Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Misty Time

Time after time 君と出逢った奇跡
「Time After Time ~花舞う街で~」(倉木麻衣)

Time after time / The miracle of meeting you
In the city where the wind blows gently
That hill road where we walked as we softly held each other's hands
And the promise I even now still remember
"Time After Time ~ In The City of Dancing Flowers~" (Kuraki Mai)

While I have to admit I don't always wear a wristwatch anymore like I used to (i.e. I don't bother when I go out for groceries), I still often take the thing with me, even if I have a phone with me. I wonder when Conan will trade his tranquillizer gun wristwatch in for a tranquillizer gun smartphone...

As readers of the blog have already noticed, I've become quite a fan of Ayukawa Tetsuya. He was a post-war writer who specialized in impossible crimes of both the 'old-fashioned' locked room murder kind, but also of the uncrackable alibi kind, where an ingenious murderer uses train time tables and other tricks to concoct a perfect alibi for themselves. Ayukawa also wrote really great 'Guess the Criminal' puzzle plot short stories, where the reader is challenged to prove through logic who the murderer is and he was also a very influential editor at publisher Tokyo Sogen, with writers like Ashibe Taku and Arisugawa Alice basically making their debuts under his guide. Itsutsu no Tokei ("The Five Clocks", 1999) is the first volume of two in the series Ayukawa Tetsuya Short Story Masterpieces and as the name suggests, the bulky volume collects some of his best short works. The collection features two of Ayukawa's most infamous creations: Chief Inspector Onitsura and the brilliant amateur detective Hoshikage Ryuuzou, with a slight emphasis on Onitsura stories.

In the past, I reviewed the two Great Detective Hoshikage Ryuuzou Complete Collection volumes, and several stories featured in Itsutsu no Tokei are also available in there. So for my thoughts on the stories Shiroi Misshitsu ("The White Locked Room"), Doukeshi no Ori ("The Clown's Prison"), Barasou Satsujin Jiken ("The Villa Rose Murder Case") and Akuma wa Koko ni ("The Devil Is Here"), I'd like to point you to those older reviews. I'll only be reviewing the stories I hadn't read yet in this post (which by default are all Inspector Onitsura stories).

The book opens with the title story: Itsutsu no Tokei ("The Five Clocks" 1957). Inspector Onitsura is asked by the fiancée of the main suspect to take a new look at a murder investigation. Money appears to be the motive behind the murder, and the suspect definitely needed that for his upcoming wedding, but his bride-to-be is sure he's innocent. Onitsura's problem is that the only other suspect has a perfect alibi. The other suspect was accompanied by a witness almost all night, who can swear to almost every single minute (with other witnesses backing the blanks up). The way this suspect managed to create his perfect alibi is brilliant: at one hand, it is actually just a series of otherwise simple ideas, but it's the way it's all combined that makes this story so ingenious. Definitely a great alibi deconstruction story.

Soushun ni Shisu ("Death In Early Spring", 1958) was a case that Onitsura had a lot of trouble with, the prologue says. The investigation on a murder that happened at a construction site at night had quickly led to a suspect (a rival contender for the hand of a certain lady), but this suspect has an alibi for the time the crime must have happened, as witnesses at the victim's workplace, the train time schedule and a letter written on that train show when the victim arrived in town. The solution to Onitsura's problem is one that neatly makes sense out of all the chaos. It's perfectly hinted at, and while not very difficult to solve, I think this is a good example of doing a well-constructed mystery that doesn't aim at completely baffling the reader, but instead offers the reader a good chance at solving it themselves without making it overly simple. And that in itself is an art many writers seem to forget.

Ai ni Kuchinan ("Withering in Love") starts with a theft of a wooden crate from a shipping company in Osaka, but the ensuing chase ends in the water. As the people of the shipping company try to save the crate, they open it, and find the dead body of a woman packed inside. The victim was an employee in the shipping company back in Tokyo, but nobody has any idea how she got inside the crate. Was she packed inside by the sender of the crate (a luxury furniture maker), the Tokyo branch of the shipping company, the driver of the truck, or someone else? What is even more confusing is that while the sender had shipped off two crates that day, one smaller to Osaka and a larger one to Shizuoka, but for some reason, the body was discovered from the larger crate, but in Osaka. The solution depends on a fact that may or may not have been common knowledge back when this story was written (1958), but it certainly isn't now, so to me, it really came out of nowhere. It's of course a problem that occasionally occurs: mystery writers usually make use of conventions of every day life to create a mystery plot, but time will eventualy change these conventions, making such stories difficult to graps for other times. Mind you, this story is not incomprehensible today, as I myself went 'Aah, I see, I get that', but the main gimmick certainly needs explanation and is not considered 'basic knowledge of society'. The idea behind this trick though is one I really like, it's just that the execution is a bit outdated for a reader almost 60 years later.

The murder on an affluent writer is what drives the plot in Ninomiya Shinjuu (1958), with the police focusing on literary colleagues of the victim. One of the suspects has a rather peculiar alibi: he tried to commit suicide with a woman on the night of the murder, first by throwing themselves in front of a train and later by taking sleep medicine. The alibi is dependent on where they tried to commit suicide and when, but the solution is rather weak: the police first proves one part of the alibi to be false because the murderer did something inexplicably stupid (there was no way that part of the alibi was going to hold!) and then they show you all kinds of train time tables that come out of nowhere and talk about characteristics of the night trains to show how the trick was pulled off. I think that if this story had been extended to a full novel, with more room to properly introduce the necessary clues to the solution, this story would've been much more enjoyable.

Fukanzen Hanzai ("Imperfect Crime", 1960) is an inverted story, about a publisher plotting the death of his business partner, who has discovered that he cooked the books of their company. He comes up with a plan to make it seem like his partner had fallen of the train elsewhere, while in fact he'd kill him in town. The conclusion is predictable, once a certain character trait is shown in the story, and the behavior the murderer shows at the end is actually rather unbelievable, as it's clear from the start that that behavior could be the only thing that could prove he had anything to do with the crime, so why do that!? Funny is that Chief Inspector Onitsura isn't the detective in this story: a rather unexpected character solves the crime, showing that everyone can be a great detective if they learn to observe, not only watch.

This volume ends with Kyuukou Izumo ("The Izumo Express"), where Onitsura has to solve a murder on a blackmailer. The main suspect is a farmer whose fiancée is now in a mental institution because of blackmailing. The man claims he had only just arrived in Osaka by the Izumo Express just minutes before the murder happened, so there was no way he could've made it out of the station and picked a cab to go the crime scene, especially not as it was his first time in town. Passengers riding in the same coach of the Izumo Express that day however don't remember seeing him. Is the man lying, or is something else going on? The main trick is probably not very difficult to guess once a certain word is dropped, and on the whole, I'd say this is a decent, but not particularly outstanding story. There is a hint of an impossibility here (the suspect claiming to have been present in a coach while the other people in the coach deny it), but the solution is rather obvious and if you really think about it, it's clear that any close investigation by the police would've soon brought the truth to light.

Itsutsu no Tokei is on the whole a great short story collection by Ayukawa featuring a great selection of impossible crimes. Locked room murders are probably usually the most popular variant of the impossible crime, but Ayukawa shows with his Inspector Onitsura stories that alibi deconstruction stories can be just as fun. People with interest in trains in particular will have a blast with these stories. I'm based in the Netherlands, where we have rather dense network of railways, similar to Japan, so I do like train mysteries, but I wonder whether it's something less attractive for readers based in countries lik the United States, where trains are less part of daily life? Anyway, what makes the Inspector Onitsura also interesting is that he is by no means the quintessential brilliant police detective. Sometimes, he'll be fooled by a murderer's tricks for weeks on, and in some stories, it isn't even Onitsura who solves the crime!

So, yes, Itsutsu no Tokei s definitely recommended material for people interested in Ayukawa Tetsuya, and Japanese mystery short stories in general. The Ayukawa Tetsuya Short Story Masterpieces offers some of Ayukawa's best work (complete with commentary for each story by Edogawa Rampo by the way), and with both Inspector Onitsura and Hoshikage Ryuuzou present, there is also diversity in this volume. I'd say this volume is better balanced than the Great Detective Hoshikage Ryuuzou Complete Collection series (which obviously only focuses on one character), so at the moment, I even think this is the best book for people who have never read Ayukawa before.

Original Japanese title(s): 鮎川哲也 『五つの時計』: 「五つの時計」 / 「白い密室」 / 「早春に死す」 / 「愛に朽ちなん」 / 「道化師の檻」 / 「薔薇荘殺人事件」 / 「二ノ宮心中」 / 「悪魔はここに」 / 「不完全犯罪」 / 「急行出雲」

Thursday, May 18, 2017

番外編: The Ginza Ghost

Longtime readers of the blog know the drill: no introducing quotes means either an editorial piece, or a service announcement. Today we have a service announcement long overdue (mostly because I kinda forgot about writing the piece. Most of the time this blog runs 'automatically', as I have enough reviews ready and waiting to be posted until almost next year, so I'm not always in 'writing mode').

Two years ago, I was proud to announce that Locked Room International was going to publish Yukito AYATSUJI's The Decagon House Murders, and that yours truly was responsible for the translation of that devious homage to Christie's And Then There Were None. Around the same time last year, I had the honor to announce that LRI's new Japanese project would be Alice ARISUGAWA's The Moai Island Puzzle, a novel I personally see as one of the greatest Japanese experiments in deduction, surpassing Ellery Queen at his own game. Both novels were also critically well received, which to be completely honest, was something I was even happier about as a fan, rather than as the translator!  And as we are once again in that same time of the year, you can probably guess what the announcement of today is about.

So I'm thrilled to announce that Locked Room International will be releasing Keikichi OOSAKA's the short story collection The Ginza Ghost very soon, the translation once again done by me! OOSAKA was a writer specialized in the short story form who was active in the period before World War II, and thus a contemporary of Edogawa Rampo. While he excelled at writing brilliantly atmospheric puzzle plot mysteries firmly set in unique backgrounds in the new, changing modern society of Japan of the thirties, he never did gain much fame back in those days. The war changed everything, as state censorship and being drafted into the army marked a cruel end to his career and his life. He became a forgotten author of the pre-war period, until he was rediscovered many years later, with influential writers like Tetsuya AYUKAWA praising as OOSAKA as one of the great losses of Japanese mystery fiction. His work has since then gathered much praise, and The Ginza Ghost contains a special selection comprised of twelve of his best tales: ten impossible crimes stories, plus two extra (non-impossible) stories that are commonly considered to rank among the best he had ever written. Mystery author Taku ASHIBE was so kind to write an informative introduction to the book.

And this is actually the first time where I don't have a handy link to an old review ready! Partly because this is an all-original edited collection. So while I can't link you to "proof" that shows how I was already impressed by his work before I ever got to work on it this time (save for this very old one about two of his stories, the first of them being included in the collection), I hope you believe me when I say that OOSAKA's work is really great. Not only did he come up with very solid mystery plots (written in a time when Japanese mystery fiction was more about horror and eroticsm than actually detecting), the atmosphere in these stories is unique, with a sense of pathos as we are introduced to all kinds of baffling cases set around workplaces and local industries that give you a glimpse into a Japan that was quickly modernizing and Westernizing in the thirties. Personal favorites this time are The Hungry Letter-Box and The Mourning Locomotive by the way.

Publishers Weekly already has a review available here.

Anyway, I hope you'll find The Ginza Ghost an entertaining read. I at least had a blast working on them. OOSAKA may have been a forgotten author for a long time in his own country, but I hope new readers will find out why everybody was so enthusiastic about him when his work was rediscovered. And if you haven't read The Decagon House Murders or The Moai Island Puzzle yet, why not try them out too?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Make Up Tonight

take it easy, it's not easy
「Make Up Tonight」(河合夕子)

The wind's leafing through the files of my memory
Take it easy, it's not easy
"Make Up Tonight" (Kawai Yuuko)

Nazotoki Live ("Mystery Solving Live") is a mystery program produced by NHK with a unique twist: viewers at home (as well as three studio guests) are encouraged to participate actively with the mystery-solving process. The show consists of two parts: a mystery drama part, which is occasionally interrupted by a live studio segment. It's during these breaks that the guests (as well as the viewers) are asked questions related to the mystery drama, that help organize the facts and clues presented in the drama part. Everyone is given a few minutes to think and answer, with points awarded to correct answers (viewers at home can input their answers through their TV remotes, the studio guests can do it live in the studio). Then the show returns to the mystery drama again, and rinse and repeat until the mystery is solved. A perfect score results in eternal fame (a similar show, Anraku Isu Tantei, actually offered a monetary award by the way)

The show appears on television about once a year, and last year, I reviewed 2016's Shikakukan no Misshitsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Murder Case of the Locked Room of the Square House"), which was written by Ayatsuji Yukito. It was the first time I saw the show, but I really loved how they made an otherwise complex mystery very accessible to the viewers at home, as it was a fair mystery plot, but it was also obvious the creators did their best to keep it comprehensible for the viewers at home, as a live mystery drama is another format than a book for example, which asks for different approaches.

The shows are always written by mystery writers, and 2015's entry of this show, Bihakujima Satsujin Jiken ("The Bihaku Island Murder Case"), was written by Abiko Takemaru. In a way, he's perfect for these kinds of shows actually, as he has a lot of experience with recreating the fun of mystery fiction with the help of interactive media. The highly influential novel game Kamaitachi no Yoru was a creation of his for example. The two episodes of this show were broadcast on July 18th and 19th, 2015. Bihaku is a Japanese word meaning 'beautifully white', referring to the classic Japanese idea of beauty that says a woman's skin should be white. The word is often used for skin care products. Bihaku Island is thus a nickname the island got because a local fruit is being used in the products of a succesful make-up company. The director of that company is visiting the island because she'll model for a new company promotion poster. The members of Detective Club CATS, Miko (the brains), Momo (aspirant-photographer) and Momo's brother Ao (policeman) are also part of the group, because Momo got a job as photography assistant. It doesn't take long for Miko, Momo and Ao to see that the director of the make-up company is a rather unpleasant woman, and as decided by the Laws of Mystery Fiction, this director is of course the victim in this murder mystery. Miko and Momo, as well as the studio guests and the viewers back home, will need to figure out what the victim's dying message meant and most importantly: who did it?

For those interested in videogames: it might be interesting to learn that game creator Ishii Jirou was one of the studio guests. He has directed games like 428, but also produced games like 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, so he has quite an affinity for mystery fiction. In fact, he did exceedingly good in this show. Takumi Shuu, creator of the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney game series, would also be a guest the following year by the way.

I have to be honest, and say that as a mystery show, I think 2016's Shikakukan no Misshitsu Satsujin Jiken was a lot more enjoyable. Not that Bihakujima Satsujin Jiken is a bad mystery story. It's only... too predictable. The mystery genre, like most genre fiction, is very dependent on tropes, whether they're used straight or subverted. Bihakujima Satsujin Jiken however uses all tropes in a rather straight, uninspired way. A dying message? Of course it's never what it seems at first sight. And of course the one with the camera was assaulted because he filmed something he shouldn't have. As a pure whodunnit, this story relies on the old-fashioned 'elimination' method to arrive at the right criminal (identify characteristics the murderer must have or must not have, and then comparing them to those of the suspects, and eliminate everyone who does not fit the description from the list), but the manner in which the list of suspects is cut short is again rather classic, and never surprising. In fact, I think studio guest Ishii commented on each question that 'If we'd go the classic way, then the answer would be...' and he got it right every time. If you're familiar with these kinds of whodunnit mysteries, this story is a bit too classically structured, and there's little new to be found here. I also found it frustrating there were a lot of obvious red herrings. I don't mind red herrings, but at least give them some meaning, rather than dumping a truck load of them in the story, but never bothering to flesh them out in a meaningful manner (like hinting at subplots that never come to fruition because they were just red herrings; that's just lazy. Give them some closure!).

What I think is great about this show is how it allows for mystery stories that are usually too complex for television. The intermezzzos between the drama parts allow for the studio guests, but also the viewers to organize all the new information they get. The goal of the questions asked during these intermezzos are in fact precisely that: organizing information / pushing the ideas of the viewers in the right way. Because there's a bit of help along the way, the stories themselves can become much more complex than the usual mystery drama. You'd think that having to create a fair play mystery with participants (studio guests and people at home) would result in a mystery plot that'd be easier to solve, but not here: the writers make use of the extended time, and the fact they can gently guide people to the solution through the intermezzo questions to create plots that are quite complex.

One important factor is the fact all participants have access to "evidence cards": the necessary clues to solve the mystery. These cards, which show all the characters and evidence (for example, a card with the dying message), allow everyone to keep all the important facts at hand. Another interesting feature is the use of the homepage: during the broadcast of this show, people could go the official website to find additional evidence, like a panorama picture of the crime scene, so people could examine the crime scene themselves. In the studio, they even have handy alibi charts ready for the guests. I really like how the program really gives the viewers at home a good look at everything in detail. With all the facts at hand, the focus is less on small details, but more on the logic of getting everything to fit (and I like that better in a mystery story).

Overall, I'd say Bihakujima Satsujin Jiken is an okay mystery story that fits perfectly with the unique concept of the program, but it's also a story that is rather predictable and perhaps too classic. I had hoped for something like Shikakukan no Misshitsu Satsujin Jiken, which had something extra to surprise the viewer with. I wouldn't say this show was lacking, but it was definitely nothing more than I had expected.

Original Japanese title(s): 『謎解きLive 美白島殺人事件』

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Darkest Nightmare

The human whose name is written in this note shall die
"Death Note"

To be honest, I think this particular installment falls outside the scope of this blog, but oh well, it at least gives me a chance to fanboy about Death Note...

While the Death Note might look like just an ordinary black notebook, it is in fact a tool utilized by the Death Gods to terminate the life of humans. The notebook allows the user to kill any person as long as they know the name and face of their target, simply by writing down their names in the notebook. Ten years ago, a genius young man got his hands on a Death Note and started killing off criminals left and right with the help of the supernatural powers of the Death Note, leading society into believing in the existence of "Kira", a vengeful entity who would 'cleanse the world of evil' by killing off those who opposed them. It took the combined efforts of a special Task Force and the world's greatest detective to stop the "Kira" killings and the terrible weapon that is the Death Note. And now, ten years later, no less than six Death Notes have found their way to Earth. One of the new owners of a Death Note claims to be the successor to the original "Kira", but his goal is not only to punish the sinful: he is also after the remaining Death Notes. The Anti-Death Note Task Force, under the leadership of Death Note expert Mishima Tsukuru, is reopened by the Japanese police, and the unit is assisted by Ryuzaki, the successor to the detective who managed to stop the original "Kira" ten years ago. Who shall stand, and who shall fall at the end of the struggle for possession of the Death Notes in the 2016 film Death Note: Light Up The NEW World?

Death Note is a hit comic thriller that originally ran from 2003-2006 that chronicled how the genius Yagami Light came into possession of a Death Note and starts exterminating all 'evil' humans on Earth by writing down the names of not only criminals in the note, but everyone (like the police and other forces who believed in freedom) who opposed Light's reign as "Kira", the god of this new world ruled by fear. The titular Death Note was a supernatural object (and even Death Gods appeared as characters in the series), so while you're right in assuming this was not a conventional mystery series, the intellectual battles that unfolded across the series between Light and the world's greatest detective "L" were really something to behold. As Rampo said, a mystery story is one that focused on a mystery, and the subsequent solving of it through a logical process. Readers of Death Note were constantly presented with brilliant cat-and-mouse games between Light (as the possessor of the Death Note) and L (representing law and justice) as they both tried to checkmate each other. The mysteries of this series were not about murders or alibis or anything conventional as that: the situations themselves were mysteries. How was Light going to get out of that trap set by L? How was L going to avoid getting killed by Light? The strategic chess game between Light and L was fantastic and also important: fair. While Light had access to supernatural powers in the form of the Death Note, the note itself had various rules that limited its use, and it was a joy to see how the rules of the Death Note were used to not only create, but also solve the most exciting situations that seemed to spell nothing but doom for either of the protagonists. Seen as such, Death Note is definitely a mystery series.

The success of Death Note led to various adaptations and spin-offs, and even Netflix has an original American remake planned for release later this year. The 2016 film Death Note: Light Up The NEW World on the other hand is a direct sequel to the Japanese live-action film adaptations of the original comic (2006's Death Note and Death Note: The Last Name), which features a different (shortened) version of the original story, so readers of the manga/viewers of the anime might be surprised at some of the differences in the backstory (the films are great though).

But you might also be surprised to learn that Light Up The NEW World is not a very good film.

The base story is fairly similar to the original Death Note storyline, and that's not strange. The cat-and-mouse games between a brilliant mind who considers himself to be a god thanks to the Death Note, and a brilliant detective who believes it's wrong for one human to have such power were what drove the plot of Death Note, creating one new situation after another where you wondered how they were going to get out of that. This "Genius Death God" VS ""Genius Detective" core dichotomy is repeated in Light Up The NEW World, but it doesn't work that well because mainly, the protagonists of this film are not nearly as smart as the original Light and L. We are introduced to the "successors" of both Light and L in this film, but neither of them show the same level of (almost superhuman) intelligence their predecessors had. The original Death Note was like watching high level chess, where you know what the rules are, but still barely manage to keep up with the amazing moves of each of the two insanely intelligent players. The new protagonists in Light Up The NEW World are simply playing the same chess game at normal speed, and their strategems don't feel as nearly impressive. At no point does Light Up The NEW World manage to be as exciting as the original films, nor does it manage to present the viewer with unique situations which are solved in a logical way.

In fact, the few moments where Light Up The NEW World does make 'smart' use of the Death Note rules to create engaging situations which need solving, those rare moments are basically nothing more but water-downed versions of events that are either taken from the manga, or even worse, were already featured in the original two films! This was probably the greatest disappointment, as the few moments that show some promise were nothing more than inferior repeats of situations done much better in the earlier two films. The conclusion to this film for example is nothing more than a less impressive version of an important event in Death Note: The Last Name (and the corresponding arc in the original manga), and its weaknesses are strengthened by the fact there is no proper building up, or foreshadowing, to this conclusion. I really find it a fault that they didn't properly develop the plot to facilitate the ending, because I think it could've at least worked much better if structured better. Now's it's basically a rip-off, and not even done right!

The rest of the film consists of many "If only they did more with that...". From horrible use of characters from the original two films, to the rather limited use of the fact there were six Death Notes on Earth, it's all rather disappointing. And don't get me started on the impossible way it sometimes shoehorns new backstories to the characters from the original films, because logistically, a lot of what drives the plot of Light Up The NEW World contradicts directly with the original films. Another misstep is the position of "hacking" in this film. Sure, computer hacking is seldom portrayed realistically in fiction, but when you have all kinds of rules to limit the power of a supernatural weapon like the Death Note to keep the cat-and-mouse games interesting, I find it weird that they allow hacking to be overpowered and capable of doing anything. It's as if hacking is more powerful than a Death Note.

The few times Death Note: Light Up The NEW World does manage to feel somewhat interesting, it's only because it's mirroring the original series, and that shows that on its own, it's really not that fun. That's the word I was looking for. It's simply not fun. If it's not attempting (poorly) to replicate the events and situations that made the original Death Note films so engaging, then it's busy throwing things at you that weaken the plot on the whole. At no point does Light Up The NEW World manage to come close to the strategic mystery plots that manage to make the original a hit.

Original Japanese title(s): 『デスノート Light up the NEW World』 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Gathering Pieces


I've been saving them up from rather long ago / I sometimes read them again / inside my head
Those words / There's an echo to those words
"Echo" (Unicorn)

If you have ever browsed in the comic department of a bookstore in Japan, you might have come across them: preview booklets. When a publisher decides to push sales for a certain series (for example because there's an anime or live adaptation coming up, or the comic won an award), they'll often work together with bookstores to promote the series. Projects like these often involve little cards placed around the store with comments on the work in question by the bookstore employees themselves, the infamous hiratsumi method of getting attention (putting heaps of the books in question in front of the book cabinet with the cover facing up, instead of putting them inside the cabinets with only their spines visible) and of course preview booklets. These booklets are not meant for readers to take away (and are often chained to the cabinets), but allow perusing customers to read a chapter for free (new comic books are often wrapped in foil in Japan). They are obviously an effective way to introduce new readers to a series and I myself have also bought comics after reading such booklets.

My favorite live action drama of 2016 was Juuhan Shuttai! ("Reprint Ready!"), which was based on a manga about a manga editor and the story behind how a manga is made, from the artist, to the publisher all the way to the bookstore and customer. One of the episodes was about how the marketing department of the publisher decided to promote a series and create preview booklets. I was quite surprised to learn that they actually use overstock of the books to create these preview booklets; they cut out the first chapter from the complete book to create a new booklet, and throw the rest away. It was quite shocking to see they sacrifice whole books to create a smaller book, but I guess it makes more sense than printing extra books before you even know whether the promotion will improve sales.

(If you ever want to learn more about how the manga industry works in Japan, go watch Juuhan Shuttai! or read the manga! It's both fun and informative, especially as it looks at the complete industry, rather than just at the artists or editors)

You don't see these booklets in Japan for 'normal' books (i.e. the non-comic kinds), as reading a comic is a lot easier than reading the first chapter of a novel inside a bookstore, but with the growing popularity of e-books, publishers have been making these kinds of free preview booklets available digitally. Obviously, practical costs are basically nil compared to having to cut out books, repackaging them and sending them off to bookstores, so I expect this practice will grow out to be quite similar to the comic preview booklets.

As I quite enjoyed Aosaki Yuugo's debut book Taiikukan no Satsujin ("The Gymnasium Murder", 2012) some years back, I decided to read the free preview booklet promoting Aosaki. Aosaki Yuugo no Aisatsu ("Greetings from Aosaki Yuugo") consists out of an extended preview of Taiikukan no Satsujin, one complete short story in the same series, as well as an interview with Aosaki and a complete list of his works. As I already read Taiikukan no Satsujin, I will refer to that review if you want to know my feelings on that story. For this review, I'll only focus on the short story included in this booklet, part of Aosaki's short story collection Kazagaoka Juuen Matsuri no Nazo ("The Kazagaoka Ten Yen Festival Mystery", 2014), a book I definitely intend to purchase when the paperback version is released.

Mou Isshoku Eraberu Donburi ("A Rice Bowl Where You Can Choose One Extra Dish") is part of the Urazome Tenma series and is set just a few weeks after Urazome managed to solve the impossible murder in the school gymnasium in Taiikukan no Satsujin. Yuno and a friend are having lunch in the school cafeteria when the lady who runs the place cries out she found a tray with a half-eaten rice bowl outside the cafeteria, hidden beneath a window. Because the cafeteria is so small, students often took their trays outside, but as many students didn't bother to bring the trays back, the cafeteria introduced a fee-system: you had put a 100 yen deposit if you wanted to take your tray outside. But even then some people decided it'd be easier to leave their trays somewhere around school, so one week ago, a new strict rule was announced: if they'd ever find something that hadn't been properly returned to the cafeteria, they wouldn't allow people to take their trays outside at all anymore. Fearing that nobody will be able to eat outside from now on, Yuno convinces Urazome to find out who left that rice bowl outside, in exchange for free meal tickets.

This is the first time I read a short story by Aosaki and I really liked it. The main novels in the Urazome Tenma series are meticulously constructed logic puzzles about murder, but this story was much more in line with an everyday life mystery, as the 'crime' is rather light (leaving a tray and bowl outside). Yet, one shouldn't underestimate the mystery, because Urazome first points out some peculiar traits of the tray (for example, why was the main dish left untouched, while all the rice has been eaten and why wasn't the tray brought back even though it was like three steps away from the drop-off point?). The way Urazome first deduces the physical traits of the 'culprit' and even the motive based on a single, physical clue is very much in line with the Queen school, which is natural, as Aosaki is obviously inspired by Queen's writings (his publisher even goes as far as selling him as "the modern-day Queen"). The solution is wonderfully simple, but oh-so-fitting to the setting. I really enjoyed this story, as it makes a solid (even if short) logic puzzle out of an otherwise very mundane problem.

It's also the first time the Urazome Tenma series really felt like a high school mystery. Sure, the previous books were about school clubs and set at Kazagaoka High School, but still, murder feels far away removed from high school life. A problem at the school cafeteria is much more alluring as a school mystery, in my mind. Now I think about it, it's funny that that other school mystery series I love, Higashigawa Tokuya's Koigakubo Academy Detective Club series, is also often not very 'school'-like. The novels are about murder, like the Urazome Tenma series, and while the short stories are not about murder, they do often feature assault and other 'real crimes'. The atmosphere in both series is similar though, with a lot of high-paced, witty dialogue between the students. Another point is that for once, the Urazaome Tenma series isn't overrun with characters. Seriously, the novels are great puzzle plot mysteries, but Aosaki has a tendency to go overboard with the number of suspects/involved characters, especially as most of them are all students. This short story had a nice, small cast.

As I figured writing a full post on one single short story is rather stretching things, I decided to read another short story by Aosaki. Kami no Mijikaku Natta Shitai ("The Dead Body Whose Hair Was Cut Short") is part of Aosaki's short story collection Knockin' on Locked Door, which is about two detectives sharing an office. Touri Gotenba specializes in impossible mysteries, while his partner Katanashi Hisame is an expert on incomprehensible crimes. This particular story was selected as one of the best Japanese short mystery stories published in the year of 2014 by the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan, and included in Honkaku Mystery Best 2015. Kami no Mijikaku Natta Shitai starts with a case broker bringing a case for Katanashi, as he has found an incomprehensible murder. The leader of a small theatre troupe was found murdered in a small, soundproof apartment the troupe rented for rehearsal. She was found in the bathroom, wearing only her underwear and for some reason, her long hair had been cut short and been removed from the crime scene. Evidence seems to be pointing towards someone among her three fellow members, but why would anyone want to cut the hair of the deceased?

The problem is similar to that from a certain book originally published in the Kappa Novels line, the characters in this story comment as they investigate the mystery, and indeed, I know exactly which book they mean and it did sound similar at first (I am not linking to the review on purpose, as the characters didn't want to say it out loud either). Yet, Aosaki manages to come up with a completely different solution to the mystery, one that is both original and satisfying. Like with the previous story, this one is very focused on physical clues (the cut-hair of course, but also more), and their interpretation (why is X in a certain state or why was Y used or not used in the first place?), and I have to admit, I usually like these kinds of clues the best (or at least a lot better than psychological clues). I did like Mou Isshoku Eraberu Donburi more than this story though, but that's because I really like the setting and mystery of that one. In terms of surprise, but also clueing, I'd say that Kami no Mijikaku Natta Shitai is a better constructed story.

This is the only story I have read in the Knockin' on Locked Door series, and it does sound interesting, with two detectives specializing in different kind of mysteries, but who do support each other in their respective cases. I might be picking this up (again, if a paperback version is released. I don't have the money, nor the space to buy hardcovers all the time).

It's been rather chaotic post, about preview booklets and two unrelated short stories by Aosaki, but my concusions are: preview books are good. Aosaki writes good short stories. Paperback releases should be released faster. Yep, that's about it.

Original Japanese title(s): 青崎有吾 『青崎有吾の挨拶』 / 「髪の短くなった死体」

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Blue Air Message

上空 舞うもの達と Over Drive
紙吹雪のように鳥が舞う キレイね
 『Over Drive』(Garnet Crow)

In Over Drive with those dancing high in the sky
I want to be surrounded by a world of blue
The birds are fluttering around like confetti, how pretty
"Over Drive" (Garnet Crow)

I don't fly that often, but only once have I experienced the "Is there a doctor on the plane?" myself. There were none present, by the way (or least nobody said they were).

C. Daly King's Obelist Fly High (1935) starts with a visit by Dr. Cutter to the New York City Police, as he has received an alarming letter, stating: "YOU WILL DIE APRIL THIRTEENTH AT NOON EXACTLY CENTRAL TIME". The death threat is especially dangerous, because Dr. Cutter happens the only surgeon on American soil at the moment who can perform a certain life-saving operation, and luck has it the Secretary of State, who is also his own brother, is in desperate need of that very procedure right now. Captain Michael Lord is given the mission to travel  together with Dr. Cutter and his entourage (his nieces and assistent) in their trip from New York to Reno and protect the doctor from harm. After some diversionary tactics plotted by Lord, the Cutter entourage makes it safely into a plane heading for Reno (with stops in between). However, on April thirteenth, at noon (Central Time), Dr. Cutter does indeed drop dead from his seat. Who could've committed the murder on the small plane?

Like many people in today's world, I too have to think a lot of time zones and stuff while working, but as I live in a country with just one time zone, I do have to admit I had never thought of having to specify a time zone in a murder announcement (within one country).

First time I read something by Daly King actually. I'll leave the details about him as a writer to other writers (the internet is a wonderful thing), because let's be honest, considering I know next to nothing about him, I'd be simply copying from other writers. Anyway, I first learned of this book while I was reading up on Ayukawa Tetsuya, a Japanese writer who wrote a lot of (great!) alibi-cracking mysteries and mysteries set on trains (transport). With novels like Obelists at Sea and Obelists Fly High, it appeared Daly King would very likely be a writer who could interest me, so I picked up the first easily available release.

Overall, I think Obelists Fly High is an entertaining mystery novel, but one that has some obvious flaws. First of all, this story is probably much longer than it should've been, because it drags quite a lot from the midsection on. There is only one murder in this novel, and it's also mostly set inside a small plane (they do have to change planes a couple of times), so everything feels incredibly cramped, both in terms of 'space for the characters to move in' as well as the focus of the story. Over the course of the story, we'll see several characters propose theories as to the how and who of the murder, but these theories are not like those you'll see in a Berkeley novel, or something like the theories in Kyomu he no Kumotsu. The theories are incredibly simple, and mostly driven by psychology rather than a logical analysis of the cirumstances, so they don't really feel satisfying. They're really nothing but conjecture, with nothing to prove or disprove them.

Speaking of that, it appears Daly King was a psychologist, so that would explain the emphasis on psychology in the story, though I am not sure whether I can call his usage of it in this book a success. On a side note, this book has some very old-fashioned views on topics like homosexuality, presented through the mouth of protagonist Captain Lord, and I am not sure whether they're "character traits", or more likely seeing how it's presented here, Daly King's personal views. But when you have characters discussing theories about who the murderer is based on 'the perverted psychology of homosexuality'... It's tiring to read, especially as I already noted that these theories hinge on little less than these psychological analyses..

A fair amount of the story is taken up by a very detailed examination in the alibis of all the people on the plane. Let me confess right away that I had to think back to Aosaki Yuugo's Suizokukan no Satsujin right away, which revolved around the alibis of 11(!) suspects. I really didn't like it there and I still didn't like it in Obelists Fly High. It's too detailed, too many time stamps that say too little. Ayakawa Tetsuya has also written novels that revolve around the whereabouts of persons/objects down to the minute (Kuroi Trunk, Doukeshi no Ori amongst others), but they were about the movements of ONE person/object at a time. In Obelists Fly High, you have more than ten persons to keep track off, with some persons vouching for other persons' alibis at set times. I just lose interest with all these interlinked alibis. The final resolution of this alibi part is also ridiculously simple and should not have needed a set-up like this.

The book does have an interesting structure, starting with the epilogue, and ending with the prologue. The final solution presented is... I think supposed to be very surprising, except for the fact it is not. I think the premise behind the solution is great though, and I think it's the best part of the book, but it is also so obvious because of the way the narrative tries to cast as little suspicion as possible in that direction, almost conspiciously so. The way it was done, would also demand for some of the characters in this story to act as stupidly as possible. Seriously, Captain Lord is horrible as a detective character. The things he does are idiotic at times, and not in the hahahaha-Roger-Sheringham-oh-you-silly-fop way, but oh-my-god-why-would-you-even way (seriously,  what eventually happens in that plane is all his fault). In fact, he even creates a kind of plot mistake through his actions. Seriously, the plot as presented in Obelists Fly High contains a rather fatal mistake and it's all Lord's fault (though one could "explain" it by saying that shows how bad a detective Lord is).

I did like the Clue Finder at the end of the book a lot. It's a list of all the hints contained in the text, complete with page and line reference, all sorted by category (clues to how, who, motive etc.). It's a great, and daring way to 'prove' a story is fair to the reader, and it's actually quite fun as a reader to see how many of the hints you picked up. This is not a Queen story though, so a lot of the clues are more psychological (of course), than physical or based on logic.

Which reminds me, there is a moment in the book where Captain Lord declares he knows who the murderer is, similar to the moment right before Queen or other writers would insert a Challenge to the Reader. The thing is: there is no reason for that moment to happen then. In Arisugawa's works for example, such Challenges always follow after the introduction of the final, decisive clue. So the detective character couldn't solve the crime until they got posssession of that particular clue. That is a logical structure. In Obelists Fly High, Captain Lord is sitting on the same clues for a while, when he suddenly figures out what happens, without any stimulus for why then, and not earlier. It's really weird, because narrative-wise, there is no reason why he couldn't have figured it out earlier.

Like Berkeley's work, Obelists Fly High does obviously takes some cues from the anti-mystery, that use the form of a mystery novel to criticize the possibilities and tropes of the genre itself (for example, seeing Captain Lord basically screwing up in a lot of ways even though he probably means well). It works quite well in this novel actually, and is one of the reasons why I did have a good feeling about this book on the whole.

As I'm lining up my ideas on this book, you might think I might not have liked Obelists Fly High, but despite the annoyances I named, I really did enjoy the book overall. I think a lot of the ideas in the book are really sound, and even if they weren't all great in terms of execution, in the end, if you were to ask me yay or nay with a pistol pointed at me inside a flying plane, I'd say yay (there are of course many examples where a botched idea ends up in a complete failure). I for one am quite curious to other novels by C. Daly King. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

Recall THE END

「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