Tuesday, May 28, 2013

「DL6号事件を忘れるな」

"One can sometimes do good by being the right person in the wrong place
"The Sins of Prince Saradine"

Of course, even though I have all my books now, the problem just shifted from 'no books to write about' to 'I read books, but for one reason or another I never actually write the reviews'. I've only just started reading and I already have a backlog of reviews to write...

A Aiichirou series
A Aiichirou no Roubai ("The Discombobulation of A Aiichirou" AKA A For Annoyance)
A Aiichirou no Tentou ("The Fall of A Aiichirou" AKA A Is For Accident)
A Aiichirou no Toubou ("The Flight of A Aiichirou" AKA A For Abandon") 


Awasaka Tsumao's A Aiichirou no Roubai ("The Discombobulation of A Aiichirou"; alternate English title by publisher Tokyo Sogen: A For Annoyance) is a short story collection I had been planning to read for a long time now. It is the first short story collection to rank in the Tozai Mystery Best 100 list, and several stories collected have been named as serious candidates for the title of best Japanese impossible crime story, so that partly explains why I wanted to read the book. Partly I say, because another reason was because Takumi Shuu, of the Gyakuten Saiban game series, named Awasaka Tsumao and the A Aiichirou series as a major influence on his works, which was something I couldn't just ignore.

I have reviewed Awasaka's short story collection Kijutsu Tantei Soga Kajou Zenshuu- Hi no Maki in the past already; longtime readers might remember me mentioning that Awasaka was a stage magician: stage magician + detective fiction is usually enough to gather the attention of readers of the genre. I was mildly positive about the collection, so I started with a modest amount of expectations in A Aiichirou no Roubai. What I got, was a classic! No wonder so many people stated this as one of the best collections in Japan. A Aiichirou no Roubai is sometimes compared to the Father Brown stories; this is naturally partly because of the titles of the books (mirroring titles like The Innocence of Father Brown etcetera) and the intuitive mode of reasoning of Aiichirou, but the sheer ingenuity found in the relatively short stories is also reminiscent of the Chesterton's classic. 

A Aiichirou is young, handsome cameraman who has the habit of arriving at the wrong place at the wrong time. Or being the right man at the wrong place at the wrong time. He seems to come across murder quite often (and because of his somewhat strange nature, the police usually suspects him from at least a little bit of foul play), but he always manages to clear his own name by pointing out the real murderer, usually by making enigmatic statements in the spirit of Father Brown. Oh, and because any post on A Aiichirou should mention this: the series detective was given the even in Japanese quite rare name of A Aiichirou by Awasaka, because this name would end up to be the first entry if a lexicon on (fictional) detectives would be published.

The stories in the collection can be divided in roughly three kind of stories. Awasaka's debut short story, DL2 Gouki Jiken ("The Flight DL2 Incident"), is a good example of the first kind, which mainly serves to showcase A Aiichirou's intuitive reasoning. Here Aiichirou is witness to a man who seems to stumble on a staircase on purpose, which might seem strange, but nothing more than that, right? So imagine the surprise bystanders, as well as the reader, experience when Aiichirou correctly foretells an attack on the man's driver based on the fact his master faked a fall! The solution might be a bit hard to deduce a priori to the solution, but the hinting and plotting is really solid actually. The same holds for Magatta Heya ("The Crooked Room") and Kuroi Kiri ("The Black Fog"), which both feature enigmatic, yet not criminal situations per se, but Aiichirou shows that there is much more than meets the eye. Because of the intuitive reasoning, it might be hard to deduce the solutions completely beforehand (especially Kuroi Kiri goes a bit far), but the stories work and the reader won't be disappointed.

The second set of stories focuses on impossible crimes. A man seemingly commits suicide in a hot air balloon in Migiudeyama Kuujou ("Above the Skies of Mount Migiude"), but A Aiichirou shows it was murder, even though the victim was alone up there in the sky. Definitely the highlight of the collection. A very good second is Shoujou no Ougon Kamen ("The Golden Mask on Top of her Hands"), where a man dressed in a cape and golden mask is standing on top of the hands of a giant statue, throwing pamphlets to the people below on the streets. Unlike Edogawa Rampo's Golden Mask however, this Golden Mask is less of a superman, as he is shot down quite easily, with his body falling on the streets below. The only person who could have shot him is a man in a hotelroom right across the statue, but the only weapon in his possession is so crooked, it was impossible for him to have hit the target across the distance. Really good story, once again made more impressive because of the brevity of the tale. G-Senjou no Itachi ("Weasle on the G-Line") features a taxi-driver who claims to have been attacked by a robber, but when the police find the cab, they discover the dead robber in the car, and only the taxi driver's footsteps in the snow. A simple story, mostly a variant of a famous trope and the intuition needed to pick up the main hint is something I for one don't have. And finally Horobo no Kami ("The God of Horobo"), which is often seen as one of the better impossible crime stories in Japan. On a trip to recover the dead bodies of his fellow soldiers who had died when they had stranded on the island of Horobo during World War II, an old veteran tells (the unnamed) Aiichirou the strange experience he had seen there: the head of the local tribe had been seen entering a small shrine holding the effigy of the local god, the God of Horobo, to mourn the death of his wife, whose body was placed there. The tribesmen had all stood watch over the shrine, but the next day, after hearing a cry, they discover the head shot to death, by a gun held in the dead wife's hands, with everybody swearing nobody had entered or left the shrine! The solution is admittedly quite ingenious, but it is close, though definitely not across, the border between a fair and unfair mystery. One should really read it though, if only just to remind you that such a trick also exists.

The third pattern found in A Aiichirou no Roubai is Horidasareta Douwa ("A Dug Up Fairy Tale"), which features a coded message. I was the least impressed by this story: the code itself is really ingenious and one of the best I've seen in Japanese stories thus far, but the story surrounding it is unneccesary long (the longest in the collection) and not very interesting to begin with. It feels a bit out of place and I can't help myself but asking the question whether Awasaka couldn't have done something else with the solid code.

All in all a solid collection. The standard is quite high, and there are some real classics to be found too. Despite my love for the short story format, I haven't been able to find that many Japanese collections I would call a must read, but A Aiichirou no Roubai (as well as the early Norizuki Rintarou ones) are definitely the ones you'd want to read.

Original Japanese title(s): 泡坂妻夫 『亜愛一郎の狼狽』 「DL2号機事件」 / 「右腕山上空」 / 「曲がった部屋」 / 「掌上の黄金仮面」 / 「G線上の鼬」 / 「掘出された童話」 / 「ホロボの神」 / 「黒い霧」

Saturday, May 18, 2013

運命の交差点

「怪人が飛べて、探偵に飛べんわけあるか!」
『名探偵コナン マリオネット 交響曲(シンフォニー)』

"If monsters can fly, there's no reason why detectives can't fly!"
"Detective Conan: Marionette Symphony"

Oh, I finally got my gigantic stack of books! And with gigantic, I mea that if I were to read one detective novel a week, I'd still have enough for more than a year. And that is ignoring the non detective materials. Anyway, it's finally back to reviews of mostly (but not exclusively) Japanese detective novels again! But first, a videogame.

Detective Conan: Marionette Symphony (Nintendo 3DS) is set at Clover Hill, a huge building complex designed after a four clover leaf. The whole of Clover Hill is in a festive mood because of its first anniversary. A foreign prince has come to display a regal heirloom in one of the towers of Clover Hill, the television studios located in another tower report on the event too, etcetera. But not all is well, it appears, as the owner of the buildings wants advice from famous detective Mouri Kogorou on some hush-hush issue. It just happens that at the same time Kogorou, his daughter Ran and their 'parasite' Conan are visiting Clover Hill, high school detective Hattori Heiji is present at the television studios of Clover Hill for an interview, a gang of meddling kids (the Detective Boys) are hoping to discover the truth behind a rumor of a flying man at the same building and phantom thief KID is planning to steal the regal heirloom on display. Considering Conan and the rest of the crew have been attracting murder and other crimes for almost twenty years non-stop now, one can guess that something bad is about to happen. The terrorist group Flowers of Liberation bomb the only bridge to the mainland and take over Clover Hill, with everyone inside as its hostage. The whole Conan gang, though seperated, has to work together to overcome the terrorist attack and solve some murders on the way too.

I wasn't too much a fan of last year's Detective Conan: Prelude from the Past, so I was not particularly enthusiastic when Marionette Symphony was first announced, but then the trailer mentioned Spike-Chunsoft and the inclusion of the Zapping System and I was on board. Chunsoft (who merged with Spike last year) is the developer behind videogames like Kamaitachi no Yoru, Danganronpa and 428, which rank among the best adventure games ever. The Zapping System is one that has features in several Chunsoft games, and has the player zapping between several protagonists on the spot, with actions performed by one protagonist, having influence on the world of another protagonist (i.e. protagonist A steals protagonist B's car; protagonist A is able to proceed, but protagonist B is left without a car, resulting in a game over for that particular character). Chunsoft had already used the Zapping System for the fairly orthodox detective game Kamaitachi no Yoru X3, but it was the first time such a system would be used for a Detective Conan game (for a more detailed explanation, see the 428 review).


The system is a bit different in Marionette Symphony though. This time, Conan, Ran, the Detective Boys, Haibara, Hattori and KID (and several other characters) all make use of the so-called Truth Card system, which is basically an application which allows the characters to share information. Characters have to use this shared information to overcome their own problems. For example, early in the game the Detective Boys want to listen in on a group of terrorists in the room next door, but they can't just walk in the room. However, another character happens to receive information about the airducts being wide enough for children to get into and shares that through a Truth Card, allowing the Detective Boys to crawl through the airducts to reach their goal. The player has to manage the information flow between all the characters and sometimes you'll be unable to proceed with a certain character, because you haven't acquired the necessary information with another character.

Another new system is the so-called Detective Time, where you'll find yourself in a pinch. You're given limited time to decide on the right action to undertake (while accidently choosing wrong actions will result in a time loss). A slightly cheap way to invoke thrills, but nevertheless effective. The moment the music starts, you will feel tension and it does match the slightly more action-based, movie-like setting of the story to have such moments. Other changes are the exclusion of the minigames and quizes found in the previous two games and the inclusion of an AR mode, where you take pictures of a Conan come alive through a augmented reality card (which also functions as a hint mode for when you're stuck in the game).

As a game, it is at times a hit and miss. The system forces you to zap way too often, sometimes from one character to another in the same location at the same time, which has no practical use at all! I couldn't care less whether I am seeing the same situation from Kogorou's or Ran's point of view, especially if neither of these characters are able to interact in meaningful way with said situation! Watching the same scene from a different angle can be interesting at times, but only if something new is offered. Not the case here. Story progression is also very linear, despite the possibility to jump between perspectives.


The story too at first feels a bit generic, but it becomes really good as it nears the end. The previous two Conan games (Rondo of the Blue Jewel and Prelude from the Past) both featured several seperate cases, which were only loosely tied by a main storyline. In Marionette Symphony, the terrorist attack is the most important aspect of the story, with the murders you have to solve in between (yes, the detectives find time to solve murders even during a terrorist attack) almost feeling like a sidequest (though still very relevant to the main story). It takes a while for the story to get momentum, but when it's on a roll, everything works. And Marionette Symphony has one of the greatest endings of detective fiction I've seen in the last few years: I don't mean that in the sense of most surprising ending, a suddenly revealed narrative trick, or a complex logical chain or anything like that: but the moment the person responsible for everything is revealed, the intention of the creators, everything they wanted to accomplish with this particular game becomes clear. Points I thought strange suddenly made sense and I can only admire what Spike-Chunsoft tried to do with this game and the way in which they accomplished that. Their own Super Danganronpa 2 had something similiar, but as a whole, I'd say that Marionette Symphony did it better.

Marionette Symphony is also great as a Detective Conan game, because the characters act like you would expect to them to do. The Detective Boys are very different characters from Ran, and the way they cope with the terrorists are naturally also not similar at all. The way everybody has a bit to contribute invokes a movie-esque atmosphere, which is absolutely fine for such a game. In fact, the story feels quite suitable for a movie and you wouldn't see me complaining if it was remade/rewritten for a special or movie...

Short story: definitely a must play for Detective Conan fans and those who have played Chunsoft's adventures. The game is naturally more fun if you know a bit of the Conan-lore, but it is a decent adventure on its own and shouldn't be ignored just because it is based on a license.

Original title(s): 『名探偵コナン マリオネット交響曲(シンフォニー)』

Friday, May 17, 2013

Nudaque Veritas

"In the mountains of tuth," quoth Nietszche, "you never climb in vain."
No one outside the realm of fairy tales ever scaled a mountain by standing at its foot and wishing himself over its crest. This is a hard world, and in it achievement requires effort. It has always been my feeling that to garner the fullest enjoyment from detective fiction the reader must to some degree endeavor to retrace the detective's steps. Thee more painstakingly the trail back is scrutinized, the closer the reader comes to the ultimate truth, and the deeper his enjoyment is apt to be."
"The Spanish Cape Mystery"

Note to self: writing a review every day is more taxing than would seem at first. But this is final post in this short series of Ellery Queen reviews!

Reviews of Ellery Queen's 'nationality' novels:
The Roman Hat Mystery
The French Powder Mystery
The Dutch Shoe Mystery
The Greek Coffin Mystery
The Egyptian Cross Mystery
The American Gun Mystery
The Siamese Twin Mystery
The Chinese Orange Mystery
The Spanish Cape Mystery

The title of the last novel in Ellery Queen's famous nationality novels, The Spanish Cape Mystery, actually refers to the location of the mystery. The Spanish Cape sticks out in the North Atlantic and on it is a house, inhabitated by the Godfreys and their guests. One night, a ruffian, who can only be described as pirate-like, threatens Rosa Godfrey and her uncle David Kummer and kidnaps the latter, mistaking him for John Marco, one of the guests of the Godfreys. Rosa is later found by Ellery and his friend judge Macklin, who are in the neighbourhood on vacation. No sign of uncle David though and it seems like Marco's 'luck' didn't last for long either, because he was found with his head bashed in on a terrace near the beach. There is just one strange thing about the murder: Marco was found completely naked.

I will always remember The Spanish Cape Mystery as the one with the way too obvious murderer. Because I am quite sure a majority of the readers will, even without a perfect deduction, be able to guess who the criminal is. This of course doesn't have to be a bad thing per se, as inverted detective stories prove, but the identity of the murderer has so much implications that you will almost necessary arrive somewhere very near the truth.

Which is a bit of a shame, because the mystery behind the naked man is, fundamentally, quite interesting. Whereas early Queens had fairly innocent looking, yet significant, material clues (objects) that formed the start of Ellery's long deductions, Siamese Twin, Chinese Orange and The Spanish Cape Mystery all feature rather obvious clues: a playing card in the dead man's hand, a victim dressed backwards and this time a victim who is not dressed at all. And here you have the conundrum of making detective fiction more fun through interaction or surprise: more obvious clues make it easier for the reader to start on the right track with his deductions, which results in a positive feeling when he actually manages to solve it himself. But as a result, the surprise element of detetive fiction becomes weaker, which is undoubtedly also an important factor when reading detective fiction. In a sense, these last few novels in Queen's nationality series are quite different from the first few Queens.

I have to admit though, using an obvious clue (even if strange or grotesque), has its merits. I have only once tried my hand at writing detective fiction, specifically a guess-the-crimimal script for the Kyoto University Mystery Club, which was actually based on the same principle, mostly. If, like Queen, you want people to solve your story (and I would consider a guess-the-criminal script no one can guess, not really succesful), than an obvious clue is definitely the way to go.

Though this time, it seems like Ellery's deductions are less perfect than usual, or at least, the deduction makes sense, but the construction of the puzzle, that is to say, the way Queen imagined the actions of the murderer seem to be a bit enigmatic. The main problem revolves around a certain action the murderer took (or to be precise, did not take), but it makes no logical sense for the murderer to have done that. Ellery deduced the actions of the murderer, but even he must have thought it weird for the murderer to have done that. Considering the care with which Queen usually constructs his puzzles and deduction, as seen in his previous novels, The Spanish Cape Mystery feels sloppy at times.

The character of Ellery has changed over the course of the books: he was hardly present in The Roman Hat Mystery, and even then he mostly complained about not being able to buy rare books because of the case,  but he slowly, but surely become more and more a human as the series progresses. The Spanish Cape Mystery has him in his most human form up until now, especially at the end when Ellery voices his thoughts about the murder. The Greek Coffin Mystery already showed a human side to the character by having him making mistakes, but this novels shows a human side by having him thinking about other people, which is quite surprising.

Were I to rank the nationality novels by Queen, then The Spanish Cape Mystery would end up somewhere near the end of the list to be honest. The main puzzle is alluring, but the execution is a bit disappointing and the things the novel does do well, has been done even better in earlier novels.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Topsy-Turvy Murder

"At any rate, this thing needs the application of thought... China, China, China! I’m beginning to wish I had a Charlie Chan on the scene to clarify these esoteric mysteries of Orientalism. I’m completely bewildered. Nothing makes sense, nothing at all. This is the world’s most mystifying crime.”
"The Chinese Orange Mystery"

Almost there, almost there...

Reviews of Ellery Queen's 'nationality' novels:
The Roman Hat Mystery
The French Powder Mystery
The Dutch Shoe Mystery
The Greek Coffin Mystery
The Egyptian Cross Mystery
The American Gun Mystery
The Siamese Twin Mystery
The Chinese Orange Mystery
The Spanish Cape Mystery

The eight novel in the Ellery Queen series, The Chinese Orange Mystery (Dutch title: Moord Achterstevoren / Backwards Murder) starts with an unknown man visiting the office Donald Kirk, publisher and philatelist, occupies on the 22nd floor of the Hotel Chancellor. Ushered into the waiting room, the man is left alone for an hour or so, when Kirk and his friend Ellery Queen finally arrive at the office and Kirk takes a look inside the waiting room. What they find is total chaos. Or is it? Bookcases put backwards to the wall. The carpet upside down. And a man, dead, with his clothes on backwards, and a pair of decorative spears being slipped inside his trouser legs, running up behind his back and popping out near his head like a pair of devil's horns! Who was the poor man and why is he dressed backwards?

Often remembered as a certain kind of mystery which in effect spoils half the game, so do yourself a favour and don't read too much about The Chinese Orange Mystery before actually reading the book yourself. Ignoring the type of mystery, the problem of the man dressed backwards in a completely backwards room is definitely an alluring one. Most of the Queen novels have someone killed in an unlikely spot, but like The Egyptian Cross Mystery, this time we have a genuine 'strange' body. For why would the murderer go through the trouble of redressing his victim? Why, that is as strange as finding a totally naked dead body (foreshadowing!).

I have to admit though, while I like the idea of the reversed clothes and all, I never really liked The Chinese Orange Mystery. Most deductions are sound, but not nearly as impressive as those found in the earlier books. The theme of the backwardness is interesting, but it feels forced at times like the whole Egyptian cross thing in the same-titled novel. For some reason, the whole book feels, in my opinion, padded and it might have worked better as one or two separate short stories.

The world of philately is interesting though. Queen also used the Violent and Wild background of stamp collecting in his short stories and it is a specialist world that echoes Ellery's own bibliophilia (which on its own is a Queenian trope). Such high culture past-times naturally invoke a certain Philo Vance vibe, which isn't too strange considering the influence of those novels on the early Queens. Another interesting point is the character of a female writer who used to live in China; she seems like an early, but less fanatic Karen Leith of Queen's later The Door Between.

There really is not much I have to say about The Chinese Orange Mystery. The problem which shall not be named seems more suitable for a short story, and it is a bit too technical for my taste. It has, in a way, influenced writers like NisiOisiN, so it is not without its merits though. The problem of the backwards man is interesting, but too much padding in the middle seems to weaken the effect of the bizarre idea.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Queen's Tale

"Whoever used this exercised the usal care and wiped the gun clean of prints. Sometimes I think there should be a law against detective stories. Gives potentional criminals too many pointers"
"The Siamese Twin Mystery"

And now I'm nearing the end of this post series, I realize I should have allowed for a bit of more time between each post. I can only hope I'll have my Japanese books by the time I'll be finished with these reviews...

Reviews of Ellery Queen's 'nationality' novels:
The Roman Hat Mystery
The French Powder Mystery
The Dutch Shoe Mystery
The Greek Coffin Mystery
The Egyptian Cross Mystery
The American Gun Mystery
The Siamese Twin Mystery
The Chinese Orange Mystery
The Spanish Cape Mystery

The Siamese Twin Mystery starts with father and son Queen on their way back from a holiday. Driving through Arrow Mountain (note: Ellery was the one who chose the mountain route, the Inspector emphasizes), the two wind up in a huge forest fire and are forced to flee deeper into the mountain, eventually finding refuge at the residence of Dr. Xavier. The doctor welcomes the Queens in his home, but the detective duo sense a certain tension among the colorful inhabitants and other guests of the mountain villa. Are the people hiding something from the Queens? The fire surrounding the house is naturally a source of worry for the people trapped inside, but the fact that Dr. Xavier is murdered that same night is not reassuring either. The only clue? A six of spades torn in half in the hand of the victim.

The 'strange' one in the series, together with The Eygptian Cross Mystery. For even though almost all previous Queen novels did include closed environments where the murderer had to be (The Roman Theater, the Dutch Memorial Hospital etc.), this is the first time Ellery finds himself in a faux closed circle situation. Faux I say, because the closed circle trope does not work effectively with a series detective. The closed circle trope works best when you really have no idea who might be killed next. Everyone on Indian Island had an equal opportunity to die And Then There Were None, which made the trope work. Compare to Kindaichi Hajime, who finds himself together with a violent serial murderer in a closed circle situation every other week, but the reader knows that Hajime will not be killed, the reader knows that there is no real danger for our hero. Ellery and his father are too established for them to just die like that. Even if you consider that this time the danger comes from a natural phenomena, the forest fire, (instead of a Jason-like killer), you are quite sure they won't be found burned to death at the end of the story. The forest fire does, even if not a real threat, make the usually tame / boring middle part of the story interesting to read, as there is always something happening, be it with the fire or the case itself.

The dying message is also of interest here; The Tragedy of X features one too, but of the early Queen dying messages, I like The Siamese Twin Mystery's one better, even though, or rather because the meaning, and usage of the dying message trope is very different in this novel. I think it is quite difficult to have a long story to be mostly about a dying message (as opposed to just one smaller element in the big picture), but it works here; the plot structure is really built surrounding the torn card in the victim's hand and that is quite a feat.

In Queen critisicm, The Siamese Twin Mystery is often refered to as an important novel. Like Kasai Kiyoshi notes in Tantei Shousetsu to 20 Seiki Seishin, the novel is a prime example of how the so-called Later Period Queen problems work. To quote myself from The Greek Coffin Mystery review:

If you accept the probability of a false solution, that is, the possibility that the real murderer can plant false clues that lead to the wrong person, then you're dealing with an unsolvable problem. Suppose Solution 1 (featuring murderer 1) is false, because clue A was planted, by murderer 2 (thus, solution 2, substantiated by clue B). What guarantee can you have that clue B, and therefore solution 2, isn't a plant by murderer 3? And in turn a murderer 4? This is a meta problem, and the writer can 'forcefully' end this by just ending his novel, but 'in-universe', the detective can never be absolutely sure his final solution is actually the correct one.

This is also true for The Siamese Twin Mystery which features several solutions. And here is the problem with the novel: how can you be sure that the solution posed by Ellery at the end of the novel is actually the truth? In fact, Ellery and his father are manipulated to arrive at false deductions throughout the novel. They notice their mistakes because of evidence found later in the story, so how can you be confident that the final solution is indeed correct, and won't be proven false by evidence discovered later? This philosophical problem plays throughout Queen's novels, but it is most evident here. One might for example also consider the fact that this novel does not feature the traditional Challenge to the Reader, for Ellery does not present his final answer because he 'found everything', he is forced to tell his ideas because the forest fire is not leaving him much time!

And to bring the topic back to the blog's main topic, Japanese detective novels, it's pretty clear that many writers were influenced by Queen in general, but also this novel in particular. You will find plenty of closed circles, Queen tropes and Later Period Queen problems in Ayatsuji Yukito's novels for example (especially the Yakata series), while Arisugawa Alice's debut work Gekkou Game similarly features a dying message and naturally created closed circle situation through a vulcano eruption.

Overall, The Siamese Twin Mystery feels a bit different. The range of the main problem, the dying message, is quite compact small and the story feels like a lengtened short story at times. The deductions are less complex and the final deduction even features something more intuitive rather than logical. But the novel reads more like an actual story. It's a slightly different Queen, but I think it's also one of the easier Queen to recommend to people, as the thrill of the closed circle and the more compact deductions are more accesible.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Heel of Achilles

"I said I know everything."
"Oh." The Inspector relaxed. "Another one of your jokes. 'Course, you always know everything about everything. You're one of God's Four Hundred, you are. Isn't a subject on which you aren't an expert - like these book detectives - see all, know all... bah!"
"The American Gun Mystery"

One problem that I discovered while rereading Queen: I really need to replace some of the copies I have with better ones. I have no idea what mysterious force is keeping my The Siamese Twin Mystery in one piece, but it won't keep for long. And I know the books are available as ebooks now, but I am still old fashioned and consider e-readers bad just like rock & roll. I could get those nifty new Japanese releases too, but I'd rather have them in English.

Reviews of Ellery Queen's 'nationality' novels:
The Roman Hat Mystery
The French Powder Mystery
The Dutch Shoe Mystery
The Greek Coffin Mystery
The Egyptian Cross Mystery
The American Gun Mystery
The Siamese Twin Mystery
The Chinese Orange Mystery
The Spanish Cape Mystery

The American Gun Mystery brings us to the new sports stadium in the City, the Coliseum, where old Buck Horne, once a famous star in Hollywood's early Western films, is to perform in a rodeo exhibitition with rope tricks, riding and fancy shooting. The Coliseum is packed, among the guests are Inspector Queen, son Ellery and houseboy Djuna, and the eyes of all guests are fixated on Buck on his horse leading a pack of cowboys gallopping around the track, when the man is suddenly shot in his heart and overrun by the horses behind him. The Inspector immediately starts his investigation, sealing off the stadium, but no matter how much he and his men search the building and all the people inside it, they just can seem to find the murder weapon!

After a bit of traveling between states in The Egyptian Cross Mystery, we're back in New York in The American Gun Mystery. This novel feels a bit similar to The Roman Hat Mystery, because both novels have a murder during a show and a large-scale search for a certain item, which includes the need of detaining a very large number of people on the crime scene. Of course, this time it's a bit different from Roman Hat because the victim was at the center of the attention during the murder, which is something completely new in the Queen novels. For we actually see a bit of the victim before he's killed. I had said in my review of The Dutch Shoe Mystery that I liked that people died fast in these novels, which is still true, but it felt refreshing to have seen the victim alive and all (even if for just a very short time) for a change. It's also the first murder made from a distance, which is probably not that interesting, but maybe handy for some kind of Queen trivia quiz.

The literary device of J.J. McC., who pens the introductions to the Queen novels, is also used more prominently compared to the previous novels. In fact, J.J. McC. even appears in the last part to narrate the story, something I had completely forgotten about The American Gun Mystery. By now, J.J. McC. feels like an unneeded relic of the past though. His existence is as interesting as S.S. Van Dine in the Philo Vance novels, that is, not at all. The inclusion of J.J. as an active figure in the narrative is just distracting.

While not as complex and exciting as the previous two novels, The American Gun Mystery does has its moments. Like in The Dutch Shoe Mystery, it is actually possible to deduce a lot about the solution from information obtained in the early parts of the story, which shows how tricky Queen's plots can be, as it is not very likely that you will actually deduce that. Also, one of the major problems surrounding Buck Horne's death feels thematically close to a major puzzle in Arisugawa Alice's excellent Kotou Puzzle surrounding a treasure map, presenting a problem in a certain dimension, before revealing that you have to look at it from a totally different angle. It's not a logic puzzle per se, but I love these kind of riddles / puzzles that you solve by looking at things from a different angle. It is not difficult to figure out the problem, but it is interesting because it adds a possible dimension to Ellery's deductions that hadn't been explored in earlier novels.

Main criticism on the novel is probably aimed at the actual whereabouts of the murder weapon. After the searches in Roman Hat and Greek Coffin, the solution to The American Gun Mystery's problem can only be called disappointing. Of course, Golden Age novels are hardly nexi of realism, but still, this is one of those solutions you remember for reasons of the less-than-positive kind.

To make it short, not one of my favourite Queens. It's like an alternative The Roman Hat Mystery, but it is easier to forgive Roman Hat's faults considering it was Queen's debut work: The American Gun Mystery is disappointing compared to the much stronger previous novels.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Crucifixion of a Dead Man

When a crime is committed by a non-habitual criminal, that is the time for the policeman to watch out. None of the rules he has learned will apply, and the information he has amassed through years of studying the underworld becomes so much dead wood.
"The Egyptian Cross Mystery"

Usually posts on consecutive days mean I wrote a lot of reviews the first day and post them one a day, but I've actually been writing every day now... Not sure whether I can make it at this tempo all the way to the end though.

Reviews of Ellery Queen's 'nationality' novels:
The Roman Hat Mystery
The French Powder Mystery
The Dutch Shoe Mystery
The Greek Coffin Mystery
The Egyptian Cross Mystery
The American Gun Mystery
The Siamese Twin Mystery
The Chinese Orange Mystery
The Spanish Cape Mystery

The Egyptian Cross Mystery (Dutch title: Het Egyptische Teken / The Egyptian Sign) starts with Ellery visiting the little village of Arroyo, where the decapitated and crucified body of school master Andrew Van was discovered on Christmas. In need of material for a new book, Ellery looks around a bit and attends the Coroner's inquest, but not much can be made out of the case, except for the fact that the letter T seems to be a repeated motif in the murder: the headless body was crucified on a T-shaped signpost on a T-shaped crossroad and a bloody T had been left on the door of the victim's house. The police do find a clue about a person who might have murdered Van, but can't seem to trace him. Fast forward six months, when Ellery receives a letter from his old professor Yardley, who wants his pupil's help with a case: wealthy rug importer Tom Brad was found decapitated and crucified to a T-shaped totem-pole.

Quite different from the previous four books: whereas Ellery was mostly operating in relatively small and closed environments within New York, The Egyptian Cross Mystery has Ellery traveling outside New York, meaning he has to perform his deduction magic without the protecting powers of his pater. Add in the fact that the murders happen in quite different areas, and we have a moving Ellery, an active Ellery, which is almost shocking. The direct build-up to the climax in particular is almost the anti-thesis to the cramped movements of Ellery in his earlier adventures. I said in the review of The Greek Coffin Mystery that it seemed like Ellery was confined to smaller and smaller spaces with every novel, well, The Egyptian Cross Mystery is the complete opposite.

The more open feeling is not only present in the geographical movements of Ellery, the case structure is also much more open. This time we have several murders spread over the Eastern part of the States: gone is the certainty that the case was an inside job and all done by the same person, as the possibilities seem endless. With the previous novels, it was always quite clear that someone inside the main location must have commited the murder, but this time we aren't really dealing with such a closed environment; heck, in spirit the hunt for the mysterious man feels a bit like Queen's own Cat of Many Tails, which also featured a similar open case structure. This is a very different Queen.

Which is also apparent in the modus operandi of the criminal. Decapitated and crucified victims? The previous four novels had fairly clean deaths: strangulations and poison and such, so the jump to decapitations is quite big. Visually, as far as you can call a novel that, this is a very dark, if not darkest Queen. But there is of course a reason for the decapitations, which does form one of the weaker points of the novel. It might have been more surprising and shocking back in the time (or not, I don't know for sure), but even the most unexperienced reader of detective fiction would know what the crucial question is when dealing with the major trope of this novel. And Ellery... doesn't ask the question. Writer Queen evades the question, tries to cloud the reader's thoughts with hardly convincing theories and metaphores about Egyptian crosses and sungods and so, but the reader will think about the question, which will bring him very far in the solution to the problem.

The novel does greatly improve on the usually weak middle part of the Queen stories. Like The Greek Coffin Mystery, Egyptian Cross's structure with several distinct parts and climaxes is much more entertaining to read than the relatively slow and boring investigation parts of The Roman Hat Mystery, The French Powder Mystery and The Dutch Shoe Mystery. It is not as deduction-heavy as Greek Coffin though, with only one really important deduction chain around the middle of the novel that drives the plot forwards.

It's maybe because I am a fan of Yokomizo Seishi and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, but The Egyptian Cross Mystery has always felt most close to my own image of the Japanese detective novel (even though the genre is very varied there, and it is not really possible to pose the Japanese detective novel). From bloody murder to the so-called mitate murders (a trope close to, but wider than the nursery rhyme murder trope), the novel seems to have featured some tropes that seem quite popular in Japan (disclaimer: at a certain time, among certain readers of the genre).

Were I to rank the book, I think The Egyptian Cross Mystery would end up somewhere around the middle point. It's a bit different from the other early Queen novels, which turns out mostly good, but the lesser emphasis on absolute reasoning knocks it down my list.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Elleryana

"No man however modest -and Ellery Queen, I think he will be the first to agree, is far from that - cares to flaunt his failures to the world"
"The Greek Coffin Mystery"

For those wondering why I seem to be posting in a fairly regular schedule lately: I am actually a relatively fast reader and writer. It's just that I can't read Japanese as fast as Dutch or English, meaning I just can't post in this tempo when I read Japanese novels. Which is most of the time. And if one considers I also discuss games here (which usually take about 10~20 hours, compared to the couple of hours for a novel), well, that explains the regular schedule and the schedule of the last few days. I wish I were eloquent enough to explain this more concise . Like "I'm a locksmith and I'm a locksmith".

Reviews of Ellery Queen's 'nationality' novels:
The Roman Hat Mystery
The French Powder Mystery
The Dutch Shoe Mystery
The Greek Coffin Mystery
The Egyptian Cross Mystery
The American Gun Mystery
The Siamese Twin Mystery
The Chinese Orange Mystery
The Spanish Cape Mystery

The Roman Theater wasn't really Roman, the French department store not really French and the Dutch shoe wasn't really Dutch, but the body of famous art dealer Georg Khalkis was definitely Greek. His (non-criminal) death and the funeral were just little interesting blips on the news radar, but it's what happened after the funeral that caught the attention of the police and Ellery and what started The Greek Coffin Mystery. For right after the funeral, it's discovered that Khalkis' will has disappeared from the house safe. A search through the house, adjoining courtyard and graveyard is succesful, from a certain point of view. The will is still gone, but instead, the police do find an extra dead body of a person who was definitely not going to meet his Maker on voluntary terms.

Have I already mentioned that I consider this the best Queen novel? If not, I've done it now and if I had, well, it can't be said enough! I have no idea how the Queen cousins looked at their own work in their time, but it is like the two suddenly realized that the tropes utilized in their previous novels, like the grand search and fixation on objects, worked so well of their deductions, the long chains of cause and effect, the practical use of that adage 'when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?'. Reading Queen is almost an exact science, but even someone weak in the exact sciences (like yours truly), can appreciate and admire the sheer ingenuity of the deductions Queen can produce just by the look of a set of tea cups.

Deductions are what drive this novel, which give The Greek Coffin Mystery a very different dynamic compared to the previous three novels. There we had a murder, long investigations and a climax. The middle parts were the most calm ones. Here however, the middle part is almost the most dynamic part of the story, and that is because Ellery's deductions are in the spotlight now, and even the murderer is aware of that. The structure of The Greek Coffin Mystery is quite well known, so I don't consider it a real spoiler if I mention that yes, there are false solutions planted by the real murderer, but this is something that only works because Queen was quite aware of the weaknesses of Ellery's method. He can deduce the world from one single item, but that doesn't mean he should. A crafty murderer can plant false clues to manupulate Ellery, as he will infer a complete (and totally false) world for you given the right stimuli. And that is what happens here. The murderer tries to trap Ellery with his false solutions: this is very different from the previous novels, where yes, murderers (naturally) did try to hide their guilt, but never did so by actually coming up with a complete false solution for the detective. Also, in The Greek Coffin Mystery, this battle for the truth between Ellery and the murderer is repeated several times, giving the novel a kind of adventure / interrelated short stories feeling, as it is like they have several skirmishes, continuously trying to adapt each other's strategies. In my mind, The Greek Coffin Mystery therefore feels quite close to Maurice LeBlanc's 813, even though they're actually very different novels.

These false solutions are of course a central problem to Queen's novels, in Japan usually called the Later Period Queen problems (even though it was first posed in Norizuki Rintarou's book titled Early Period Queen Problems).  If you accept the probability of a false solution, that is, the possibility that the real murderer can plant false clues that lead to the wrong person, then you're dealing with an unsolvable problem. Suppose Solution 1 (featuring murderer 1) is false, because clue A was planted, by murderer 2 (thus, solution 2, substantiated by clue B). What guarantee can you have that clue B, and therefore solution 2, isn't a plant by murderer 3? And in turn a murderer 4? This is a meta problem, and the writer can 'forcefully' end this by just ending his novel, but 'in-universe', the detective can never be absolutely sure his final solution is actually the correct one. False solutions and manupulating murderers are a common sight in Queen novels, but it does pose fundamental problems for the genre and Ellery's method, especially as The Greek Coffin Mystery shows that it can be fairly easy to create a false solution.

It is of course both a strong and weak point of the story. I remember having seen several comments on how the story developments (=new deductions) seemed to have been driven by people who suddenly remembered new things, ergo the introduction of new elements to add in the equation, altering the outcome of the deductions. It shows at the same time how drastically deductions can change because of a new element, even if it requires exceptional reasoning power, but also how arbitrarily it can be: the only way to escape from a false solution is by having the writer intervene in one way or another and even that is not really convincing.

But if you don't worry about that, then you're in for a heck of a ride. The way Queen managed to work with all these false solutions and make them a relevant part of the final solution is amazing and a showcase of how logical reasoning puzzlers should be constructed. I had already noted that the actual spatial range of the stories seemed to become smaller with every novel, this time the story being mostly set around the Khalkis residence, but the imaginary spatial range, that is, the depth and breadth of the deductions, is probably the widest of all Queen novels.

Oh, and I love the play with chapter titles! The first two novels had them to a lesser extent (French had some references to nursery rhymes), while those of The Dutch Shoe Mystery were all nouns ending with -ion, but having chapter titles whose initial letters spell 'The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery Queen' is just awesome!

And I still consider this the best Queen. I usually recommend this novel to newcomers, but now that I've read the books in order, I am inclined to change that opinion. The Greek Coffin Mystery was the first novel of the nationality cycle I had read, but this time I read it as an evolution of the previous three novels and the novel as a whole made more sense in that context.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Tale of Two Shoes

There are only two detectives for whom 1 have felt, in my own capacity as hunter-of-men, any deeply underlying sympathy... transcending  racial idiosyncrasies and overleaping barriers of space and time... These two, strangely enough, present the weird contrast of unreality, of fantasm and fact. One has achieved luminous fame between the boards of books; the other as kin to a veritable policeman... I refer, of course, to those imperishables—Mr. Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, London, and Mr. Ellery Queen of West 87th Street, New York City"
"The Dutch Shoe Mystery"
  
Not really sure what to think when reviews of English-language novels have about as much hits as reviews on Japanese novels. Anyway, this is the second post in this EQ series, but about the third Queen novel. Because I already did The French Powder Mystery.

Reviews of Ellery Queen's 'nationality' novels:
The Roman Hat Mystery
The French Powder Mystery
The Dutch Shoe Mystery
The Greek Coffin Mystery
The Egyptian Cross Mystery
The American Gun Mystery
The Siamese Twin Mystery
The Chinese Orange Mystery
The Spanish Cape Mystery

The Dutch Shoe Mystery (Dutch title: Patiënt overleden Operatie geslaagd / Patient dead, operation succes) brings us to the Dutch Memorial Hospital, built thanks to the financial support of one Abigail Doorn (Mrs.), who is about to have an operation. Her protege, Dr. Janney, is to perform the risky operation, but the doctor discovers there is no reason to operate on Mrs. Doorn after she's been wheeled into the surgical amphitheater: the reason the patient does not move, is not because she is comatose (as she should have been), but more because she is already quite dead. Who strangled the poor woman during her standby time in the room next door? Janney is suspect number one, because several people state they saw him entering the room before the operation, but Ellery, who happened to be on the scene, is not sure. Especially not after the discovery of a pair of shoes.

The third novel in the series and in a sense a logical evolution of the previous two novels. For example, the setting. Like the theater of The Roman Hat Mystery and the department store of The French Powder Mystery, most of the action of The Dutch Shoe Mystery is placed in a relatively wide, yet unmistakenly closed environment. Here the book seems to be different from the previous two novels though: the actual discovery of the body is made in the amphitheater and adjoining rooms, an closed environment, inside the larger closed environment of the hospital. It brings a sense of a smaller scale to the mystery, which is also apparent if one compares the theater and the department store to the Dutch Memorial Hospital. In the narrative, it might be refered to as a fairly well running hospital, but we only see the main actors running around in the hospital and it almost feels claustrophobic, if one is to compare it to what happened in the Roman Theater, with the large scale body searches and all.

The idea of the murder being discovered just as they want to start the operation is very memorable. Death during an operation, like in Green for Danger or Team Batista no Eikou, is a risk that is inherent to a heavy surgical operation. The death might be an accident, or murder, but it is a bit easier to accept such a death. Here the reader, together with everybody else, is confronted with death right before the effort to save someone's life starts! The blow feels bigger somehow and leaves a stronger impression.

What I like about these early Queen novels is also how quickly people tend to die. As an impatient person, I want my victims to get murdered fast, and that is something the Queen novels do well. It only takes a couple pages before the reader is taken on an investigation rollercoaster, which is exceptionally strong in the first half of The Dutch Shoe Mystery. Most of this is set in the hospital, but events and revelations follow each other in a great tempo, making this a joy to read. The middle part / second half of the novel is weaker in comparison, with fewer events that actually drive the plot forwards.

Once again, an object forms the focal point of Ellery's deductions and this time it's the state of the pair of shoes the murderer had worn. This fixation allows Ellery to make one of the greater deductions in his career, as it is almost unbelievable the writer manages to deduce just from a pair of shoes! Logicwise, this is definitely one of the high-points in the series, though it is hampered by the fact that an important event late in the novel makes it very easy to deduce who the murderer is, weakening the importance of the shoe-deduction chain. Oh, and I've heard people complain about how it is practically impossible to deduce the motive for the murders, which is absolutely true, but I have never seen it as a problem in the Queen novels. By the time Ellery has done building his logical prison around the suspect, we know that it was physically (and often also knowledge-wise) only possible for one person to have commited the murder. A motive is not even needed at this point (you can see that I am neither a policeman nor a laywer). A motive with these kind of stories, which rely on highly logical elimination deductive methods, is just an extra, in my opinion.

The 'new' thing of The Dutch Shoe Mystery, compared to the previous two novels, is probably the detailed map of the Dutch Memorial Hospital and the focus on movement and time of the actors. The first part of the novel has long descriptions of Ellery's movements through the hospital, descriptions of where the rooms are located and exact times when certain events happened. The chart of the hospital is definitely a vital part of the novel and this strong visual aspect is something you don't even really see in later Queen novels (at least not at the same level). It does fit the closed environment setting of these novels and it adds to the whole neat and clean image of the hospital.

Definitely a fun Queen novel, but this third novel is admittedly not as strong in my opinion as the second (The French Powder Mystery) or the fourth in the series (The Greek Coffin Mystery). In fact, now I think about it, if I'd rank the first nine Queen novels, this would definitely rank in the lower half, but that is more because of the overall quality of those novels, than a critique on this novel.

Friday, May 10, 2013

In which the Queens go the theatre

"Ellery is merly indulging in his favorite game of ratiocination. He doesn't know where the papers are any more than you do. he's guessing.... in detective literature," he added with a sad smile, "they call it the 'art of deduction,'"
"The Roman Hat Mystery"
 
It's almost been two months and I'm still waiting for the boat to deliver the books I sent to myself from Japan, so to fill the time, I finally decided to reread Ellery Queen. Because it's been a while. I'm planning to do the first nine novels only, and seeing I already did The French Powder Mystery a year or two ago, I'll be skipping that one too, so eight to go. And yes, I know that there are two persons behind the EQ nome-de-plume and Barnaby Ross and all of that, but as I will be mostly writing about the novels based on their plot and structure, and not about the world outside that (writers and such), I'll be just talking about Queen, as 'one' writer for convenience's sake. And to make it clear from the start: I refer to the writer as Queen, and to the character as Ellery (which is also what I do for Norizuki Rintarou and Arisugawa Alice by the way).

Reviews of Ellery Queen's 'nationality' novels:
The Roman Hat Mystery
The French Powder Mystery
The Dutch Shoe Mystery
The Greek Coffin Mystery
The Egyptian Cross Mystery
The American Gun Mystery
The Siamese Twin Mystery
The Chinese Orange Mystery
The Spanish Cape Mystery

The Roman Hat Mystery is indeed about a hat, though there is nothing particular Roman to it. The titular hat belonged to a certain Monte Field, crooked laywer and his untimely demise is what forms the main mystery of this novel. His rather dead body was found in a seat of the Roman Theater, during a particularly popular play and two items that the police would have liked to have found near the body were sadly not present there. That is, Mr. Monte Field's top hat and of course his murderer (because that would make things a lot easier). Inspector Richard Queen of the New York police has little choice but to try to find hat and murderer somewhere in the theater. Which is rather full people who really want to go home, with the play cancelled and a dead body among their midst and all. But the inspector doesn't has to work alone! Besides a loyal and capable group of subordinates, he's also blessed with a son Ellery, who can be pretty darn smart when he isn't talking about first edition books and all.

The first Queen novel and has both elements the reader will find in following novels, as well as some 'strange' other artistic choices. The biggest surprise of The Roman Hat Mystery is perhaps the role of our master-detective Ellery Queen. Ellery Queen might be presented as the detective in this story, but this is actually more inspector Queen's story than his son's. The story mostly follows the inspector's efforts in locating the victim's murderer and his hat and the reader is introduced to a large group of policemen, the District Attorney and shown the ways the inspector interacts with everybody. His son, billed the protagonist, on the other hand stays largely in the background and in fact, does not even appear in person in the last section of the book, nor at the crucial moment of unmasking the murderer. Yes, it was Ellery who solves the case, but he has nothing to do with the practicals of bringing the case to an end. In fact, Ellery might as well have been a ghost or some figment of the inspector's imagination, assisting him at the crucial moment with brilliant deductions. In following novels, Ellery luckily gains more personality and already in the second Queen novel, The French Powder Mystery, we see a more active Ellery in the form of a detective, rather than an oracle figure misplaced in a police story.

But the problem of the missing top hat is something we'll see a lot in Queen novels. I can't remember where this was, but I once read a text that described Ellery Queen as having a fetish for objects; that is, a lot of (the deductions in) his stories are focused on objects, whether they are missing or present or in a certain state or condition, and these objects are almost even more central to the story than for example the victim himself. In The Roman Hat Mystery, the fact the victim's hat is missing is what sets the Queens on the right trail, but one can for example also think of the beginning part of The Greek Coffin Mystery, where drinkware becomes a central point, or the cards in The Siamese Twin Mystery.

And if we're dealing with specifically a missing object, like in this novel, you can bet on a Grand Search. The Queens, they love searching for objects. And the people in the world of the Queens, they love hiding things. In all kind of places. If it's not in here, then it's beneath that or behind this or on top of that. These searches have a tendency to be set in a large area, forcing the Queens (+ accompanying police) to work very thoroughly, making it all the more surprising when we discover where the desired object was all the time.

The Queens also love rather strange crime scenes. A murder inside a packed theater? What about a body on display in a department store?  One might call it objectification of the dead body, together with the crime scene, as the murder itself is not half as interesting as the picture of how the dead body is found. In general, the bodies aren't in places that are strange per se. It's just a small adjustment to the scene that makes you feel uneasy. A man neatly dressed in a theater? Normal, except for the fact he's dead and not wearing a hat. Somebody lying in a showcase bed of a department store? Normal, except for the fact she's dead (and was locked inside the wall). These are the 'normal' examples, but there are some stranger ones in the following novels.

The other major Queenian trope, the Challenge to the Reader is also present and this is something I still enjoy thoroughly. I am not very familiar with contemporary English(-language) detective novels, so I am not sure how often this is used, but I still come across challenges in Japanese mystery novels and approach these novels with a slightly different mindset than 'normal' detective novels. Sure, I try to solve detective novels myself anyway, but give a challenge, and I am at least sure the writer tried to make it fair for me too.

I am not too familiar with the activities of other mystery clubs in Japan, but at least Kyoto University Mystery Club has a long tradition of Guess the Criminal stories, which are short stories, with a challenge to the reader (whether explicitly written or not): members have to read the first part of the story, up until the challenge and try to solve the case themselves, after which they are handed out the solution. This might explain why the trope is still relatively popular in Japan, as writers who originate from clubs with such a tradition are probably more trained in this device, and maybe also more willing to use it.

But how is The Roman Hat Mystery as a novel? At one hand, we have the logical deductions based on the elimination method that make the Queen novels such a joy to read and elements like an exciting search for a top hat and such. On the other hand, most of the characters besides the inspector are a bit bland and the deductions and hints that ultimately lead to the identity of the murderer are not as refined as in later novels: yes, the elimination method of deduction does point to the murderer (that is, we know the murderer has characteristics X, Y and Z, and only person A has all three characteristics, ergo he is the murderer), but not all hints are not laid down as visible to the reader as they should have been, making it feel less satisfying. Compare with the direct sequel The French Powder Mystery, where the murderer may seem to come out of nowhere, but the logic and the underlying hints in the text are fundamentally much stronger (and thus more convincing to the reader).

I would definitely read The Roman Hat Mystery though. Despite some minor points, it's still a fine mystery novel and has enough of the elements that grow out to be typical Queen tropes. Maybe not the best Queen novel, and maybe a bit 'different' from the other early Queen novels because of its focus on the formal police investigation, but enough of a royal entry.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Moving Finger

「では、本題に入る前に予備知識として、推理小説における首切り殺人の歴史についてー」
「それは省略だ」警視が意義を唱えた。「後でおまえが本を書く時に、適当に挿入しろ。俺はそんなものに興味はない。すぐ本題に入るんだ」
『誰彼』

"Well, before we move on to the main topic, let's review the history of decapitation murders in detective novels..."
"Let's skip that," the commisioner said. "Just insert one when you write a novel about this case, 'cause I'm not interested. Let's start"

So there's a new detective drama running in Japan, Otenki Oneesan ("Weather Girl"). The series itself seems to be a scientific detective series in the spirit of Higashino Keigo's Galileo (of which the second season also started recently!), but I was initially drawn to the somewhat vague marketing copy "I've seen through your weather trick" What is a weather trick? My first thought: "And then you lured the victim into a grassy field full flowers and trees, knowing it would become dry and sunny in the afternoon, which would effectively kill the victim because of his hay fever!" (this would definitely work with me as a victim).

It's been just over two years since my review of Yokomizo Seishi's Kindaichi Kousuke no Shinbouken, an underwhelming collection of stories which were all expanded upon / rewritten to novelletes / novels later. At the end of the review I also mentioned I already had the sequel, Kindaichi Kousuke no Kikan ("The Return of Kindaichi Kousuke"), in my possession. So a very late review (and to be honest: I only reached out to the book because I have nothing else to read at the moment). The set-up is the same: all stories feature the famous private detective Kindaichi Kousuke, with his trademark messy hair and knack for never really preventing people from dying around him (something he shares with his grandson). Different from Yokomizo's more famous works however, almost all of these stories are set in the city, rather than in secluded communities (there are also no legends / curses / etc.). Also, all stories in this volume have been rewritten at one stage or another in Yokomizo's career, either using exactly the same title, or a slightly revised title.

A letter delivered at the wrong address is the cue for Kindaichi Kousuke to step in on a poison pen letter case in Doku no Ya ("The Poison Arrow"). The letters, signed by someone called the Golden Arrow, aren't just slander though; whether true or not (mostly not), the Golden Arrow wants money for his silence. One of the victims is Matoba Natsuko, who came back from the United States with her disabled daughter recently. But the investigation of Kindaichi couldn't prevent from Natsuko being murdered, being stabbed in her back, right through the tattoo of playing cards she had on her back. Is it related to the poison pen letter case? Of course, because this is a short story and we can't have too much subplots here. A rather hasty story, and its greatest weakness is that it a) 'borrows' a famous trick from a Christie novel, b) without hiding that properly, so anyone familiar with that particular Christie novel (and there is a big chance you'll have read it), will know what happened.

The main problem of Trumpdaijou no Kubi ("The Head on the Card Table") is deftly described in its title at. A cut off head. On a table. Oh, and the body is gone. The victim is a stripper called Akemi, who had been playing bridge the previous night and the guests all swear she still had her head on her body when they left her in her room. As a problem, it is interesting what Yokomizo tries here, as we all know what to expect when we find a body without a head, but we don't encounter heads without a body that often, but the short story format binds Yokomizo to a more compact, focused set-up of his tale (which doesn't work out for him well usually, in my opinion), the reader won't have that much trouble figuring out what happened, though I have to admit that this was an okay story, definitely among the better of this collection.

Kashi Boat 13 Gou ("Rental Boat 13") has the titular boat floating, with two dead bodies in it. For some reason, a woman has first been strangled, then stabbed in her heart, after which her head was cut off mostly from her neck. Next to her, a man has been stabbed in his heart, then strangled and his head cutt off slightly from her neck. It doesn't take long to identify the victims, but why did the murderer act in such a strange way? What starts out as a problem which seems fit for an excellent Queenian deduction chain, is solved rather easily because one of the victims overheard something which explains everything in an instant. And I don't mean that it was something vague that suddenly set off the thinking machine in Kindaichi's head, what was overheard explained the murders, practically as is. Which is a shame, because the premise is fun and while actually most of  the mystery inYokomizo's short stories can be explained by reexamining the human relations / the relations between characters, this has been one where the trope worked really well.

If Doku no Ya breathed Christie, then Shina Ougi no Onna ("The Woman with the Chinese Fan") can only be described as Carr. The titular 'woman with a Chinese fan' refers to a painting of a woman who famously poisoned her husband in the Meiji period. Fastforward many years ahead, where Minako, a relative of the infamous poisoner, wakes up from sleepwalking, only to find her mother-in-law and maid in a quite dead and murdered situation. Believing she has the same evil blood in her veins as her famous aunt and killed them during her sleep, she tries to commit suicide, but is luckily saved by the police. Kindaichi suspects there is more to it though, and while the solution works, it's very simple (but does require knowledge of a certain historical event).

By now it shouldn't be a surprise, but Tsubo no Naka no Onna ("The Woman in the Urn") indeed features a woman in an urn. When a collector of urns is murdered, his assistent witness the murderer, a woman, trying to escape by getting inside an urn. Noticing the assistent outside the window, the murderer decides to flee on foot, but what kind of murderer was she? This is definitely my favorite story in the collection, as it features a great hidden hint and the use of very commonly used trope in detective fiction, but one which I hadn't foreseen at all, so executed very well. It does ask for a bit of suspension of disbelief though.

More poison pen letters in Uzu no Naka no Onna ("The Woman In the Whirlpool") and once again it led to the murder of a woman. Because in Yokomizo Seishi's stories, women are always beautiful, but they also have a tendency to get murdered. The story feels like a mish-mash of all kind of tropes we have seen in the previous stories in this collection already, which makes it hard to judge. Heck, even names are reused in this story (for different people), making it a very confusing story to read, because memories get mixed. A whirlpool, indeed.

Tobira no Naka no Onna ("The Woman in the Door") is just... underwhelming. With cut-off heads, nearly cut-off heads, women in urns and women with tattoos, a story with a dead body discovered by a girl who happened to have reason to kill the victim and a note with a mysterious message is just not that impressive. Yokomizo's trick once again lies in his less-than-pretty human relations and resulting actions, but it's just too little, too late in this collection.

Meirosou no Kaijin ("The Monster of the Maze Mansion") is the most famous of this collection, as this short story was rewritten as a proper novel under the name Meirosou no Sangeki ("The Tragedy of the Maze Mansion"). Which was probably better, because Yokomizo comes with a great history for the titular mansion, which was built with countless of hidden passageways and trap doors, but practically nobody knows where they are anymore. A murder happens in the mansion, but the hidden passageways and such are... almost of no consequence to the actual mystery. Which is a missed opportunity, because this was the one story in the collection where the creepy atmosphere of Yokomizo really started to come alive, only for it to retreat almos immediately. It's a decent mystery, but the disappointment is larger than the satisfaction you'll derive from reading it.

Overall not as disappointing as Kindaichi Kousuke no Shinbouken, but still not a collection I would recommend to the reader. I am not a big fan of Yokomizo's short stories anyway, but if you really want to read them, the rewritten versions are probably better than these original versions. But this volume is really something you should read if you have nothing else to read: it may be /the original version/, but that doesn't always means better.

Original Japanese title(s):  横溝正史 『金田一耕助の帰還』 「毒の矢」「トランプ台上の首」「貸しボート13号」「支那扇の女」「壺の中の女」「渦の中の女」「扉の中の女」「迷路荘の怪人」

Saturday, May 4, 2013

『死者からの伝言をどうぞ』

"Slechts even flitste het door hem heen, dat het geen wijkmoord leek te worden: en dan nog wel in de wijk, waar hij zoveel jaren van zijn jeugd had doorgebracht en na zijn trouwen opnieuw was gaan wonen: Overschie. Dat de moord op de rijksweg was gepleegd, scheen die mogelijkheid al uit te sluiten. Want de weg liep wel dwars door Overschie, maar bleef er tegelijkertijd... buiten. Wat op de weg gebeurde hoorde bij het doorgaande verkeer en maakte van het bestaan in de wijk geen deel uit
"Puur geheim op rijksweg 13"

"For a second, it flashed through his mind that this probably wouldn't become a neighbourhood murder. And this was the neighbourhood he had spent many years of youth in and had come to live in after his marriage: Overschie. The fact the murder had been commited on the highway seemed to eliminate that possibility. The road did run through Overschie, but was also... outside it. What happened on the road, was part of the ongoing traffic and not part of the neighbourhood"
"Pure Secret on Highway 13"
 
Still waiting for Japanese books. Still waiting.

Oh, and a happy Reichenbach Falls day! 

We were presented with a classic whodunnit and a locked room murder problem in Cor Docter's first two mystery novels and the final entry in his topographical mystery series, Rein geheim op rijksweg 13 ("Pure Secret on Highway 13"), brings us a dying message, written in red paint and written on the inside of a van parked on the emergency lane of highway 13. The accompanying dead body (that's what makes it a dying message) was found by two thieves who wanted to steal parts from the van, but that plan kinda blew up, with a murder and all. But there are plenty of clues to follow for the police, and with events like a woman falling from a building, a suspicious old man popping up here and there and the escape of a high-profile convict from prison seemingly related to the dead guy in the van, commisioner Vissering has lots to do, and he isn't even sure whether he'll be free for Christmas in a few days!

Rein geheim op rijksweg 13 has similar the same problems to Koude vrouw in Kralingen, but it's a bit more balanced, making it the better of the two. Both novels are a bit disorienting halfway through their stories, because Docter keeps on moving the plot, feeding the reader (and the police) more events and revelations that might or might not be related to the main murder. Sure, an occasional red herring is welcome, but with these two novels the development of the plots felt a bit too arbitrary. Like I said in the Koude vrouw review, at times it feels like Docter is just padding out the plot to fill pages. It's entertaining padding, that I will admit, but if you think about it too much, you'll see that sometimes the way one part of the story connects to another is a bit uneven.

Overall though, Rein geheim op rijksweg 13 is a very entertaining story. The opening pages are captivating, being a narration of how the two thieves stumble upon the body. Already in this part Vissering comes up with some great logical deductions that just ooze Queen-spirit (and the book is about a dying message!). The conclusion is no less impressive, as one might have expected considering the previous two novels.

One of my favourite parts of the series on a whole are the way commisioner Vissering and his subordinate Grijphand work: every now and then one tells the other his theory, with the other acting as the Devil's Advocate. Deductions thus develop through discussion, not unlike the way it's done in the Gyakuten game series or the Revoir series. I personally enjoy this a lot, as ever-changing deductions in the realm of the imagination are at least as fun to read as actual developments in real investigations, in the real world. I felt this element at his best in this last part of the series.

Cor Docter's little series on Rotterdam has been fun though and it's a pity the books aren't available in any other language. But then again, that can be said of most of the books I discuss here... Oh, and yes, this review is a bit shorter than usual, but that's because I mentioned the most interesting points about the series on a whole and such in the earlier reviewy already (leaving next to nothing for this review!).

Original Dutch title(s): Cor Docter, Rein geheim op Rijksweg 13