Saturday, August 5, 2017

Sing A Song of Sixpence

"No lesser crime than murder will suffice."
"Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories"

Not that this is a bad cover (to the contrary!), but I do miss the bold use of the color yellow of the previous two volumes.... 

Urazome Tenma is almost an urban legend at his high school, as while he's easily one of the top students there, Tenma seldom interacts with his fellow classmates and the few that do know him, mostly know him for being incredibly lazy and selfish. What even fewer people know however is that he's actually living on the school grounds, as he's secretly confiscated one of the club rooms after having run away from home. Most of his free time is spent on his hobbies, like watching anime, reading manga or sleeping. But that Tenma's actually capable of miracles if he sets his mind to it, as was proven in the few months before the summer holiday of his second year, as he managed to solve the impossible murder that happened inside his school's gymnasium, as well as a gruesome murder that was committed in the local aquarium. Aosaki Yuugo's Kazegaoka Gojuuendama Matsuri no Nazo ("The Kazegaoka 50 Yen Coin Festival Mystery") details a series of smaller adventures that Tenma and his friends encountered during the summer holiday after the previous two cases happened.

Kazegaoka Gojuuendama Matsuri no Nazo ("The Kazegaoka 50 Yen Coin Festival Mystery") was originally published in 2014 as the third book in Aosaki Yuugo's Urazome Tenma series, and the first short story collection in this series. I read the paperback version, which was released in 2017. The book, as well as all the stories included, all feature alternative English titles by the way, which are not direct translations of the original titles. Aosaki is an author who is obviously inspired by Ellery Queen, and the previous novels all featured alternative English titles named in the Queen spirit ("The [Color] [Noun] Mystery"). In this book, the stories have English titles in the spirit of Ellery Queen's early short story collections The Adventures of Ellery Queen (and The New Adventures of Ellery Queen), and thus feature the title format "The Adventure of...".

The book opens with Mou Isshoku Eraberu Donburi ("A Rice Bowl Where You Can Choose One Extra Dish"), which carries the alternative English title The Adventure of the Missing Chopsticks. I had already read this particular story earlier this year, and even wrote a review about it, and there's little I want to add to that. It's a brilliant short story that presents a very normal, but puzzling mystery (Why did a student dump their tray and half-eaten rice bowl just outside the school cafeteria, even though it'd have taken no effort to bring it to the drop-off point?) as a meticulously constructed logic puzzle for the reader to deduce this seemingly nonsensical deed was done. It is a perfect example of the everyday life mystery, that changes an innocent, almost meaningless circumstance to an amusing mystery story by simply asking "Why?" and "How?" about things you normally wouldn't think twice about. The mystery also fits the school setting of this series perfectly, much more actually than the murders we saw in the previous two novels.

The title story Kazegaoka Gojuuendama Matsuri no Nazo ("The Kazegaoka 50 Yen Coin Festival Mystery"), or The Adventure of the Summer Festival, is set at a summer festival held at a shrine. Yuno's brother (a policeman) has to swing by with some drinks for the local policemen on guard here, with Yuno tagging along to enjoy the festival mood and food. She meets with Tenma at the festival, as well as with schoolmate Kaori and Tenma's younger sister Kyouka. During their chats however, they realize something weird is going on at this festival, for a great number of food stalls at this festival are returning all of their change in 50 yen coins, instead of the more common 100 yen coins. But why?

A surprisingly normal, yet weird puzzle, but one with roots in reality. For this story is actually a variation on a real-life mystery the author Wakatake Nanami encountered once when she was working part-time in a bookstore. Each Saturday, a man would appear with twenty 50 yen coins, asking her to exchange it for a thousand yen bill, with no explanation as to why. This enigmatic incident later formed the basis of a collaboration work published by Tokyo Sogen, with both professional mystery authors (like Norizuki Rintarou and Arisugawa Alice) and amateur writers offering their reasons to Wakatake's conundrum. A second volume was also released, with even more possible solutions.

But back to Aosaki's story. The problem is deliciously innocent yet puzzling, because whether you get your 200 yen change back as four 50 yen coins or two 100 yen coins shouldn't really matter, but it's still a problem that will slightly bug you. While the story revolves around such a 'nonsensical' problem, the actual plot structure is quite good, with proper hinting and even false solutions to put you off-guard (with adequate hints and proof to show why the false solutions are wrong). The solution is also wonderfully innocent, yet convincing enough to what at first sight might seem to be a rather mundane occurance.

Harimiya Eriko no Third Impact ("Harimiya Eriko's Third Impact"), or The Adventure of Rieko Harimiya, stars the titular Eriko, once a problem child who bullied others, but who of late has been trying to become a better person, or at least not a bully anymore. Part of the reason for her change is that she recently started dating Saotome, who's one year younger than her. Saotome is also the only boy in the school's brass band, and they are also rehearsing during the summer holiday at school. Eriko learns that the last few days, Saotome has been sent out to buy water for everyone to drink during their practice sessions, but that every time he returns, the girls have locked the room, forcing him to cry out loud for them to open the door for him. Eriko suspects he's being bullied by the other girls in the band, but can't really accuse them of anything considering her own past. Desperate, Eriko decides to ask Tenma to figure out why they're bullying Otome and to solve the problem for her.

This reminds me, the previous two novels were filled with both obvious and obscure reference to manga and anime, because of Tenma's hobbies, but as he isn't the main character in these stories, there are actually fewer of these references in this book. Or at least, I noticed fewer of them. The Third Impact from this story is obviously a reference to Neon Genesis Evangelion however. As for the story itself, it features a mystery that is obviously very strongly connected with the school setting (suspected bullying), but the truth behind the case is also wonderfully fitting, and is ingeniously hinted at through various hints and happenings that occur throughout the story. The everyday life mystery is a difficult genre, as it is difficult to have puzzling situations and solutions that are both mundane yet alluring. While the problem in this story might seem a bit too mundane, the solution is really convincing, but with just enough of wonder to surprise the reader.

Tenshitachi no Zanshomimai ("A Visit During A Lingering Heat By Angels"), or The Adventure of the Twin Angels, is about a curious incident described by a senior member of the school's Theater Club in one of his idea notebooks, with the writer claiming that he really experienced the following tale. He was one day dozing off after school soon after the summer holiday was over, but then made his way over to his classroom on the second floor, only to see two of his female classmates in a passionate embrace standing near the window. He quickly backed away, turning back to the hallway. But after some time, he decided to go in anyway, only to see the two girls had disappeared, even though he had his eyes on the classroom door all the time. So how did those girls leave that room completely unseen? The solution was something I had not thought off, though I think that Japanese readers have an advantage here, as it involves a certain custom not as common where I grew up, but more so in Japan (in fact, I first experienced myself in Japan too). Once you think off it, the mystery of the disappearing girls makes a lot more sense, and once again the hinting is impeccable, with careful wording and seemingly innocent statements always coming back at the end of the tale to explain what happened in a logical way.

The final full story in this volume is Sono Kabin ni Gochuui wo ("Please Mind That Vase"), or The Adventure of the Silent Vase, which stars Tenma's younger sister Kyouka, who studies at an elite junior high. She's having a talk with her friend Himemari in a classroom when it is discovered that the flower vase placed in the hallway outside the classroom was broken, with the shards, flowers and water spread all across the floor. As a member of the student council, Himemari obviously has to investigate who broke the vase, until she realizes something strange is going on: neither she nor Kyouka had seen anyone pass through the hallway while they were in the classroom, nor had they heard the sound of the vase breaking. So did it break on its own, silently? The story is very similar in idea to the earlier two novels in the series, as it focuses on the movements (and alibis) of characters and there's even a diagram of that section of the school for the reader to trace the movements of everyone involved, but the story feels a bit too hasty for its own good. The basic idea behind this story is to figure out who could've broken that vase without anyone hearing it, but the reader is given next to no time to contemplate the problem themselves, and the mystery itself feels much more 'constructed' than the previous stories, which felt much more natural and in line with the everyday life mystery. This story on the other hand features a character who acts just like the culprit in a complex mystery story with almost uncanny knowledge about the movements of all the other characters in order for them to commit that heineous crime of breaking a vase unseen and unheard. While this was in a way the M.O. in the two novels in this series, it really doesn't fit the tone of the other stories in this volume. So it's a bit too smart, a bit too 'conventional crime'-esque.

The volume also contains a very short bonus story, Sekai Ichi Ikokochi no Warui Sauna ("The Worst Sauna To Be In"), which is not a proper mystery story, but shows a bit more insight in Tenma's relation with a certain family member. I suspect it might also serve as 'laying the ground' for the fourth book in the series.

While the last few stories were not as strong as the first few, Kazegaoka Gojuuendama Matsuri no Nazo has proven itself to be an excellent short story collection that mixes impressively structured detective plots with incidents that seem mundane at first sight, but prove to be vexingly puzzling, resulting in very alluring everday life mysteries. The school setting is used to its fullest, and the volume also fleshes out the various characters and school setting better than the previous two novels, making this series a richer environment. I for one can't wait to read the next volume!

Original Japanese title(s): 青崎有吾 『風ヶ丘五十円玉祭りの謎』: 「もう一色選べる丼」 / 「風ヶ丘五十円玉祭りの謎」 / 「針宮理恵子のサードインパクト」 / 「天使たちの残暑見舞い」 「その花瓶にご注意を」 / 「世界一居心地の悪いサウナ」

7 comments :

  1. Thanks for the review. :) I'm really hoping Aosaki Yuugo's novels get translated into English - or, by the least, into Mandarin. I'm surprised that there isn't a Mandarin translation, given how many Japanese novels have been translated in Taiwan or China. Then again, I need to erase from my memory the massive spoiler I gleaned from a Chinese mystery movie regarding the locked-room conundrum in 'Sports Stadium Murder'. :(

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    1. I think it definitely has a wide appeal, especially with the addition of this short story collection. I mean, if Hyouka with its everyday life mysteries can become a popular anime, I can't see why this series can't :P

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    2. In which case an English translation would be very welcome indeed! ;)

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  2. This sounds absolutely marvellous, I love how such a simple occurrence can become so maddening and vexingly interesting. I also love the idea for a whole collection of stories based around one problem (the 50 yen problem). Have you reviewed that collection anywhere?

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    1. No, I only learned about that collection by reading this book, though it definitely sounds fun, so I might pick it up later (it's still in print, it seems).

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  3. ugh once again i am frustrated at not being able to read these novels.

    i have already told you that i am in love with the covers and artwork for this series of books, and once again i am not disappointed with the artist.

    i echo the need of a localization. who knows, maybe someday you will be asked to do it? until then keep us updated on these great reads please and thank you.

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