Saturday, April 21, 2018

Instead of Evidence


I'll get on that orange paradise express to go meet with him
"The Paradise Express of Love" (Kojima Mayumi)

I do want to climb the Fuji one day...

Inspector Totsugawa wasn't that surprised when he got a phone call from a private detective asking him about his subordinate Houjou. Considering her looks and age, marriage was probably something not too far off in the future, so the Inspector figured it was probably the parents or some other concerned family member of the partner who wanted to know more about Houjou. It is only after the arrest of Houjou on suspicion of murder of one Yamanobe Hiroshi on the Fuji Express to Kyushu that the Inspector learns she never had any marriage plans: heck, she wasn't even dating. Apparently, somebody had been dating the victim Yamanobe posing as Houjou, and the real Houjou had tried to find her imposter by boarding the Fuji Express, but with Yamanobe murdered and evidence piling up that "Houjou"' is the murderer, the Fukuoka Police has no choice but to detain their collegue. Inspector Totsugawa however believes his subordinate to be innocent, and starts an investigation into the murder in Nishimura Kyoutarou's Tokkyuu Fuji ni Notteita Onna ("The Woman Who Took The Fuji Express", 1989).

Another novel by Nishimura Kyoutarou, and another in the Inspector Totsugawa series. Yep, this one is about trains too, at least, it features a train at the start of the story. The titular Fuji was a sleeper train that ran between Tokyo and Oita, Kyushu, running (in one form or another) between 1929 until 2009. Unlike many other books in the Inspector Totsugawa series though, the Fuji's appearance is pretty much limited to the first couple of chapters: it is nothing more than the crime scene, and there are no clever time schedule tricks, nor do we see the Inspector and his team traveling across the country in order to find the imposter.

I have mentioned in earlier reviews that Nishimura Kyoutarou is an extremely prolific writer, who has close to 600 novels to his name as I write this review. And yes, that takes an enormous toll on the quality. He sometimes publishes several books per month, and most, if not all of them will feature Totsugawa and trains, so you can guess how samey and uninspired they can become. I have reviewed some earlier novels in the series for this blog, like Terminal Satsujin Jiken and Blue Train Satsujin Jiken, which may not have been perfect, but they were still entertaining as mystery novels with a focus on trains, with murderers making clever use of time schedules and the unique setting of trains as a murder scene. Tokkyuu Fuji ni Notteita Onna on the other hand is a perfect example of a mass-produced product, with little originality and few signs of actual plotting. It really feels like it was simply written because another book needed to get finished that month.

The premise itself (a female police officer being framed by an imposter) was okay, I think, but the book turns into the most predictable, and boring tale once we leave the Fuji Express. The "deductions" Inspector Totsugawa makes about the murder and the imposter are all nothing but guesses, and what's worse, each of them is proven to be correct! The Inspector sometimes comes up with the most fanciful creations of the mind by inventing unfounded connections between the various points of his investigation, which are always validated as correct a chapter later by some witness who just very luckily exists. Rince and repeat several times, and that's Tokkyuu Fuji ni Notteita Onna. Each single clue the Inspector finds happens to be intricately connected to the murderer's plot, and anything that would require actual inspiration to resolve in an adequate manner is shoved away in the hopes nobody notices it (seriously; the handling of the imposter at the end of the novel is horrible).

Also add in the fact that the Inspector does some really awful things during this investigations. Sure, he's busy trying to save his subordinate, but to orchestrate things in the hopes of upsetting a suspect so they'll strike again to clean up some loose ends, leading to more murders is probably something a police officer should avoid. The way the Inspector tries to get a suspected accomplice to talk near the end of the novel is also ridiculous, and should've got him fired no matter his intentions and the results he got.

So yeah, there is pretty much nothing redeeming about Tokkyuu Fuji ni Notteita Onna. Sure, it is a story about a murder on a train and the desperate attempts by Inspector Totsugawa to find the real murderer, but every single element of the story is written without any fire, without any real thought. The thing is not solved because the Inspector made great deductions about the crime, it is solved because his random thoughts always turn out to be correct within this fictional world, with any random guess based on nothing proven to be right. The reason I started with the book, was because I hoped the story would also feature Kyushu a bit (as the Fuji Express ends there), but what I got was The Stereotypical Mass Produced Mystery Novel by Nishimura Kyoutarou. There's definitely some fun stuff in his early work, but this novel is what happens when you publish three, four books a month.

Original Japanese title(s): 西村京太郎 『特急富士に乗っていた女』

Monday, April 16, 2018

番外編:The 8 Mansion Murders

It's that time of the year again! Hay fever? Well, yes, that too, but the last few years, the early spring has also been the period for me to do a service announcement that should interest those who like Japanese mystery fiction.

In 2015, I was more than excited to announce that Locked Room International would publish Yukito AYATSUJI's The Decagon House Murders, and that I was responsible for the translation of that ingenious homage to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. The year after, we followed up with Alice ARISUGAWA's The Moai Island Puzzle, a mystery novel I personally see as one of the greatest Japanese experiments in deduction, beating Ellery Queen at his own game. Both these novels were excellent examples of the shin honkaku, or new orthodox mystery novel movement that started in the second half of the eighties in Japan, when a group of young university students started making their debuts as professional writers with puzzle plot mysteries that harkened back on the Golden Age, but with an imbedded meta-concious tone. In 2017, I worked on The Ginza Ghost, a short story collection of (mostly) impossible mysteries from the 1930s-1940s by Keikichi OSAKA, a brilliant master of the short story who sadly enough became a forgotten writer after World War II, but who has recently regained a very appreciative audience.

For 2018, we're going back to shin honkaku, back to modern puzzle plot mysteries that pay homage to Golden Age mystery fiction, but also build upon that and even dare to go further. By now it's known that the shin honkaku movement was born in Kyoto, as most of the shin honkaku writers originated from Mystery Clubs from universities in the ancient capital of Japan. The most influential was the Kyoto University Mystery Club, where writers like Ayatsuji and Norizuki came from (Arisugawa came from Doshisha University's MC). For Locked Room International's third shin honkaku novel, we have the first novel of the third author who debuted from Kyoto University Mystery Club. Takemaru ABIKO's The 8 Mansion Murders was originally released in 1989, but the English version is scheduled to be released coming May. The novel's a tribute to the impossible crime mystery in the spirit of John Dickson Carr, which also happens to be a hilarious adventure. Comedy is a trademark of Abiko, but don't let the funny bickering between the various characters fool you, as the core is as classic as you can get, with impossible murders inside an odd, "8"-shaped house and! and a genuine locked room lecture!

Publishers Weekly has an early starrred review up and deemed The 8 Mansion Murders "one of the funniest and cleverest novels of its type to hit the English-language market in years." My own review from many years ago can be found here. Of the novels I've done for Locked Room International now, I think The 8 Mansion Murders is not only by far the funniest, it's also the most accessible I think, with a more classic, but certainly not less entertaining set-up.

Takemaru ABIKO writes mystery plots for a wide variety of mediums, and has especially been influential in the videogame world. The game Kamaitachi no Yoru was a genuine game-changer for mystery games back in the mid-90s (the first where you had to input the name of the culprit yourself!), and an English localized version is available on iOS and Android under the name Banshee's Last Cry. He has also worked on the 3DS mystery/science-fiction game The Starship Damrey and on certain scenarios of the fantastic 428 (English release 2018). The 8 Mansion Murders however will be the first time one of his novels will be translated into English.

Anyway, I hope you'll have as much fun with The 8 Mansion Murders as I had with translating it. The book will once again feature an introduction by Soji SHIMADA, and (a lot!) of footnotes both by the author himself and me. For those who enjoyed The Decagon House Murders and/or The Moai Island Puzzle, I'd say this is a must-read, as it builds on the same tradition, but with a very different tone from those works.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Turnabout Storyteller

"The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to the seeker after it."
"The Murder of Roger Ackroyd"

On this blog, I try to discuss mystery fiction in various forms. While most of the reviews here are of books, you'll also find many reviews of mystery videogames, audio dramas and I have even discussed mystery musicals. But the medium I discuss most often after books, are the audiovisual productions: television dramas, specials and movies. Mystery dramas and movies are of course quite popular, and many of them are in fact adaptations of novels. An adaptation almost always opens the way for discussion: some stories turn out to work better when it's presented in a visual medium, while other stories actually have trouble working as a visual production. To refer to a recent review on the blog: the solution to the locked room murder in episode 184 of Detective Conan works so much better because it's presented in a visual format and it wouldn't have nearly as much impact in a novel form. But there are plenty of examples where an adaptation might seem troublesome.

Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) has long been such an example. This third novel featuring the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot was adapted for Agatha Christie's Poirot featuring David Suchet in 2000 for example, but did it really manage to convey what Christie did in that novel? No, not at all, and it ended up in a rather nondescript television movie of what is arguably one of Christie's better known novels. There's a Russian adaptation, it seems, but I haven't seen that one so can't really comment. But in general, one can say that some ideas simply don't work too well outside a novel, the same way some ideas don't really work outside the audiovisual format, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has long been a headscratcher for that reason.

A few months ago, it was announced that Fuji TV would broadcast a three-hour television special based on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in April, with a screenplay by Mitani Kouki. Mitani is a theater/film/TV screenplay writer and director, who is known for his comedic storytelling. He has directed some fantastic hartwarming comedy movies like Radio no Jikan (AKA Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald), The Uchouten Hotel, The Magic Hour and Suteki na Kanashibari. One of his better known plays was Juuninin no Yasashii Nihonjin ("12 Gentle Japanese"), a fantastic parody on the courtroom drama classic 12 Angry Men. He's also an important person in the context of this blog: he wrote Furuhata Ninzaburou, the fantastic Japanese Columbo and Ellery Queen-inspired TV show and he was a showrunner of Sherlock Holmes, a children's detective show which featured not actors, but puppets.

In 2015, his adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express was broadcast: the two-part special was set in 1933's Japan and featured not Hercule Poirot, but the great detective Suguro Takeru. While the first two-hour part was a competent, but rather too faithful adaptation of the book (which reminded a bit too much of the 1974 film adaptation), the second part was sheer genius: it told the story of Murder on the Orient Express from the point of view of the murderer(s) in a comedic tone. This inverted adaptation of the story fitted Mitani's style perfectly, as many of his comedy movies are about problems happening 'backstage' at for example an hotel (The Uchouten Hotel) or a live radio play performance (Radio no Jikan). The backstage tale of Murder on the Orient Express was more than charming, and some of the original elements even helped address some of the problems of the original novel! While The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has long been seen as a difficult work to adapt, I was really curious to see what Mitani would do with this television special!

Mitani Kouki's adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd titled Kuroido Goroshi ("The Murder of Kuroido") was broadcast on April 14, 2018. The story is set in a small, rural village in 1952, where we first meet with Doctor Shiba, the village's only practitioner who is also a personal friend of Kuroido Rokusuke, the most affluent person in the village. Kuroido is one night murdered inside his study, and suspicion soon falls on his adopted son Haruo, who had left for Tokyo, but had that day returned to the village with debts. Believing in Haruo's innocence, Kuroido's niece (and fiancee of Haruo) asks Doctor Shiba's neighbor for help: it turns out that unbeknownst to Doctor Shiba, his odd neighbor is in fact the world famous detective Suguro Takeru who had retired to the village to grow vegetable marrows. Suguro accepts the request and with the assistance of Doctor Shiba in the form of his new Watson, the two set out to figure out who murdered Kuroido.

One can feel Mitani's love for the original novel throughout this special, which already starts with the names of the characters. While they are all Japanese, they're also neat references to the original characters. The great detective Suguro Takeru's name is for example based off Hercule Poirot: Suguro is a Japanese name that is somewhat similar to the Japanese pronouncation of Poirot, while Takeru is derived from Yamato Takeru, a legendary figure just like Hercule(s). Kuroido is of course a name similar Ackroyd (the kroyd part), while Doctor Shiba in this special is named Doctor Sheppard in the original novel. For fans of the source material, there are a lot of neat little references to be found here.

While the story is set in 1950s Japan instead of 1920s England, Kuroido Goroshi is actually a fairly faithful adaptation of the source material. The core mystery plot is left completely intact and Mitani even adds a few minor changes to make the whole production more entertaining, strengthening the backstories and motives of several of the suspects for example, making it harder to guess who's the murderer. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is especially infamous for a certain reason which I can't and won't divulge here, but those who have read the book will know about it without any doubt, and it's famous enough you might know about it even without having read it. It is the reason why The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is often seen as very hard to do in a visual format. Kuroido Goroshi works surprisingly well, to be honest. While it may not be 100% exactly the same as the book (which would be quite a feat), I'd say Kuroido Goroshi does more than a commendable effort. Clever shifting of some of the events and supporting dialogue lines help set-up the surprising twist quite well, and the moment Suguro reveals who the murderer is, you really see how there's actually more foreshadowing than in the original novel. Like with his adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, Mitani stays mostly faithful to the original novel, but dares to add some new touches here and there to answer some of the unanswered questions of the original novel, making it a very robust mystery story. The motive for the murder is changed by the way, but it really works well in the context of this special: the original motive wouldn't have fitted Kuroido Goroshi and I'm happy they went with this one.

The tone of Kuroido Goroshi is distinctly Mitani, with a heartwarming atmosphere with a lot of playfulness. While Suguro Takeru (played by Nomura Mansai) is the detective character, the true hero of this special is Doctor Shiba as played by Ooizumi You, as he's even longer on screen than Suguro! (Suguro doesn't even really appear on screen in the first third of the special). The scenes he has with his older gossipy sister are pure Mitani gold in terms of warm comedy, and the chemistry between the eager Doctor Shiba and the somewhat eccentric Suguro works really well: I wish we had a whole series with these two. Ooizumi You is playing the assistant this time, but he's played the protagonist in other mystery productions discussed on this blog before: he not only plays the unnamed detective in the films based on the novel series Tantei wa Bar ni Iru, he's also the voice actor of Professor Layton! While some might be of the opinion that the comedic tone might not fit The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, I think it works wonderfully for Kuroido Goroshi, as it really manages to give this production its own face, while at the same time, it shows the original novel the respect it deserves. In my mind, this is the best of both worlds: in his two-part Murder on the Orient Express adaptation, most of the Mitani flavor was reserved for the second part, and the first part felt like nothing but a remake of the 1974 film where Mitani's hand could hardly be felt. Kuroido Goroshi however is from the start clearly a collaboration production between Mitani and Agatha Christie, which really sets its apart as a television special.

So Kuroido Goroshi was a very entertaining adaptation of Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd that easily surpassed my admittedly reserved expectations of it. Screenplay writer Mitani Kouki managed to come up with a story that is very faithful to the source material, but that at the same time is also distinctly his take on the story. One can instantly recognize his style in storytelling, characterization and comedy, but this is fused brilliantly with Christie's original story, resulting in a television special that is truly a team effort across time and cultures. Mitani also manages to translate a trick that doesn't really work outside of the book format in a surprisingly workable and convincing manner for this special and the result is a mystery special that can firmly stand on its own.

Original Japanese title(s):『黒井戸殺し』

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Don't Wanna Lie


 "There's always only one truth!"
"Detective Conan"

With a comic series with 94 volumes (and more in the making), and an animated television series just two episodes short of 900, Detective Conan has not only become one of the biggest mystery IPs in existence, it's also become a major part of Japanese popular culture of the last two decades. But there was a time early on when original creator Aoyama Goushou considered stopping with the series due to the hectic work schedule. By then the animated television series based on his comics had already started, but still, he was not sure whether he wanted to continue with Conan. What changed his mind however, was when it was decided that an animated theatrical release would be made of Detective Conan. This project gave him new wings, and in 1997, Detective Conan: The Time-Bombed Skyscraper was released, intended as the definitive theatrical adaptation of the series. By the time of the film's release however, Detective Conan had grown so popular that it was decided that the following year, another Conan film would be released. The annual Conan movies have remained a tradition up to this very day, and tomorrow, on April 13, 2018, Detective Conan: Zero The Enforcer will be released in Japanese theatres as the twenty-second Detective Conan movie.

While the Detective Conan movies are not strictly part of the comic storyline, I'd say the Detective Conan films can serve as an excellent introduction to the series, as they usually encompass all the major themes of the series (mystery, thriller, romantic comedy) in easily accessible bite-size productions. My very own introduction to Detective Conan was through the second film, The Fourteenth Target for example, and I had no trouble getting into the story using this movie as my springboard. What helps is that every single Detective Conan film starts with a short three minute introduction to the series' premise and the major recurring characters that'll play a role in the movie in question. Many Conan fans will know the introducing lines "My name's Kudou Shinichi, a high student school detective..." by heart. Each film can (more or less) stand on its own as an action-mystery movie, so there are actually quite some people who don't really watch or read Conan regularly, but watch the films each year. The films have a wide appeal and are viewed by a broad audience in Japan: I remember from my own visits to the theater that I've seen everyone here with Conan, from kids and their parents to high school couples to the middle-aged and elderly. The films are also each year broadcast on television (once the latest film is released in April, the one from the year before is broadcast) and are always watched by many.

But with twenty-two of them out (starting tomorrow), I thought this might be a good time to pick out a few of them. The four films I picked out for this post are not only some of the best of the series, serving as good mystery movies that also do the main series justice in terms of atmosphere: another condition for picking them is that I also deem them suitable as introductions to the series in general, so these are also the movies that don't lean to much on the action, or don't require too much knowledge of the series and characters in general for the pay-off. I hope that this list can help out someone who hasn't started on the series yet (or not on the movies). The movies are listed on release year.

1. Detective Conan: The Fourteenth Target (1998) is the second film of the series. A killer is targeting the people near to the Sleeping Detective Mouri Kogorou according to a certain pattern, and it's up to Conan to catch this murderer. The Fourteenth Target is one of the most classically-styled mystery films of the whole series, with a complete focus on the mystery plot (with only one big action scene in the film's excellent climax). While some might find the clues to the identity of the murderer a bit sparse, the film does feature one of the more unique motives for the murders and one can really enjoy The Fourteenth Target as standalone murder mystery. The underlying plot's also deeply connected to the main cast, making it a great introduction to the series in general, as the film's really good at quickly making all the character relations clear. And I'll repeat myself, but the whole climax scene, from the identification of the murderer all the way to the credits is fantastic.

If you liked The Fourteenth Target: for those who want to see more of the Sleeping Detective Kogorou when he's not a bumbling detective, but really trying his best, go watch 2005's Detective Conan: Strategy Above The Depths. This ninth Detective Conan film has a bit more action, but the story is similarly to The Fourteenth Target very focused on its core mystery plot (which explains why it's not that popular actually, as it misses a bit of the spectacle other movies have).

2. Detective Conan: Captured In Her Eyes (2000) is the fourth film, and starts with a short flashback of Shinichi and Ran in the amusement park, only hours before Shinichi was turned into a child and had to hide his true identity to everyone, including Ran, with his disguise as the kid Edogawa Conan. Back in the present, Ran's become witness to an attempted murder on police detective Satou, the latest victim in a series of attacks on cops. Ran's lost her memory due to the shock, and the murderer tries to get rid of her before she recovers her memory and remembers the face of the cop-killer. Captured In Her Eyes manages to fuse an okay whodunnit plot about the cop killer with a personal story of Ran having lost all her memories of her family and friends and the result is a story that's really captivating from start to end, as the mystery plot serves as a vehicle to explore the characters, but also vice versa. As a true theatrical adaptation of the series, Captured In Her Eyes is perhaps the pinnacle.

If you liked Captured In Her Eyes: the very first movie, Detective Conan: The Time-Bombed Skyscraper, has a more limited mystery plot, about a serial bomber who seems to hold a grudge against Shinichi, but ends up as a pretty character-focused story too. As the very first film, it's also very accessible as there's so little luggage and can serve as a great introduction to the series too.

3. Detective Conan: Countdown to Heaven (2001) is the fifth movie, and the very first that featured the so-called Black Organization from the series: the mysterious criminal gang that developed the drug that turned Shinichi into the child detective Conan. Members of the Black Organization have been hanging around the newly built Twin Tower Buildings in West Tama City. A murder inside a suite room of the Twin Tower Buildings is followed by another murder during the opening reception of the Towers, followed by a series of explosions. While most people manage to escape the burning towers, Conan and his friends get stuck in one of them, and they are forced to find a way out while also figuring out who the serial murderer is. Countdown to Heaven has a bigger focus on explosions than previous films, something subsequent movies will use even more, but the core mystery plot is actually... really good. The motive behind the murders is brilliantly clued and once that's done, you're left with a fantastic action movie. That last scene, where they manage to escape the exploding tower? Amazing stuff here.

If you liked Countdown to Heaven: there are a few other films that feature the Black Organization or some of the other police organizations that fight the Black Organization. The thirteenth movie, Detective Conan: The Raven Chaser (2009), has a rather uninspired mystery plot, but has an exciting finale and be seen fairly well as a standalone movie. That can't be said of the seventeenth movie, Detective Conan: Dimensional Sniper (2014), nor the twentieth Detective Conan: The Darkest Nightmare (2016). The latter in particular is a grand spectacle action movie that really relies on knowledge of the series to be fun, otherwise it's just a parade of "Who's that? Why are they fighting?". The Dimensional Sniper is an entertaining action-flick with a minor mystery plot, but it ties in to the background of a popular character in the original comics and you really need that background knowledge to get the most out of the film (especially from the last three seconds before the credits roll. It's a brilliant reveal, but you're not going to get it if The Dimensional Sniper is your introduction to the series).

4. Detective Conan: The Crimson Love Letter (2017) was released last year as the twenty-first movie and has Conan working with Hattori Heiji, a high school student detective from Osaka who's one of the few who knows Conan's real identity. This time the duo are working on a murder on a karuta player (a competitive card sport), as well as a bombing of a television studio where they were busy filming a programme about karuta. The result is an excellent film with a good, robust mystery plot, but also elements of the romantic comedy movie and even sports movies. The Crimson Love Letter manages to mix all this into an accessible action-mystery movies that's easily the best Conan movie of the last decade.

If you liked The Crimson Love Letter: the seventh film, Detective Conan: Crossroad in the Ancient Capital (2003) is very similar to The Crimson Love Letter: also a big role for Hattori and also an excellent movie on its own that works as grand scale action-mystery film with comedic elements. Crossroad in the Ancient Capital is often considered one of the best, if not the best Conan film of all time, and it's an opinion I don't really object too. The reason I decided to nominate The Crimson Love Letter as my fourth was more because I didn't want to choose early movies exclusively. I'd say The Crimson Love Letter is the more modern movie, with more flashier action, while Crossroad in the Ancient Capital is more subdued, closer to the original comic. The fourteenth movie, Detective Conan: The Lost Ship in the Sky (2010), similarly embraces the romantic comedy roots of the series, and is about a blimp that is hijacked by a terrorist group in possession of a dangerous virus. The movie featured the phantom thief KID in his funniest appearance in the movies yet. While the focus lies on the action and the comedy, the underlying mystery plot is actually quite well-clued, something I only noticed when I watched the movie for the second time.

I hope this list has shown a bit of what's available among the many Detective Conan films, and I hope I have piqued the interests of those who haven't started on Detective Conan or its films yet. As said, Detective Conan: Zero The Enforcer will be out tomorrow in Japan, but I'll probably watch it when the home-video release comes out, which's usually somewhere between half October to early December. So it's likely my next post on the topic of the Conan movies will take until then!

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Wonders of the World

Seven Days War 戦うよ
「Seven Days War」(TM Network)

Seven Days War - We will fight on
Until we will get hold of a place of our own
"Seven Days War" (TM Network)

A re-read today! Well, I had only read a translation of this book quite a few years back, so you could also say that this is the first time I read the original story, I guess.

The deadline for his upcoming book is all what's on Ellery's mind when he's suddenly visited by Howard van Horn, a young talented sculptor he had first met in Europe during the war. Howard has been suffering from extended attacks of amnesia, with him sometimes waking up in the most surprising places, with complete days absent from his memory. Fearing he might've committed a crime during one of these attacks, he hopes Ellery can figure out what's the cause of these attacks, and begs the writer to keep an eye on him. Ellery agrees and finds himself returning to Wrightsville, where Howard lives together with his millionaire father Diedrich van Horn and his stepmother, the young and beautiful Sally. Several curious incidents surrounding the van Horns occur however during Ellery's stay, some of them related to Howard's amnesiac blackouts, but Ellery could've not have foreseen what would connect all of these incidents together in Ellery Queen's Ten Days' Wonder (1948).

It is no secret that I am a great fan of Ellery Queen's work, especially of his early novels (also known as the Nationality novels), which were admirable experiments in deduction. While Queen's early novels might not have featured bombastic impossible crime situations like locked room murders, they did still often feature interesting and alluring crime scenes, often with a somewhat voyeuristic element, like a body found inside a department store, a completely naked body found on the beach or crucified bodies. Queen combined these scenes with a mystery plot not focused on misdirection or enigmatic clues, but rather on presenting a solvable puzzle plot to the reader: the individual puzzle pieces (clues) might've been simple on their own, like indications that the culprit was left-handed, but it was combining all these clues together in surprising ways that made these early Queen novels so satisfying, and also the reason why when put on the spot, I prefer these puzzle plot novels over for example the more magic show-type of mystery novels like those written by Carr.

But Queen did not stick with what some would call thinly disguised riddles. Calamity Town introduced the readers to the fictional New England town of Wrightsville, and it'd mark a shift in writing style in the Queen canon. No longer were we presented with abstract puzzles: the mystery plots were minimalistic compared to Queen's early work, and human characterization and psychology became much more important. We weren't dealing with abstract suspect A, B and C anymore, but fleshed-out characters. We were also introduced to a much more human Ellery, who'd actually became part of the story, instead of just "looking down" at the actors in the tale of mystery in his role of the great detective. The town of Wrightsville became a character on its own, as it already made an impression in its first appearance, but was also fleshed out even more in subsequent stories. Your mileage on these novels might vary though. I know a lot of people appreciate the more human Ellery and the more naturalistic approach of the Wrightsville novels, while I deem them to be among the weakest of Queen's creative output, with mystery plots that are far too minimalistic, lacking the satisfying complexity and the sheer fun of what made the early novels so engaging as puzzle plot mysteries.

Ten Days' Wonder is the third novel set in Wrightsville, but it is in reality a weird attempt at mixing the naturalism of the Wrightsville setting with the more zany ideas seen in earlier Queen novels, like There Was An Old Woman or The Tragedy of Y. The result is an uneven product, but one I did enjoy in a weird manner. The main problem this novel has is that it is basically working towards a punchline (not a trick solution, mind you), but the set-up takes ages. 70% of the novel is set-up and I can imagine some readers might give up midway, because there's just so little happening. Yes, there are a few incidents involving Howard, but the incidents aren't really alluring on their own, and that combined with the human drama makes most of this novel fairly tedious to get through: little happens and the things that happen are not really exciting.

But then the novel throws a screwball at you by revealing a pattern that connects the seemingly random incidents together, and it's utterly nuts. The link that connects all the dots into a focused line is something that would've been surprising in the earlier Queen novels, let alone in the more realistic setting of Wrightsville, but it works for some odd reason. Is it realistic? No, of course not, it's insane and that's what I like about it, because it does work in a mystery novel. I don't read mystery novels for realism, I read them for going beyond realism for a story that entertains. The contrast between the long and tedious set-up of this novel, and the utterly ridiculous truth (in a good way!) revealed by Ellery is what makes Ten Days' Wonder for me. There Was An Old Woman was crazy throughout, but the slow start and then the sudden shift in tone gives Ten Days' Wonder an extra oomph. The question of whether the pattern is also fairly clued is debatable, I think. There is some foreshadowing, but don't expect the careful and precise clewing from the early Queen novels.

As a mystery novel, I find Ten Days' Wonder difficult to describe though. A long time ago, I proposed the term whatthefuck for a type of mystery novel that is not a whodunit, howdunit or whydunit. I guess that Ten Days' Wonder sorta fits the bill: for most of the time, there is no real mystery for the reader themselves to solve, and the plot's mostly moving from one minor incident for Ellery to deal with to another. In a whatthefuck, there is no clear-cut mystery for the reader to focus on, like a body or a theft or anything like that, but it's a story that works towards a conclusion that allows you to look at the prior events from a completely different angle. It's something Yamada Fuutarou also often used in his novels, making those works also a bit difficult to qualify. It's only when you see the whole picture you realize how it works as a mystery novel, but that also means these stories are very hard to explain without spoilers.

Queen also dives into the fallibility of Ellery as a detective in Ten Days' Wonder and the events of this novel are actually of direct influence on Ellery's behaviour in the novel Cat of Many Tails. Of course, Queen already delved into this topic as early as in The Greek Coffin Mystery, but I absolutely love how the theme is explored in this novel, as it builds further on the theme, moving further than before. In a way, we move towards a post-modern look at the detective-character in Ten Day's Wonder and I think it works especially well, as well as brutal on a detective character like Ellery, especially because he started out as a character in the Van Dine school, as a master detective who overlooks the case as an outsider. The same theme is also often explored in Japanese shin honkaku mystery novels actually, especially by Norizuki Rintarou who has always paid a lot of attention to what he collectivelly calls the Late Queen Problems.

Ten Days' Wonder is thus a weird Queen novel. It takes the form of a normal Wrightsville novel for a very long time, with a mundane, minimalistic plot that does little to really hook the reader, but then suddenly shifts gears to become something much more grotesque and shocking. The last 20~30% of this novel are incredibly bizarre and the finale also makes an impression as an post-modern take on the classic mystery story, but because the extremes of this novel are so drastic, I find it difficult to recommend this novel to people without caveats. I think readers can gain so much more from Ten Days' Wonder if they have at least read one of Queen's nationality novels and one of the other Wrightsville novels to make the comparision. I myself think this is one of the more unique Queen novels, but it's definitely not an accessible entry in the series.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The House of the Nightmare Witch

「Holy Ground」(Garnet Crow)

A future without you
Only looks like a looming darkness to me
I might as well die so I wouldn't have to live on anymore
"Holy Ground" (Garnet Crow)

Okay, when I said it might take a while for my next Detective Conan review, I meant a review of the manga of course, as it'll take while for volume 95 to be even officially announced. But there's nothing stopping me from doing more reviews on the animated series.

After enjoying the Detective Conan special episode Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau, I decided to check out some more episodes which were not based on the Detective Conan comic source material, but original stories created especially for the anime series. I decided to focus on episodes with a screenplay by Ochi Hirohito, as he wrote the story for Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau. Ochi's a busy bee for Conan by the way, because he's not only a screenplay writer for Detective Conan, but also episode director and storyboarder. Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau was in fact one of the rare occassions where he's responsible for all three tasks for the same episode. When I checked which episodes he had written the screenplay for, my eyes were immediately drawn to episodes 603-605, which formed a three-part story titled Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken ("The Case of the Séance's Double Locked Room"). While three-episode long stories aren't a rarity in Detective Conan in general, Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken was actually the very first anime original three-parter, even though the series had been running for nearly 15 years by then, with many, many anime original episodes. These three episodes originally aired on January 29th, February 5th and 12th in 2010, which in hindsight means I was actually living in Japan at the time and that I could've seen these episodes in real-time. But I didn't. 

Kogorou, Ran and Conan find themselves lost after taking a wrong turn and seek refuge in a creepy mansion in the forest. The three are met by a suspicious crowd wearing robes, but are surprised when they recognize the face of Nichiuri TV assistant-director Yatsukawa, whom they first met a few adventures earlier. The lot, Yatsukawa explains, are members of the fanclub of Miyahara Kira, a cosplay idol-model and aspiring actress who died one year earlier in a car accident, even though her body was never retrieved. Other people here include Utakura Shouko, an upcoming idol herself, Mifune Ryuuichi, a photographer who helped Kira become an idol and Kani Yutaka, a figure sculptor who's a very big fan of Kira. The house is the home of Hirasaka Reiki, who is not only a fan of Kira too, but also a popular horror manga author who created the hit series The Blackmagic Girl, which was scheduled for a live-action theatrical film release starring Kira until her death put a halt to the project. This night, these Kira fans plan to hold a séance, as lately rumors are making the round that Kira has come back as a witch from the underworld to take revenge on those who wronged her in life, just like the protagonist of The Blackmagic Girl. The rumors vary from harassment of other idols to even murder, as two weeks ago, Hirasaka Reiki's editor was murdered in his own apartment, leaving the dying message "Kira".

Kogorou, Ran and Conan participate in the séance session held in the Chamber of Meditation in the Hirasaka manor, but this séance ends in a dud. The members eventually all retreat for the night, but then everyone is awakened by a text message sent from Shouko's phone, where Kira declares she has come back from the dead. The search for Shouko ends in the Chamber of Meditation, which they find in disarray, with the dead body of Shouko lying dead on the table in the center. However, they had to break open the door as it was padlocked from the inside, and as the only other exit out of the room is a closed window high up the wall, it seems Shouko was murdered inside a perfectly sealed room. This isn't the only tragedy to happen that night in Hirasaka's home however, as right after this first shocking discovery, they discover that Hirasaka Reiki himself also seems to have died in his own room, which was also locked from the inside!

As mentioned, this was the series very first anime original three-parter, but this story is a gem that certainly needed the space the three episodes provide! It's obvious from his work that screenplay writer Ochi loves his locked room mysteries, and this time he presents the viewer two servings. What makes Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken an exceptional story is synergy. In January, I reviewed Mitsuda Shinzou's Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono as one of the best mystery novels I've read these last few years, and synergy was an important reason for my praise. The story didn't consist of various, independent mystery modules set one after another, but every part was interconnected, each mystery, puzzle and solution strengthening the other elements of the plot. I'd argue Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken is an good example of synergy in mystery fiction too. The second locked room murder for example is, taken on its own, quite simple. In fact, I have to admit I was even a bit disappointed by it, as it appeared even unambitious for someone who created a masterpiece like Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau. But then its connection to the murder inside the Chamber of Meditation is revealed, and every thing changes! Mind you, the way the locked room mystery within the Chamber of Meditation is created is actually very satisfying on its own: it is  highly original and hard to spot, even though the hints are in your face all the time, and it also makes use of some other minor elements to make an ingenious trick on its own stand out even more. Still, I can't even remember having seen a similar trick used in this way, and the fundamental element needed for this trick is integrated exceptionally well in the narrative too.

But you really see the genius behind this story once realize how this locked room and the other locked room are connected. Everything is connected in a meaningful manner: there are convincing reasons for both locked rooms to exist in the first place and while the two locked rooms are constructed in completely different manners, they actually rely on the same core idea, only utilized in another way. Yet the two locked rooms aren't just very oblique variations on the same trick, as there is also a meaningful reason to why there's a connection to them in the first place and why there are two of them, which again goes back to the starting point as to why the murderer needed to create a locked room in the first place. The more I think about it, the more I see how brilliantly structured this whole tale is, and while the story is quite lengthy at over an hour runtime spread across three episodes, I have to say there's basically no unnecessary part: everything is on the screen for a reason, and everything strengthens the core mystery plot.

If I had to voice a complaint, it'd be the same as the one I had for Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau: the culprit is far too obvious. The core focus is obviously on the howdunnit part of the two locked rooms, and that is done so expertly it becomes painfully obvious how... uninspired the whodunnit part of the story is. The hints to the identity of the murderer are crude at best and almost seem like an afterthought, especially as both of them are introduced relatively late in the story. I wonder whether Ochi has written a semi-inverted story for Detective Conan, as I think that might suit his style better: reveal the identity of the murderer right from the start to the viewer, but don't show the exact manner in which the inevitable locked room murder was done. Sure, Ochi'd still need to come up with a convincing way to give the game away, but at any rate, hiding the murderer isn't his forte, so at least it can't feel less uninspiring.

So Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken proved itself to be another excellent Detective Conan anime original penned by Ochi. While the stories are nothing like each other, it's actually very similar to Ochi's other great episode, Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau: both stories may feature a somewhat uninspired whodunnit plot, but the howdunnit behind the impossible crime is brilliant. The locked rooms of Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken are admittedly not as impressive as that of Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau, but in return you get a locked room mystery that is still memorable on its own, but that is turned into something that is way more than the sum of its parts, providing an impressive showcase of how important proper plotting and synergy for a mystery story.

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵コナン』603-605話「降霊会W密室事件」

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Message in Red

"The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, moves on"
Rubaiyat (Fitzgerald translation)

Confession: For the longest time, I'd mix up Freeman Wills Crofts and R. Austin Freeman.

Life after medical school has not been the success story Jarvis had hoped it to be. One day, he runs into his old friend John Thorndyke, who unlike him has made a bit of a name for himself as a medical expert in the field of legal problems. Jarvis is invited for dinner, but the friend's reunion is disturbed by Reuben Hornby and his lawyer, who look for Dr. Thorndyke's help. Diamonds kept in the safe of Reuben's uncle's safe have been stolen, and the one single clue left on the scene of the crime is a bloody thumb mark found on a piece of paper lying inside the safe, which was obviously not there when the diamonds were last seen. The thumb mark is that of Reuben, but he swears he has nothing to do with it. Thorndyke's interests are piqued, and he decides to hire his old friend Jarvis as an assistant while they do their own scientific investigation into what the police considers an open-and-shut case in R. Austin Freeman's The Red Thumb Mark (1907).

The infamous "zoom and enhance" scene we nowadays see in crime TV dramas is of course a bit silly (blowing up a photograph is not magically going to enhance its resolution), but it is a good example of how much science and technology has become a part of our world, and particularly, crime and mystery fiction. I'd guess that many people had of course heard of forensic techniques like DNA testing, tests for blood spatters and more, but obviously series like CSI helped inform the average viewer of what technology can do when fighting crime. Of course, science and technology has always been an important factor of mystery fiction. A mystery is solved by combining clues, and clues most often consist of tangible clues that can be obtained through an application of the sciences. Our first meeting with a certain Mr. Sherlock Holmes for example had him discover a new reliable test for blood stains, which he assures Dr. Watson and the reader would be the most practical discovery for the medico-legal world. But even something as simple as using plaster of Paris to preserve a footprint is an application of science.

So that we'd eventually get a detective who'd specialize completely in utilizing science and technology to solve crimes was not a surprise. R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke is most often seen as the quintessential detective who champions the use of science in crime-fighting, and The Red Thumb Mark is in fact the very first novel in the Dr. Thorndyke series. I think I have read only one Dr. Thorndyke novel in a longaway past (The Eye of Osiris) and to be honest, I remember awfully little of that book, so perhaps it was good that I resumed my Thorndyke reading with the book that introduced the world to the scientific investigator.

In a way, I'd say that The Red Thumb Mark is almost more like a case-study than a mystery story. That is not fair to the novel perhaps and it's obviously a story of fiction (with some melodrama, even), but if you look at the core mystery plot, one could argue that the story's focus lies almost solely on the titular thumb mark, and by extension, the issue of fingerprints in general and their use in criminal investigation. Upon taking the case, Dr. Thorndyke devotes his time on examining the one damning clue in the whole case in an attempt to save Reuben. In the course of the story, Dr. Thorndyke will explain certain characteristics of fingerprints that show how they are not, like was thought back in the time, that fingerprints were the one-and-all clue. It is here where you do really feel that time has passed by a lot since The Red Thumb Mark was first published, because Dr. Thorndyke's might've been surprising back then to the reader, but the plot as is has troubles really standing out to a modern reader, as the caveats pointed out by Dr. Thorndyke are common knowledge now, and almost warrant for a shrug. In fact, I think the 'surprise' wore off pretty quick, as Edogawa Rampo also wrote a (translated) short story based on a similar idea (focusing on fingerprints), and there I think it worked better as the device was not meant to sustain a novel-length story, but just a short story.

When I say The Red Thumb Mark reminds me of a case-study, it's because it is basically looking at the practical uses of a certain topic (in this case fingerprints), with the story mostly serving as device to make it easier to swallow. There is of the course the mystery of how Dr. Thorndyke is going to solve Reuben is innocent, and there is even a courtroom drama segment as the finale, but "other stuff" like who the real culprit is, are only of secondary importance to the plot, and the real aim of this story is closer to "You may have heard of fingerprints as an important development in criminal investigation, but there are some caveats to that." While reading The Red Thumb Mark, I also had to think of Melville Davisson Post's Randolph Mason series, which basically presented case-study-esque stories based on rather silly US laws, but I think those stories worked better because of the more surprising settings. The Red Thumb Mark in comparison feels more dated, as we, as in the "average reader", have learnt so much more about things like fingerprints.

All in all, I thought The Red Thumb Mark had an okay-ish idea, but it does feel dated because it devotes all its energy at looking at one particular topic that has since grown less surprising. This is of course not the fault of the book itself, but it does mean that a modern reader has more trouble to genuinely admire the tale. I also can't shake away the feeling this novel feels more like a thought experiment focusing on fingerprints, despite the surrounding story and melodrama.