Friday, April 28, 2017

Recall THE END

あの日少年の君が大人びてみえて
さよならも言えず傘に隠れた
すれ違いもしも・・・なんてことを
時に忘れ咲き
「忘れ咲き」(Garnet Crow)

You were still a boy that day, even though you looked grown up
Hiding behind your umbrella unable to say goodbye
As we passed by each other... What if... sometimes these memories
start blooming again
"Blooming Late" (Garnet Crow)

The twenty-first theatrical release of Detective Conan, The Crimson Love Letter, has been released in Japan already, but like previous years, I won’t be able to see it until the home-video release much later this year (probably somewhere between late October ~ early December). This year’s film is penned by Ookura Takahiro, a mystery author who has also written two episodes for the animated TV series of Conan (one of them being a companion episode to the film). I’m quite interested to see how the film will turn out, especially after the overly action-oriented instalment of last year (which I did enjoy though). But for now, I’ll just have to do with the latest volume of the manga.

Volume 92 of Detective Conan (released in April 2017) opens with the conclusion to The Message In The Fitting Room, which started in the previous volume. Ran, Sonoko and Sera are out shopping for beachwear in the mall when a murder is discovered inside a clothing boutique: one of the customers has been strangled to death inside the fitting room. The only clues are a mysterious sign the victim left with her fingers, and the fact an unknown user of the stall next to the victim (identified by her white sandals) has disappeared from the boutique. This story is by no means a memorable story, and mainly serves as an introduction for the next story. The dying message left by the victim is based on an interesting cultural difference which I think is certainly not an unknown fact, so it avoids the trap of feeling like a story based on obscure trivia. The story also makes use of an object I knew absolutely nothing about, but which is probably common knowledge for those of the opposite sex, as the story itself points out, and I thought it was pretty clever how it was used in several ways. Not only is it a crucial part of how the murder was committed, it also serves as a further justification to set this story in a clothing boutique, instead of any other place with dressing rooms/stalls. But to be honest, The Message In The Fitting Room’s true meaning lies somewhere else. Ever since the introduction of Sera Masumi in volume 73 (2011), our female high school student detective has shown an unusual interest in Conan and has hinted throughout that she knew Conan from somewhere. We were also made aware of her family ties to several other major characters in the Conan-verse, especially her two brothers. Conan never could recall where he might’ve met Sera before, but in The Message In The Fitting Room, Sera intentionally jogs Conan’s memory by trying out a bathing suit with a familiar look and the waves of memories finally reaches the shore of Conan's mind.

Memories of the Waves is set ten years in the past, long before Kudou Shinichi was turned into a child detective, and even before he had honed his deduction skills to the fullest. It’s a day out at the beach for six-year old Shinichi and childhood friend Ran (accompanied by Shinichi’s mother). All the people on the beach are shocked when they become witness of a car crashing off a cliff, diving deep into the sea. The first to move is a young man with a sharp look in his eye, who manages to get the driver out of the car, even if it is already too late for him. Based on the bag filled with new watches in the car, the mysterious young man deduces that the victim had just robbed a watch shop, and judging from the open window of the passenger’s seat, our hero also surmises that an accomplice managed to escape the car before he dove down to it. With the help of his younger sister Masumi and her two new friends Shinichi and Ran, he quickly manages to identify three men and women who might possibly be the accomplice, trying to escape from the beach and the police. But are there enough clues to find out which of the three is the real robber?

Of course there are, or else it wouldn’t be Detective Conan. Memories of the Waves takes the form of the familiar which-of-the-three set-up so often used in this series. I did really like this one though: it is certainly not a complex story (these which-of-the-three ones seldom are), but the main hint is brilliant: not only does it makes very good use of the visual medium, there’s wonderful synergy with the other underlying parts of the mystery. A mystery story often consist out of several elements, which don’t always need to have synergy. To take the previous story: the dying message and the sandal clue in The Message In The Fitting Room are two separate strands of clues,  two entities that exist because of different reasons, and point at the murderer from different angles. Memories of the Waves on the other hand has several clues pointing at the robber, but these work even better taken together, because they are interconnected. Clue A exists and is valid, also because of the existence of clue B and vice versa. Both The Message In The Fitting Room and Memories of the Waves are basically which-of-the-three stories, but the synergy is really what sets the latter high above the former.

Well, that and the fact Memories of the Waves gives answers to questions which readers have been asking about ever since Sera’s introduction in volume 73, especially concerning her family (which she hinted about a lot) and her connection to Conan. While it is a short story, it manages to give a wealth of background information about her and the rest of her family, the most important member being her eldest brother Akai Shuuichi, who has been a major character in the series for ages. Family ties that had only been hinted at are now clearly revealed, which have their own set of implications. During these scenes of interaction between a younger Masumi, her two Shuu brothers and her mother, we are not only given a fresh look at some characters in a way we had never seen, we are also given much more insight in what drives the Akai family, and why the individual members are all acting the way they are acting in the present. This story is therefore an important stepping stone in further developing the story.

We are brought back to everyday life in The Whereabouts of the Horse Stubs: a chance winning at the horse races has Kogorou bringing Ran and Conan to a sushi restaurant. There they meet with the new cook Wakita, an elderly man with buck teeth and an eye-patch. The eye-patch puts Conan on guard, as he has been aware for quite some time now that the number two of the Black Organization, code-named RUM, is planning something, and the one clue Conan has to RUM’s identity is that they have a fake eye. Wakita claims to be a fan of mystery fiction and is also very interested in Kogorou’s exploits as a detective, which worries Conan, but those worries are forgotten for a while when a woman barges in the restaurant and retrieves her handbag from the toilet. The woman claims a pickpocket got her bag with a winning horse stub, but she managed to find her bag through the tracking application on her phone. The fact the bag was hidden in the toilet means the thief must have entered it, and none of the customers have left in the meantime, meaning one of the three customers besides Conan’s party must be the thief. Cook Wakita challenges Kogorou in a detective face-off, hoping to see Kogorou’s brains in action. And yes, this is another which-of-the-three story. The main clue is… I’m not sure it’s completely fair. I figured it out, but I truly doubt the knowledge needed to figure that clue out is common knowledge. Perhaps in Japan. That said, the setting of a sushi restaurant is absolutely perfect for this trick and it even includes a nice false solution. So not a bad story, but your enjoyment can vary depending on how ‘fair’ you’d consider it.

The Truth Behind the Fair Hand is the last complete story in the volume, and shows us more of the new assistant teacher Wakasa in Conan’s class (who was introduced in the previous volume). Conan and the other Detective Boys are visiting their teacher in her own apartment room, because she needs their help repainting a stage play background she had accidently covered with paint. Her neighbour is a professional golfer who has recently won his first title. Loud noises bring the Detective Boys and their teacher to his apartment, and they find two figures lying on the ground: the pro golfer has been knocked out, but his girlfriend has been murdered. Two Polaroid pictures are left on the crime scene, showing the unconscious golfer and his dead girlfriend lying on the floor, and a woman’s hand reaching out to write “Love You ♡” on the golfer’s cheek with lipstick. The police conclude that a stalker might’ve killed the girlfriend out of jealousy, but Conan suspects something fishy is going on. The trick behind the Polaroid pictures is ridiculously simple, but I still liked the story for several reasons. Not only does the story flesh out the mysterious teacher Wakasa more between the mystery plot scenes (the reader knows there’s much more behind her than just her clumsy teacher façade), the story is also very contemporary, going into the topic of selfies and ‘fake girlfriend pictures’ (which are, as Haibara explains early in the story, fake selfies taken by men to that make it seem like they’re with a girlfriend). Mystery fiction (in all media) don’t always use these contemporary social and technological developments up to their fullest potential, but Detective Conan usually makes good use of these trends to come up with stories that truly feel like modern stories (of course, they’ll feel outdated in twenty years, but it’s great reading them now). An argument can be made to make detective fiction feel as timeless as possible, but I feel that that mystery stories that make good use of the latest trends deserve a worthy place.

Volume 92 ends with the first chapter of Three Detectives and Hyakunin Isshu, which has Conan, Kansai-bred high school student detective Hattori and the mysterious secret agent/Poirot employee Amuro hanging out at the restaurant Poirot when a murder happens there during a blackout. As this is just the first chapter, there’s little to say about it, except for the fact that I think this is the first story where Hattori and Amuro actually meet. Oh, and Hyakunin Isshu is also a theme in Detective Conan: The Crimsom Love Letter, but like I mentioned at the startof this post, I won't be able to see that until much later this year.

None of the stories included in Detective Conan 92 are really complex as mystery stories (and not all of them are even murders), but nonetheless, I really enjoyed this volume. Most of the stories are constructed very well despite the simple plots behind them, and they really shine in the department of synergy: author Aoyama is not only telling a standalone mystery tale, he also interweaves those separate plots with his own grander story and his characters. Memories of the Waves is not only a well-constructed tale of detection, it also fleshes out several characters, revealing new truths and having implications for future instalments. The Whereabouts of the Horse Stubs is not only a fairly entertaining tale set in a sushi restaurant, it is also heavily connected with the RUM sub-story plot as it introduces a new one-eyed character who will no doubt return in future volumes. Even a simple story like The Truth Behind the Fair Hand serves as a tool to reveal more about assistant teacher Wakasa, whose role in the story is still not clear. There’s not a lot actually happening in Detective Conan 92, but Aoyama is clearly setting things up for future developments and the anticipation, the tension can be felt throughout this volume.

The next volume will be released in July already, a month earlier than the usual schedule. Oh, and July will feature the release of volume 5 of Magic Kaito, the series where the popular character Kaitou KID originates from (most people know him from his numerous guest appearances in Conan, but he's actually an older character). It’s been ten! years since the last volume, so I’m really looking forward to it! I’ll probably review that one too when the time comes.

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン』第92巻

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Daydreamin'

日本の未来は(Wow×4) 
世界がうらやむ(Yeah×4)
「Love Machine」(モーニング娘。)

The future of Japan (Wow x 4)
Will make the world jealous (Yeah x 4)
"Love Machine" (Morning Musume)

I had to think of Huis Ten Bosch while reading this book. It's always weird to see how 'outsiders' (people from other countries) view your own country.

Sam's stepmother Kazumi had only been part of his life for a short period, until a tragic traffic accident ended her life, but she had always remained a big influence on his life, sparking an interest in Kazumi's home country of Japan and its culture. Many years later, Sam finally hit a stop in his life, and he decides now might be the time to move to the country of his dreams. A letter to his stepuncle is answered with warm words of welcome, so Sam takes on his mother's family name, and makes the cross to Japan as Tokyo Sam. Arriving in Kannon City, a harbor city known for its gigantic statue of the Bodhisattva Kannon (which also serves as a lighthouse), Sam learns that while he might know a lot about Japan from his studies in the States, there are still many mysteries to be uncovered about the Japanese culture and its people. Yamaguchi Masaya's Nihon Satsujin Jiken ("The Japan Murder Case", 1998) chronicles three of Tokyo Sam's adventures.

The book starts with an introduction saying that author Yamaguchi discovered the original The Japan Murder Case novel in a second hand store and that the work made an impression on him. The book was set in Japan, but it was a very weird Japan, as it was written by "Samuel Heart", an American who got all his knowledge on Japan from books and stuff, but who had never visited the country itself. It was a Japan as envisioned by someone who simply threw all the 'cool Japanese stuff he knew' together, with a good dash of misunderstandings about the culture. For example, the book was set in modern times, but there were still samurai walking around, and everybody had weird names like Tokyo. Nihon Satsujin Jiken is supposed to be the Japanese translation of the book.

Okay, of course, this tale about Heart and The Japan Murder Case is just a framing device, but it's a fun one! It's basically making fun of how people outside Japan see Japanese culture, with people constantly spouting haiku, or talking about zen and samurai spirit. The book is set in a distinctly Orientalist portrayal of Japan, but it does that on purpose, which makes it quite hilarious at time. I have read other books which do the Orientalist angle seriously, so Nihon Satsujin Jiken was certainly recognizable.

The book starts with Bishou to Shi to ("With A Smile and Death"), which is about Tokyo Sam's trip to Japan and his first few days in Kannon City. During his boat trip from Tokyo to Kannon City, Sam became acquainted with a family of three. Later, Sam discovers that this family was staying in the same Traditional Japanese Inn, but tragedy had already struck by then: the father had commited harakiri (ritualistic suicide) to atone for the sin of offending his boss Lippert, but also to make his boss promise he wouldn't lay off the employees at the branch he managed. The harakiri ritual was held in the room at the inn, and people saw Lippert leaving the inn with the head (in a box). Lippert however disappears in the night, with the head. Sam however deduces something else happened and while the solution is not super surprising, this story is fairly well hinted, and what's more important, it actually makes great use of the setting.

The exaggeration of "Japanese Culture" in this novel isn't just for shows, it's actually an integral part of the plot. The theme of harakiri and the concept of honor is very idealistic, but it is used as a proper clue. In a way, Bishou to Shi to, like the whole book actually, is like one of those fantasy mystery novels I like so much, where you have supernatural settings that still work perfectly as fair-play mysteries, because the rules are clearly defined. Here too, everything is kinda set in a 'fantasy' setting (a highly romanticized Japan).

The wabi in Wabi no Misshitsu ("The Locked Room of Wabi") refers to the Japanese concept of 'seeing beauty in sorrow and sadness'. Tokyo Sam is invited to attend to a traditional tea ceremony. The person presiding the ceremony is in heavy struggle with his fellow disciple to inherit the clan name and tension can be felt throughout the ceremony. After the ceremony, Sam and his companion Ekubo remember they left something in the ceremony room, but find it locked from the inside. They eventually break the door open, and find the ceremony master dead, stabbed in his back. The room was locked from the inside, so how could this have happened? This story is a bit disappointing. The final solution is rather elementary, and even features elements that simply couldn't have happened. What sorta saves this story are the fake solutions Tokyo Sam and Ekubo think off: some of these 'fake' solutions would've been great real solutions actually. This story is also heavily steeped in (exaggerated) Japanese Culture, but overall not as satisfying as a mystery story compared to the first one.

Tokyo Sam visits Kuruwa Island, an island dedicated to providing adult entertainment in Fushigi no Kuni no Arinsu ("Arinsu in Wonderland"). He gets acquainted with Arisugawa, one of the more popular oiran (courtesans) in the district. The next morning, Tokyo Sam awakes to find his clothes gone and Arisugawa murdered in the room next to his. Her arms were cut off, and a folding screen had been laid down on her back, as if to make her look like a bird. Sam is suspected of murdering Arisugawa, but he manages to escape thanks to Ekubo, and tries to find out who killed Arisugawa during his sleep and why. This is the longest story in the book by far, and contains some interesting portrayals of the oiran culture, as well as some musing on the Japanese ideals of "beauty". Overall, my feelings about this story mirror those I have for Wabi no Misshitsu: the fake solutions were more entertaining than the actual solution. Though I have to say that the final solution in this story is actually quite decent, it's only not as a 'fancy' as the fake ones. It's also an awfully long story, more so than actually necessary. The book ends with a short chapter titled Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu ("Hail The Bodhisattva Kannon"), whch is not a mystery story, but more like an epilogue (even if it's titled "final chapter")

I know Yamaguchi Masaya mostly from his Ikeru Shikabane no Shi ("The Death of the Living Dead"), which was an excellent mystery story about zombies coming back to life. The zombie-angle was obviously a supernatural one, but by making use of this unique, but clearly definied setting with specific rules, this book turned out to be one of the better logic-based novels I've ever read. Nihon Satsujin Jiken never reaches the heights of Yamaguchi's debut novel, but it's definitely entertaining througout with its humorous portrayal of Japan As See By The Outsider, and the plots do make use of this somewhat fantasy-like settin (by the way, the other thing I know Yamaguchi from is the PSX game Cat the Ripper, which is batshit crazy).

So overall, I'd say that Nihon Satsujin Jiken is definitely an amusing mystery novel, that can be especially entertaining if you have an interest in Japanese culture. It takes elements from Japanese culture to the extreme, but it's not only for show, as the setitng is closely related to the mystery. There is a sequel to this book, and while this bookw as not bad, I do hope that the second book manages to get closer to the level of Ikeru Shikabane no Shi.

Original Japanese title(s): 山口雅也 『日本殺人事件』: 「第一話 微笑と死と」 / 「第二話 侘の密室」 / 「第三話 不思議の国のアリンス」 / 「終幕 南無観世音菩薩」

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Private Eyes' Requiem

ゆるぎないものひとつだきしめたいよ
誰もがそれを笑ったとしても
「ゆりぎないものひとつ」

I want to embrace one thing I can keep counting on
Even if everybody laughed at that
"One Unwavering Thing"

Man, I don't even look for them, but I'm pretty sure I read at least one Holmes pastische every year. Oh well, this is technically a Lupin pastiche... Oh, and I didn't manage to add even a fair amount of the tags at the end of the post, because of limitations on the number of characters. Please use the links in the body of the text if necessary.

Shinsetsu Lupin tai Holmes ("The True Tale: Lupin VS Holmes", 2000) is a short story collection by Ashibe Taku, crammed full with pastiches featuring famous detectives from both East and West. It's the first volume in a series dubbed The Exhibition of Great Detective, and I already reviewed the second volume last November. This first volume is, in the essence, the same as its sequel. The stories often feature several famous literary characters together (like the titular Lupin and Holmes) in a story that is expertly written in the style of the original works. Most of these stories also feature an impossible crime. The opening story for example, Shinsetsu Lupin tai Holmes ("The True Tale: Lupin VS Holmes"), has gentleman-thief Lupin revealing the true story of his meeting with Sherlock Holmes. In the prologue, Lupin reveals that the adventures as written in 1908's Arsène Lupin contre Herlock Sholmès were made-up, as shown by the fake Holmes name. The true meeting between the French thief and the English detective happened in 1900 during the Paris World Fair, when Lupin had only started making a name for himself. Lupin succeeds with a daring theft of a necklace from a Japanese theater troupe, but then a priceless Buddha statue is stolen from the Maison du Japon under impossible circumstances, followed by disappearing film reels with footage made in Japan. Lupin is accused of anti-Japanese sentiments and Holmes is hired by the Lumière brothers to retrieve the films. And so both Holmes and Lupin try to figure out the truth behind the disappearing Buddha statue and the true culprit behind this series of thefts.

This opening story does really read like a Lupin serial, with a dynamic story and a focus on adventure. The impossible disappearance of the Buddha statue is not incredibly surprising, but it does impress as it's firmly set in "reality", with a basis in actual history. This holds for all these pastiches actually, but especially this story is great in mixing fiction with real history. The Paris World Fair and the Lumière brothers are just some of the real world elements mixed with the Lupin-Holmes narrative, and the way it's used is actually fairly natural. There's even a guest appearance of that one Japanese author who ALWAYS gets to meet Holmes in pastiches like these. Unlike Arsène Lupin contre Herlock Sholmès, the confrontation between the two giants feels a bit more fair too. The motive behind the crimes is rather surprising though.

Taikun Satsujin Jiken ("The Tycoon Murder Case"), which also carries the subtitle The Polish Paste Mystery, is the second story in the volume, and as "Tycoon" has six letters in it, and it's followed by "Murder Case", you can safely guess it's a Philo Vance story. Prosecutor Markham asks dilettante detective Vance and his attorney Van Dine to accompany him to the murder scene of a publisher of pulp magazines. He's been offed of, as they say, in the apartment of his star writer Ramon F. Kimmel. The victim left a dying message fingering Kimmel, but the problem is that there are three Kimmels: three ghost writers published under the pen name of Ramon F. Kimmel under the guidance of the victim. The testimony of a neighbor based on a radio performance appears to be decisive clue for this mystery, but probably not in the way Markham had expected. This story reminds of me of the episode The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader from the Ellery Queen TV show, in the sense that it deals with pulp publishers and the men behind a collective name. The solution to the mystery is good, with a clever, hard-to-notice clue and a lot of focus on material evidence. The writing style of this pastiche is also very reminiscent of Van Dine (including the end notes!) and the story also features multiple guest appearances of other famous detectives (one of them is rather obvious based on the subtitle, I think). 

Hotel Mikado no Satsujin ("The Hotel Mikado Murder") is set in San Francisco. Hawaiian police detective Charlie Chan's stay in Hotel Mikado, a Japanese-run hotel, ends up in murder when a gunshot rings through the hotel.  A highly ranked military official staying secretly at the hotel is discovered inside his room, apparently having committed ritual suicide with a sword. Inside his room is also the corpse of a mysterious woman. Private eye Sam Spade also arrives at the scene, as he had been hired by the first victim for a certain job. But the case is revealed to be very different from what it appears to be by a mysterious Japanese boy working at the hotel. The motive behind this crime has similarities with that one featured in the first story. The mystery itself is okay, but the real 'surprise' is the other detective who makes a surprise appearance. At least, I think a lot of readers familiar with Japanese mystery fiction will correctly guess who that is, as the reference is rather obvious, but I did like how the story built towards revealing the fact.


Tasogare no Kaijintachi ("The Fiends of Twilight") is a straightforward Edogawa Rampo pastiche, where the Fiend with Twenty Faces is accuses of murder after the theft of a sword. Akechi Kogorou however beliefs the Fiend when he swears he does not take lives and the detective agrees to find out who else could've committed the murder inside a closed-off part of town, where only the victim and the Fiend were found. There are some interesting Rampo cameos here, but the solution behind the impossible crime (a murder in a place where only the victim and the Fiend were) is a bit childish. Though I guess it works for this pastiche, because it's based on a series for children.

Tadokoro Keibu ni Hanataba wo ("A Bouquet for Chief Inspector Tadokoro") puts Chief Inspector Tadokoro in the spotlight. Chief Inspector Tadoroko is a character who connects the worlds of Chief Inspector Onitsura and amateur detective Hoshikage Ryuuzou, both creations by Ayukawa Tetsuya. Tadokoro is the one character who has worked with both these men, and he tells his public an amusing tale about how the two detectives both had trouble solving a crime: Chief Inspector Onitsura had no idea what to make of a locked room murder (the specialty of Hoshikage), while Hoshikage Ryuuzou was paining his head about an alibi trick using the railway (the specialty of Onitsura). The solution to both problems is a bit simple, but as a story that gives a minor character a moment to shine, I'd say this story is one of the best in the volume. I really enjoyed this one.

The following two stories I didn't find particularly interesting. Nanatsu no Kokoro wo Motsu Tantei ("The Detective With Seven Minds") is not a pastiche of any characer in particular, but one of styles. The narrator is called to come over to a crime scene, and then the narration style changes constantly, from 'hardboiled detective narration' to 'dilettante amateur detective narration' and 'experienced cop narration' etcetera. The story is simple, and mostly serves as a theme for this showcase of styles, and it basically is all written to prepare for the punchline. Kidan Kuuchuu no Zoku ("A Detective Story: The Thief in the Sky") is a detective story written in the style of Kuroiwa Ruikou. The writing style is really old, which makes it hard to read (pre-war Japanese) spelling and the whole story is presented as an adaptation/translation of an existing, Western story (most of Kuroiwa's works are 'free' adaptations of Western crime fiction).

Hyakurokujuunen no Misshitsu - Shin Morgue Gai no Satsujin (The 160 year Old Locked Room - New Murders in the Rue Morgue") finally features Ashibe's own series detective Morie Shunsaku, who is asked by a mysterious figure to solve a locked room murder involving a mother and her daughter who were killed in the most brutal way. And yes, we're talking about Edgar Allan Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Whereas previous stories mimicked the style of the original works, this story is more like meta-mystery, as Morie examines the original text and arrives at a new solution to the classic tale. The biggest surprise however is the identity of his client though.

Shinsetsu Lupin tai Holmes is on the whole an entertaining collection of pastiches. Ashibe is usually at his best when he can let his bibliophilic urges go free. He mixes real history with fictional history in an engaging way, and showcases great knowledge about the subject matter, as he manages to mix in all kinds of little trivia about the characters in his stories which are all written in distinctive, recognizable styles. The stories can sometimes feel a bit gimmicky though, because a lot of the charm of these stories basically comes down to 'fanboying'. I'd say the opening story, the Philo Vance and the Ayukawa Tetsuya stories were the highlights of this collection.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『真説ルパン対ホームズ』: 「真説ルパン対ホームズ」 / 「大君殺人事件 またはポーランド鉛硝子の謎」 / 「《ホテル・ミカド》の殺人」 / 「黄昏の怪人たち」 / 「田所警部に花束を」 / 「七つの心を持つ探偵」 / 「探偵奇談 空中の賊」 / 「百六十年の密室 新・モルグ街の殺人」

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Black Wind

涙を隠した昨日に
遠い思い出 と今なら言える 
風のラララ
「風のラララ」(倉木麻衣)

And the past days where I hid my tears
Now I can say they are a distant memory
It's the wind's lalala...
"The Wind's Lalala" (Kuraki Mai)

Ayukawa Tetsuya was a highly influential writer of puzzle plot mysteries in post-war Japan. He was especially a prolific writer of stories featuring impossible crimes of a very specific kind. Whereas most people would instantly think of locked room murders, Ayukawa instead focused on the alibi deconstruction story: stories where the culprit has an unbreakable alibi, making it impossible for them to have committed the murder, even though it seems quite clear it was them. In the past, I have reviewed books like Kuroi Hakuchou and Tsumiki no Tou for example, which I really enjoyed. Ayukawa was also an important editor by the way connected to the publisher Tokyo Sogensha by the way, and writers like Arisugawa Alice and Ashibe Taku made their debuts thanks to awards connected to Ayukawa.

Warui Kaze ("An Ill Wind", 2007) is a short story collection by Ayukawa Tetsuya featuring stories originally published in the period between 1951 and 1975. The stories all feature Ayukawa's most famous detective character: Chief Inspector Onitsura of the Metropotan Police Department. Interesting is that even though Inspector Onitsura is the series character, he is seldom at the centre of the story. Warui Kaze for example features a couple of inverted stories (which obviously have the murderer in the center), where the inspector is only mentioned by title, never by name. But even the stories that do follow the police seldom show us the man: you're more likely to see several of his subordinates doing their job diligently, with Onitsura leading the investigation from his desk. He sometimes doesn't even appear for the finale for the story, leaving that job to his subordinates too. There have been some TV productions based on the Inspector Onitsura series, but I wonder whether he's as absent there too.

Etude in Blue (1956) starts with a scene where the director of a small company and his mistress comment on how their situation resembles the thriller movie they just saw. In the film, the director of a small company and his mistresss plotted together to kill the wife. And that's exactly what they are going to do too. The plan is to provide the director with a perfect alibi during the time of the murder, by making it appear his current girlfriend and intended victim (his secretary) was in a completely different place during the murder. The plan goes without a hitch, the conspirators think, but the police is eerily quick to catch on... As an inverted story, this is a decent, but not particularly memorable story. Like in Columbo, there is of course a major mistake left unnoticed by the murderer, which sets the inspector on their trail (a theme which is true for basically all stories in this collection). In this case, the mistake itself is a good one, and it's normal the inspector would continue his investigation from there, but there's still quite a jump between that point, and him finding out all the others details of the crime. Because this is an inverted story, we obviously don't get to see the police checking up on all the details of the case (as we already saw that from the murderer's point of view) and Onitsura explaining everything again would be repeating, but I guess a more logical structure to how Onitsura's explanation would've been better, as now he starts pointing out the things the murderer did to create his alibi, but then ends up with pointing out that mistake, which on its own does not connect to the rest of Onitsura's story.

Warui Kaze ("An Ill Wind"), Itai Kaze ("A Painful Wind") and Satsui no Esa ("Bait for Murderous Intent") are three very short inverted stories. Warui Kaze, which lends its title to the collection, is about a dentist, who happens to be visited by the man who drive his daughter to suicide. Murder ensues. The dentist comes up with a plan to create a fake alibi, but the scheme basically breaks through sheer bad luck, and it's not even possible for the reader to have foreseen that. In Itai Kaze, a husband discovers his Russian wife has been cheating him with a younger man, and the husband plots to kill the man, and make it seem his wife did it. While it is a short story and basically hinges on one single mistake, the plotting of the fatal mistake in question is actually quite smartly done, and I enjoyed this story. Satsui no Esai has a young man with a bright future plotting to kill his lover. He originally had not planned to kill her, but prospects of a marriage with a wealthy heir soon turned his feelings of love into murderous intent. The plan is to make it seem like she committed suicide on her own, but he makes one little mistake that turns everything upside down. And that's it, actually. It's really a small mistake that upsets his scheme, but rather than being impressed by how ingeneous it was, I was more thinking along the lines of "Yeah, of course he's going to forget that, it's really a small thing that very few people would think of". With stories like these, you want the police to point out a mistake that seems so stupid in hindsight, not one that seems genuinely unnoticable.

In Yoru no Houmonsha ("A Nightly Visitor"), a private detective is asked by a woman to prove the innocence of her deceased husband. A former lover who had been basically stalking him had been murdered on the night her husband died in a traffic accident. Police investigation showed that he had indeed been in the neigborhood of the crime scene, and as the other suspect has a perfect alibi and dead men tell no tales, they decide the deceased man was the murderer. The basic idea behind the alibi trick is fairly simple, and is actually seen in several of the other stories in this collection, though I did like one important part of the alibi trick, concerning a delivery from a Chinese restaurant. The way the police figure out this part of the alibi is suspect is fairly mundane, but also realistic and I could really clearly imagine how the scene'd go. 

MF Keikaku ("The MF Plan") is the plan one side of a manzai comedy duo gave to his scheme to kill his partner. Even though his partner is the reason they're not doing very well as a comedy duo, his partner refuses to break up with him, and even threatens to reveal hidden skeletons to the police if pushed. The plan is to make it appear his partner was already dead in his apartment while he himself still out of town. The fatal mistake in this inverted story is on one hand very simple: you're likely to come across it one of those solve-it-yourself mystery quiz books for children. On the other hand, the way it's hidden in the narrative is smart.

Madara no Inu ("The Speckled Dog") is by far the longest story in the collection, taking up about a quarter of the pages on its own. A female office worker receives a box of bonbons at her work. Figuring it might be from one of the many admirers she has, she puts on in her mouth, and finds out the hard way that the bonbons are filled with cyan. Police investigation initially focuses on her acquaintances and admirers, but then the police discovers that she might not have been the intended victim. While this story is a lot longer than the rest, it does feel a bit artificially long. The first half for example could be shortened greatly without any harm done to the narrative. The murderer's plan also involves an utterly complex scheme to get hold of a perfect alibi with too many elements. I think this plot would've worked either better as a full-length novel, with each of the elements having more time to get developed, or a less complex, short story.

The last two stories in the collection focus on a younger Inspector Onitsura, during his period with the Harbin police. In Nire no Kisou no Satsujin ("Murder in the Elmwood Mansion"), Elizaveta, a Russian aristocrat, calls Onitsura for help, as she found a dead body in the abandonded Elmwood Mansion near the Russian Cemetary. Elizaveta was supposed to meet with the victim, a blackmailer, for business about her deceased sister, but she found the blackmailer murdered. Later, they find out that Elizaveta's father has committed suicide that night, and that his pistol was also the weapon that killed the blackmailer. The problem however is that considering the time schedule, Elizaveta's father couldn't have retrieved his pistol from the store, murdered the blackmailer, and then gone on home to commit suicide. The solution to this problem is surprisingly simple, yet elegant. It's also the first story in this collection to emphasize the impossibility of things, even if by nature, alibi tricks are always stories about impossible situations. Oh, and on a side note, it's hard figuring out the original Russian names from the Japanese text!

Akuma ga Warau ("The Devil Laughs") is the final story in the collection and also set in Harbin. On New Year's night, a policeman is guided by a gunshot and a ghastly laugh to a street, where he discovers a dancer lying on the ground. She mutters the name of her assailant, and dies on the spot. The name of the assailant was a familiar one to the police, but when questioned, it appears he had a perfect alibi for the time of the murder: He was a block away, just stepping inside the bus, and there was a trustworthy witness present (trustworthy in the sense that the witness would have more reason to lie to get the man in trouble). The solution has Carrian qualities to it, I think, and quite well thought-off. It's not a classic, but certainly a more than decent impossible crime.

Warui Kaze, as a collection, is a bit skewed towards very short, one-idea stories that sometimes feel a bit like hit-or-miss. Well, there are not genuinely misses here, but they don't really fill the stomach either. I remember I felt the same about The Columbo Collection, the Columbo short story collection by William L. Link. There you definitely felt the difference between the one-short stories which point out one fatal mistake and then end, and the longer Columbo TV episodes, where Columbo slowly pulls on the thread, revealing more and more of the scheme. Warui Kaze basically has the same, as the conclusions to a lot of the stories feel to abrupt, even if the contents of the stories is interesting. I did enjoy the stories overall though, but I'd not recommend this as an introduction to the Onitsura character (also because he does not appear that very often).

Original Japanese title(s): 鮎川哲也 『わるい風』: 「青いエチュード」 / 「わるい風」 / 「夜の訪問者」 / 「いたい風」 / 「殺意の餌」 / 「MF計画] / 「まだらの犬」 / 「楡の木荘の殺人」 / 「悪魔が笑う」

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Down Town Game

flying fall down 
羽ばたきながら墜ちてゆくの
君の傍へ
「Flying」(Garnet Crow)

Flying fall down
As I fly, I fall down
To your side
"Flying" (Garnet Crow)

I actually quite like the cover of the book in today's review in terms of artstyle and design. If only it did not feature a clown....

Mitarai Kiyoshi series
Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Astrology Murder Case") [1981]
Naname Yashiki no Hanzai ("The Crime at the Slanted Mansion") [1982]
Mitarai Kiyoshi no Aisatsu ("Mitarai Kiyoshi's Greetings") [1987]
Ihou no Kishi ("A Knight in Strange Lands") [1988]
Mitarai Kiyoshi no Dance ("Mitarai Kiyoshi's Dance") [1990]
Suishou no Pyramid ("The Crystal Pyramid") [1991]
Atopos [1993]
Nejishiki Zazetsuki  ("Screw-Type Zazetsuki") [2003]
Okujou no Douketachi ("Clowns on the Roof") [2016]

Toshiko had no reason at all to commit suicide. Sure, she was not particularly good at her job at U Bank, and unlike the other female workers her age, she was still single at the moment, but unbeknownst to the people making fun of her behind her back, she did manage to get herself engaged with a nice, extremely handsome younger man, who looked a lot like Tom Cruise. With their marriage planned for the following month, Toshiko had every reason to want to live. Yet for some mysterious reason, she jumped off the roof of U Bank. Her boss obviously is perplexed. Toshiko had just bragged about her boyfriend moments before she went up to the roof to water the bonsai plants there, so why would she commit suicide? Yet a witness swears he saw Toshiko go over the railing by herself, with nobody else present on the roof. With a witness present, even Toshiko's boss has no other choice but to accept it was a suicide, but soon after, another of his subordinates jumps to his death after being sent up to water the bonsai plants. This man too had absolutely no reason to die, but once again, it appears the victim jumped on their own volition, as there was nobody else on the roof at the moment it happened. Both suicide and murder are impossible considering the circumstances, yet these deaths did happen. When a third man jumps however, their boss is finally convinced that their roof is cursed. A journalist informs private detective Mitarai Kiyoshi of these strange events, but Mitarai is convinced there is a logical explanation to this series of deaths in Shimada Souji's Okujou no Douketachi ("Clowns on the Roof", 2016).

Okujou no Douketachi is the fiftieth story in Shimada Souji's Mitarai Kiyoshi series, which started with Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken (1981), known in English as The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. As most people reading his blog will probably know, it were the early works in this series that later inspired writers like Ayatsuji Yukito, Arisugawa Alice and Norizuki Rintarou (and many more), which in turn would lead to a new wave of puzzle plot mystery stories in Japan in the late eighties/early nineties of the previous century. If you take a look at the list above, you'll see I've only reviewed a very minor selection of this long-running series starring a genius astrologist-turned-private-detective and his Watson, the writer Ishioka. Over the course of the run of this series, there have been a variety of adventures for this duo. Early stories like The Tokyo Zodiac Murders and Naname Yashiki no Hanzai were very classically built puzzle plot mysteries for example, while works like Ihou no Kishi or Nejishiki Zasetsuki were much more character-focused. What these works do often have in common are fantastic, alluring premises, as well as a tendency for very ridiculous tricks, in a good sense of the word. I think I make this comparison every time I do a Shimada review, but whereas most people would a needle and thread to come up with a locked room trick, Shimada would use iron wire and jackhammers. This also holds for Okujou no Douketachi.

I'd say that the premise of Okujou no Douketachi is probably the best part of the book. The mysterious roof where people who have absolutely no reason to commit suicide, who even state they have no intention to commit suicide, still jump off from is a strangely eerie place. I say strangely, because this roof is situated on top of a bank, next to a department store, in a fairly lively neighborhood. Yet, despite this modern setting (the story is set in the 90s by the way), there's definitely something uncanny going on the roof, as one by one, the bank employees take the quick way down to the street. I really enjoyed the chapters that detail this impossible situation, as you feel something anti-modern slowly creeping up.

I am not as overwhelmingly positive about the how and why behind the mysterious deaths however. On one hand, the solution definitely features the over-the-top elements I'd expect from Shimada (I correctly guessed the solution), which show that imagination is more important (and more fun!) than realism in mystery fiction. On the other hand, you need a truckload of coincidence for all the events in this novel to happen. One or two events, okay, I might accept that as possible and plausible, but there's a ridiculously long chain of coincidences necessary to result in what actually happens in this story. The way Mitarai sees through that all is a bit unbelievable, because there's too much luck involved.

The unbelievable number of coincidences necessary is also connected to another 'problem' of this book. I think I had the same with Atopos, but the plot tends to meander at times and the result is a fairly long novel, but in a way, unnecessary so. I think the idea of this story would have worked much better as a short story. A short story also means a more streamlined plot, which in turn would also get rid of a good amount of coincidences the current novel form needs to work. To call it dragging, would be to overstate my feelings on the matter, but I do feel this story is a lot longer than actually needed, and all the meandering is mainly used to set up coincidence after coincidence.

What was interesting is that there are several narratives in this book that cross each other. So you'd get a few chapters of narrative A, and then a chapter of narrative B, and than back to A, etc.  The neat idea behind this is that each of these narratives has its own font. So narrative A uses font A, narrative B font B, etc. It reminded me of how the deluxe edition of the manga Houryuu Kyoushitsu (The Drifting Classroom) used different kinds of paper depending on where the narrative was (the unknown world/Earth). I really like these ideas of using the book format to bring the reader an unique experience. I did not like all the fonts used in Okujou no Doukeshi however. Especially the first one was hard to get through, as it was like a font in bold. There was another section with a very round, cute font which was also a bit difficult to read quickly through. I think there were about four, five different fonts used in total. But especially now publishers and readers use the e-reader more and more, I am happy to these kinds of design ideas behind old-fashioned printed media.

Is Okujou no Douketachi a story fit be a landmark, to be the fiftieth work in the Mitarai Kiyoshi series? As I ask myself this question, I start waggling my head about. Not really. While it has an interesting premise I did really like, the story has to twist and turn itself around to accommodate to a novel-length plot. The problems I have with the story mostly result from stretching out an otherwise interesting idea in a manner that is at best questionable. This premise would've worked much better as a short story, which is a shame. Though this book might work quite well as a TV production, now I think about it.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司 『屋上の道化たち』

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Like many people, I enjoy reading series. Most of the things I review here are part of a series, whether it's a novel series, or an ongoing manga series or videogames. Some are short, with for example just five to ten different installments, while others have been going for decades. One problem with longer series in general is of course that there's so much history. Take Detective Conan for example, which has been running for over two decades now. A lot of stuff has happened in the more than 90 volumes times 180 pages, and while I sometimes re-read stuff, you can't expect me to remember every little detail of each and every story.

And that's just talking about the general storyline. When we look specifically at the mystery plots, well, things get really hazy at times. Sure, the truly fantastic stories will stick around, but even then most readers will probably not remember all the characters that appeared in that one great story ten years ago, or how the murderer pulled off that brilliant locked room murder. You might remember the trick hinged on the presence of an open window in the room for example, or that the murderer used a string, but do you really remember all the details of the mystery plot and how the detective figured out who the murderer was? And that's me talking about the memorable stories: some minor stories I can hardly remember even after re-reading them.

Sometimes though, you have need to check on plot-related stuff. Someone blogging on mystery fiction for example might want to check what that one trick was in that story, or how a certain piece of misdirection was done, or the exact order of events up to the murder. With details like this, a quick read on a Wikipedia entry (if available) is often not enough, so then there's no other choice but to actually re-read the book or watch the film or whatever, and that's assuming you still have access to that particular work (you might've borrowed it from the library for example, or seen it once on TV).

Enter reference books and guides! Books on books (film/TV series/manga/etc) are not rare of course, and there are quite some works in the world of mystery fiction that are specifically about other works and series. Books on locked room murder mysteries are not particularly rare for example, and some even include short summaries about the situation and the tricks used. But even then, it's rather brief, and the focus lies on the "locked room", rather than the story in general. Strangely enough, there seem to be few guides and books on series that focus on the whole mystery mystery plot, as opposed to the more limited technical and more abstract parts (locked room, alibi trick, etc.). Is there for example a book on all the stories of Ellery Queen that give a brief overview of the plot, of the characters (character relation charts!), the mystery plot (how the murderer committed the crime), the clues and how Ellery uses them and things like that?

Case entry from Conan Drill

I have quite a few of these books for Japanese productions, actually. I mentioned how long Detective Conan was, but the publisher has also making some extra money by publishing story guidebooks once in a while, summarizing both storyline and character development plots, as well as mystery plots, detailing the murders in each story and what kind of tricks were utilized by the murderer.

The guidebook Conan Drill for example has a short summary for each story, but also a list of the most important characters. what the murder weapon was, what kind of trick was used by the murderer, what the decisive clues were. There are also extra notes to show how each story relates to the main storyline (if applicable). Heck, it even lists who the policeman in charge was! Conan Drill was a one-time guidebook and only contains summaries up to volume 40, but publisher Shogakukan has also been publishing the Detective Conan Super Digest Books for a while now, with each book summarizing ten volumes worth of content (Detective Conan 90+ SDB, summarizing the events up to volume 90 for example is scheduled for an April release). These reference books are fantastic for fans who need to check something quickly (Conan Drill in particular has some really obscure lists like one of the restaurants Mouri Kogorou visits throughout the series).

I have a similar book for Tantei Gakuen Q, summarizing the events in the manga and it's really handy if you only want to know how a certain trick was done or how the story tied in to the main storyline. I even have a handy guide for the TV drama TRICK: it was released in 2010 to coincide with the third film and TV special released back then, and it contains handy character relation charts, short pieces to highlight the key events of each story, the various (magic) tricks and illusions used by both the murderers and the protagonist and much more.

Timeline from 15th Anniversary Gyakuten Saiban Series Encyclopedia 2001-2016

The one I'm most impressed by with however is the recently released 15th Anniversary Gyakuten Saiban Series Encyclopedia 2001-2016, a rather hefty guidebook for the Gyakuten/Ace Attorney game series. The book not only has handy summaries and character relation charts for each and every case, it also lists every piece of evidence featured in a story, as well as other key events. But the big one is the case timeline: the events of each case have been plotted on their own seperate timeline, which shows exactly what all the important actors in a story did both before and after the crime. So you can check exactly on a timeline all the things the murderer did before and after the crime, and check where everybody else was at the same moment, but also when the protagonist found a certain clue and how they deduced who the murderer was. The amount of effort necessary to compile over forty different timelines (as there are over forty cases) must have been immense, but it is really appreciated.

I am not sure why these kind of reference books seem much popular with series originating from other media (like TV/games) compared to novel series. I'd love to have a Poirot guide with timelines for each story and character lists and stuff! Who wouldn't want a book on the Ellery Queen novels that feature a summary of Ellery's deductive chains and the evidence which form the foundation for that!? A book that details all the things the murderers do before Lieutenant Columbo arrives on the scene? Anyway, I want my guidebooks!