"Art Thou An Outsider?"
"Sherlock Note - The School Trial and The Mystery of the Locked Room"
Heh, it's more than one year since this book was released. A bit late, a bit late.
In a world of crime, you need detectives to fight evil. And while it's awfully easy to become a criminal, the role of detective isn't something one can just roll into. Takatsuka High School is a special academy that teaches its students the art of detection: the children here are the future policemen, the future private detectives or even the future government detectives. The students of this school are naturally all rather clever, but even among these Holmes-in-training, there are those that get accepted under very special circumstances, the so-called "Altermates". These Altermates are not allowed to reveal themselves or to talk about how they got accepted, but every year, a certain logic game is held to welcome new students. In a school trial, freshman teams have to 'accuse' and 'prove' a certain student is an Altermate (prosecution), while an upperclassman has to debunk their position (defense). Naru is one of the new freshmen at school, and after a certain run-in with an upperclassman, he too is forced to join in the game together with his classmate Karan. Naru himself is definitely not a normal student though, as we learn more about his past and future in Van Madoy's Sherlock Note - Gakuen Saiban to Misshitsu no Nazo ("Sherlock Note - The School Trial and the Mystery of the Locked Room", 2015).
Yep, that's a Katayama Wakako cover (see for example, Yonezawa Honobu's Petite Bourgeoisie series). I love the art, but they do have a tendency to look alike.
I was thrilled when I first read the title of this new book by Van Madoy. Detective schools? School trials? Locked rooms? Van Madoy has not done much with locked room mysteries until now, but his Revoir series was all built around the concept of private trials and logical arguments and other deductions going back and forth. It showed how much fun the action of deduction could be, that sometimes a roundabout route to the truth could be enjoyable. The concept of school trials is something you might know from Danganronpa, but I had confidence that Van Madoy could do something cool with that too, going by his earlier books.
So I have to be honest and say that I was more than a little disappointed in Sherlock Note. I think the biggest problem is that Sherlock Note is conceived as a series, but that this first volume isn't strong enough on its own, and feels incomplete and at times simply chaotic. In the first chapter for example, Van Madoy goes a great length in sketching a detective school, complete with traditions, different kinds of students and a whole world behind the detective school (for example, a group of nine high-ranking detectives called the Nine Tailors). But all these concepts and ideas are all but abandoned in the rest of the book, as Van Madoy suddenly shifts the focus of attention elsewhere. What remains is a book that is almost shizofrenic, as plotlines, concepts and other ideas are constantly 'forgotten' as the story moves on. Sherlock Note falls between a short story collection and a normal novel, but doesn't make use of the advantages of either form.
The first chapter is the most reminscent of the Revoir series, as it revolves around the school trial and the Altermates. There is some interesting verbal dueling going on that revolve around deductions, but it is never as memorable as in the Revoir series (logically, considering the length of the story). The second chapter is the most like a 'normal' detective story, and revolves around a murder in Naru's past, but which is rather easy to solve. The last chapter deals with a mad bomber, who takes Naru hostage and also involves the solving of a kind of locked room mystery (how did the bomber survive an exploding room that did kill all the other people present in the room?). This story kinda reminds of Morikawa Tomoki's stories, as you follow to parties who try to outsmart each other, each picking up on the other's schemes. While it is a sound conclusion to the book, it does suddenly take the world of Sherlock Note to places I had not expected, in a not particularly positive way.
Comics have for a long time embraced the concept of serials and the Marvel movies too have shown how to do series of films that slowly unveil a larger world. Sherlock Note appears to be the home of a larger world for the reader to explore, and the book does attempt to capture that feeling of 'mentioning things that are revealed in detail at a later point', but this is not a succesful attempt. Instead of connected lines, we just have a handful of seperate points that do little to attract the reader. There's a fine line between 'vague enough to pique curiosity' and 'vague, so not interesting', and Sherlock Note leans towards the latter.
Sherlock Note appears to be going for simpler puzzle stories, but a bigger fictional world to explore. However, this first book in the series leaves the reader with more questions than answers, and it does not really satisfy as either a standalone detective story, nor as an interesting hook for upcoming volumes. I've enjoyed all of Van Madoy's previous books, but a second Sherlock Note will have to offer a lot more, in a different way, to be interesting for me.
Original Japanese title(s): 円居挽 『シャーロック・ノート 学園裁判と密室の謎』