsura to appear.

I remember that in most of the Crofts I read, Inspector French also arrived late on the scene, but the story set-up was also quite different from Kuroi Hakuchou. Most of them were inverted mystery stories, so it was all lead-up to the murder and painting the scene. In Kuroi Hakuchou however, the murder happens very early in the book and it starts almost right-away with an investigation; it's just that Onitsura isn't called for until in the second half.

Which reminds me, I knew this was an alibi deconstructing story when I bought it (that was all I knew about it), but I loved how Ayukawa Tetsuya still presented Kuroi Hakuchou as a full-fledged whodunnit story. A lot of alibi-cracking stories give you an obvious murderer and focus completely on deconstructing his/her alibi, but in this story, you'd vagely guess that there was an alibi trick pulled off somewhere by someone, but the when and who were equal parts of the mystery besides the how. I'll be honest and say I was first looking at the wrong suspect, as he was the first to have a perfect alibi in the story, and well, considering all I knew about the book was that it was an alibi deconstruction story, it was natural for me to suspect him, right? Of course, this was completely my mistake, but I love it when mystery stories try to present themselves as one type of mystery story, when they are in fact another (i.e. making one trick appear to be another). There are some great ones there (which I can't name by title because it would spoil the fun), but playing with expectations at a meta-level is something I always appreciate.

Oh, by the way, I kinda liked how just like in Kuroi Trunk, this book is based on the actual train time tables at the time and that the time tables are also included in the book. Maybe it was just Matsumoto Seichou and Ayukawa Tetsuya, but it's interesting to note that the tricks in their stories were actually based on the actual time tables and could all actually be pulled off back when they wrote the stories (the one in Matsumoto's Ten to Sen in particular is very famous, but that one became impossible I think quite soon after publication). Not sure actually whether I've seen that with Western writers, now I think about it.

At the very end of the story, a minor hint is revealed to Onitsura (and the reader), which I actually quite love, but it's almost impossible to pull off good in the form of a novel. Really a shame, because the hint itself is good and deliciously hard to spot, but fair, but it just doesn't really work here. It almost feels like Ayukawa just used the hint because he liked it, rather than that it really added to the story, but it is the one element in the book that really made me wish there was an adaptation of this book for screen/big screen/radio/whatever.

I quite enjoyed Kuroi Hakuchou as a very competently written alibi-deconstructing whodunni. I do think I like Kuroi Trunk more, but I think that for most readers, Kuroi Hakuchou is probably the better one because it is much more varied and simply more enjoyable to read as a story.

Original Japanese title(s): 鮎川哲也 『黒い白鳥』