Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Black Coffee Rag

「オレは今、オレ自身の2つの問題で精いっぱいさ。コーヒーはなぜ、黒いのか? そして‥‥なぜ、ニガいのか‥‥?」
『逆転裁判3』

"Right now, I have my hands full with my own two questions. Why is coffee black? And why... is it so bitter...?"
"Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Trials and Tribulations"

Coffee is something I don't see as much as a tasteful beverage, but more like a practical drink for its caffeine. Ice coffee however is a completely different story, as I love that.

Famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is asked by the famous scientist Sir Claud Amory to come by his house as he is facing a problem he himself can not solve. Amory had created a formula for a new explosive, but then he discovers that someone in his house has stolen it, probably to sell to a foreign agent willing to pay much for it and he needs Poirot's grey cells to figure out who did it. By the time Poirot and Hastings arrive at stately Amory manor though, it's been too late: Sir Claud had been poisoned through his black coffee. Was it the thief of the formula who murdered the man, or was there another person intent at taking the inventor's life? Hoping to at least help Sir Claud in his death, Poirot decides to investigate the manner of Sir Claud's demise, as well as of the theft of the explosive formula in Charles Osborne's Black Coffee (1998).

Black Coffee was originally a play written by Agatha Christie herself in 1930 featuring her famous creation Poirot. The play was not very well-known among Poirot fans, but in 1998, Charles Osborn wrote a novelization of the play, giving Black Coffee new life. When I first heard about this book, I have to admit I was not very interested, as it was "just" a novelization by someone else, and even though the source material was by Christie herself, I have to admit I was never that much a fan of the other plays by her I knew (like The Mousetrap or the other Poirot plays). Of course, now we're several years later and as I know all the other Poirot stories now, I thought that perhaps trying Black Coffee out could not hurt (yes, I know, I didn't exactly go in with really high expectations).

That said though, there is very little to say about Black Coffee, as it is an incredibly simple story, and even in novel-form you feel it was made for the theater. The whole set-up (Poirot being called to find a thief/murderer among a small household) reminds a lot of the Poirot short stories The Under Dog and The Incredible Theft, and Black Coffee is basically simply another variation on that theme. In terms of scale, Black Coffee is also barely a short story worth of plot, so that strengthens the similarities between these stories. As a mystery story, Black Coffee is nothing special at all, which is once again something this story shares with the Poirot stories mentioned, as I suspect few view them as the highlights of the Poirot short stories. Christie for example makes use of a device in regards to the whereabouts of the formula that was probably already old and over-used when this story was written and most of the rest of the tale consists of Poirot asking people questions that don't seem to lead anywhere. Black Coffee is definitely not Christie gold.

I can't compare the novelization to the original play, but you definitely can tell that this story was originally a play. Most of the story takes place inside the room where the murder took place, with all the characters moving in and out of the room to suit the plot. Of course, every time a person is all alone in the room, they'll act suspiciously for no apparent reader but to show the reader they're suspicious, I guess the novelization is probably faithful to the play in this regard, and it shows it respects the source material, but I had definitely preferred some more variety. This is a novel, so you don't need to incorporate every element of the play, especially if it's something that probably only exists because of the limitations of a medium. One might say that the final solution with Poirot works better if the whole story is set in the same room, but I don't think the effect is weakened that much if we'd see even a bit more of the outside world, and in any case, the prologue is in fact set outside the room (in Poirot's apartment to be exact), so I don't think it would've hurt that much.

I had hoped I'd be able to write something more substantial about Black Coffee, but there's so little I can say about it. Black Coffee is a full novel, but the core plot mystery is just barely enough for a short story in truth, as it's quite simple and nothing special, and certainly not something I'd consider a Christie classic (and she has written some great short stories!). The novelization is also, I suspect, quite faithful to the original play in being mainly set in one location, but this again strengthens the feeling of this being a short story being dragged out to a full novel. had this been a short story, Black Coffee would've been a mediocre effort of a mystery story. As a full novel, it's simply tedious and nothing special, and not even Poirot and Hastings can save it.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Wrong Shape

As I peruse the mystery blogs and the comments on the posts, I have noticed a trend among both bloggers and commenters that seems to suggest that most people seem to prefer the full-length novel over the short story. For me, it is quite the opposite. If I had to choose between the two forms, I'd definitely go with the short form. We're not talking about specific novels or short stories here by the way, I am merely talking about the format, so yeah, I might miss out on reading specific titles, I find that in general, I enjoy the brief form better when it comes to mystery fiction.

If I had to word my motivation, which is probably what I should do on a blog, I'd say it's because as a consumer of mystery fiction, I usually focus mostly on the core mystery plot: what is the mystery, what is the solution, and what is the logical thinking process behind the route from mystery to solution? If you read the reviews on this blog, you will notice that most of the time, I will be talking about the core plot. What were the dynamics behind that locked room mystery? Was the solution a complete original, an original variation on something familiar, or perhaps an uninspired rehash? Was the perfect alibi trick really possible done like that? Was the everyday life mystery alluring enough without being too out-of-the-ordinary? Was the clewing adequate enough for the reader to have a fair chance, or was there perhaps an incredibly subtly hidden, original clue? Was the logical process leading to the solution doable, and adequately clewed, or was it only possible if you had knowledge of a super-obscure piece of trivia, or was the jump from the clues to the solution too big? It's these things that I look for when consuming a mystery story in whatever medium it may be, and my memories of stories also tend to focus on that: "Oh yeah, that was that story where the murderer, victim, detective and witness all turned out to be the same person!" or something like that. Characterization and atmosphere are elements that can add to my enjoyment of a mystery story, but there are relatively low on my priority list.

Short stories, due to their limited format, usually excel at focusing at the core mystery plot. They need to be word-efficient, and there is no time for the plot to be moseying around for philosophic moments, scenery-chewing or over-endulging in side-plots. There has to be a mystery, there need to be clues, there needs to be a solution. By the time that's all in, a short story is usually already almost done, and then it's up to the author to carefully add in some salt and pepper, or perhaps remove a bit of the garnish to finish up their dish. So for someone like, the short story is ideal, as its priorities are the same as mine as a reader.


There are of course mystery plots that don't do well in short story form, as they need the extended runtime to perform best. To be as cheeky as to refer to a work I translated: The Decagon House Murders's core plot wouldn't have worked in a short story form, as the misdirection that is set-up in this novel really needs the runtime to have full effect. But in general, I think that if we reduce a mystery novel to its core mystery plot, you'd find that most of them would work as well, or even better in short form, if we're talking solely about presenting a mystery story. Many novels have a core mystery plot, like some trick or a concept, that would also be wonderful for a short story, but which are then extended with subplots, or uninspired red herrings and misdirection. You might have a locked room mystery for example, and that one suspect who acts all suspicious and whom the police investigates thorougly until they find out he not only had a grudge with the victim, but that he's also a stage magician and after a chase and a shoot-out and more, we find out at the end that this suspect had nothing whatsoever to do with the locked room mystery and that nothing of his subplot mattered to the core plot. In these cases, the core plot really doesn't need all the subplots to work properly, and could perhaps fit in a short story.

Another thing that happens often is that there's a second or a third murder, and that usually wouldn't fit in a short story naturally. But these subsequent mysteries are seldom really connected to the core mystery plot, when seen abstractly. To get back to my hypothetical locked room mystery, perhaps it is followed by a second locked room murder, with the victim being someone who happened to witness the murderer doing something suspicious. In this case, the two murders might connected at a story-level (motive), but they aren't necessarily at a mystery-plot level. Unless the first locked room murder trick must produce a witness for it to work for example, the two locked room murders could work independently, in different stories. Earlier, I reviewed Mitsuda Shinzou's Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono and the Detective Conan episodes titled Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken, and praised them as fantastic examples of synergy in mystery stories: both stories consisted of multiple impossible murders, but what made them exceptional was that in both stories, these were not discrete events at the mystery plot level: each seperate mystery was intertwined with the other, and they needed each other to actually work. Seperating them was impossible, as they were connected at the core. Nikaidou Reito's monsterous lengthy novel Jinroujou no Kyoufu has quite some fluff, as it's four-times-seven-hundred pages long, but now I think about, a large number of the impossible murders that occur there also only work because of the existence of the other murders. This concept of synergy however is not common in mystery fiction. Usually, you only have seperate modules placed one after another, that can easily be disconnected as there's no real link between the previous mystery or the next mystery. So often when I read a novel, I feel the core mystery plot (in this case, the locked room mystery) could've been reduced in short story form (perhaps spread across several stories) just as well.

Ironically though, I feel that the type of mystery stories that I like best don't do as well in short story form. I know prefer locked room mysteries (and other impossible mysteries),but I often think those often work better in short story form. In comparison, I usually consider the Queen-esque, ratiocination-based whodunit stories the pinnacle of the genre, but they usually don't fare as well in short form. As I explained in a post on clues in mystery fiction, these type of mysteries usually want you to identify a large number of characteristics of the culprit, and then have you scavenge the text to see which suspects answer the description. Such mysteries have you for example deduce that the murderer was right-handed, that they had to know about a certain fact before a certain moment and they had to have access to the murder weapon, and then you search for clues that show what the dominant hand is for each suspect, and whether there's a part that proves they knew about the fact or not, etcetera. As these stories are not as focused on mechanics like locked room mysteries, but more on contextual clues, these stories thrive by having longer texts, as they help the misdirection and possibilities for clewing. There are of course also short stories that focus on ratiocination in this style (like for example Aosaki Yuugo's shorts), but in general, I think the real masterpieces of this style work better in novel form. An interesting example of both these points might be The Moai Island Puzzle (yes, shameless self-promotion here): I can easily imagine the locked room mystery of this novel as a short story, but the other mystery core (which is solved through a long deduction chain based on characteristics and actions) works because all the clues are spread across a long text.

The second point of irony here is of course that this post on short stories has become far longer than I had planned. There's still some more I'd want to talk about, like the interlinked short story collections (where the short stories are linked by an overall storyline) as seen in videogames like Gyakuten Saiban /Ace Attorney or in the works by writers like Awasaka or Yamada, but perhaps that's something for in the comments. Anyway, I'd love to hear some thoughts on the short VS long form for mystery fiction!

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Go Your Own Way

運命のルーレット廻して
アレコレ深く考えるのはMystery
「 運命のルーレット廻して」(Zard)

Turn the roulette of destiny
It's a mystery why I think so deeply about everything
"Turn the Roulette of Destiny" (Zard)

In my review of the very amusing 3DS mystery game Detective Pikachu, I talked about the trend of episodic videogames: a videogame that is like a single episode of a longer series. An episodic game is considerably shorter than the usual videogame (and also cheaper, of course), but also a part of a larger, contineous series. These games are therefore released in a more frequent schedule than conventional videogames. This format is somewhat similar to the serialization of novels as an ongoing service with a limited schedule, but with key differences: episodic videogames can stand on their own for the most part, while installments in serializations are usually not standalone and simply excerpts from a longer story. An episodic videogame is ideally both vital part to the whole series, but should also feature its own storyline that is mostly resolved within that particular episode.

Buddy Collection is an episodic mystery videogame developed by Narutorikku. At the time of writing this review, the first two episodes of five have been released on PC, iOS and Android (for free!), but last month, an enhanced version of the first episode was also released on the Nintendo Switch (not free!), with the new extended title Buddy Collection if - Shukumei no Akai Ito- ("Buddy Collection If -The Red String of Fate-", 2018). The game starts with the female protagonist awakening in the hospital, suffering from amnesia. The girl, Nagisa, is told she's a student at a special high school for detectives, with the curriculum not only including theory classes on various topics of use for detectives, but also practice classes where the students get to work on real cases (you need to earn credits to be able to take on real cases). Nagisa lost her memory while investigating a case, but that was not the only thing she lost, as she also lost her "buddy": the school works with a buddy system, where two students have to work together on cases, but her buddy has disappeared now. While Nagisa belongs in the Special A Class, she is now moved to the E Class so she can recover from her ordeal. Her first school assignment is a three-day "camp" to practice on closed circle murders: she and three other E Class students are locked up in a special underground complex made for these classes, and they are to role-play a closed circle murder situation, with their teacher playing the victim in what appears to be an impossible murder. The students are assigned roles and have to deduce who the murderer is and how it was done, while the teacher plays the game master when not playing dead. However, the next morning the students find their teacher has really been murdered, hanging high up in the sky from red threads from the ceiling of the underground complex, precisely like the scenario in their role-playing game. With the doors to the surface being locked, the player has to take up the role of Nagisa, wisely pick out a new buddy and find out who the murderer is.


Buddy Collection if - Shukumei no Akai Ito- is marketed as a lite-otome & mystery novel game, which probably needs some explaining for some readers here. First of all: a novel game (also known as sound novel or visual novel) is basically a digital Choose-Your-Own-Adventure: you are mostly reading a linear story, but once in a while, you'll be presented with choices, which lead to branching storylines. In order to reach the end of the game, you need to find the correct route (combination of choices), as a wrong choice/branch storyline usually leads to a game over screen. The novel game genre has a long history with mystery games and I have reviewed a few of them here on the blog (for example Kamaitachi no Yoru, 428, Machi and Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P). In Buddy Collection if - Shukumei no Akai Ito-, you'll be solving the case through these CYOA-esque choices, with some choices/branching storylines leading to vital clues or evidence (or you missing them by making the wrong choice) and sometimes you have to decide on your next step. While it sometimes can feel a bit like random guessing, as you never really know where a certain choice will lead you until you actually select one, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Buddy Collection if - Shukumei no Akai Ito- actually does a good job of giving the player a good chance of making it through the game alive in one go if they pay attention. The correct choices are quite logical, and it never feels like you need to make a random choice that surprisingly turns out to be the good one.


I also said this game is a lite-otome game: otome games are story-driven videogames targeted towards women, that usually focus on a protagonist developing a romantic relationship with one of the eligable characters (within the context of the story). These games usually take hints from various game genres, like simulation games (gotta level up those parameters to impress the guy you want!) or novel games (making certain choices to develop the relationship). Buddy Collection if - Shukumei no Akai Ito- is very lite-otome, as early on in the story, Nagisa has to choose a new buddy from one of the three other E Class students. This leads to three Buddy Routes, where you mostly interact with your chosen buddy and where you learn a bit more about their personalities and background stories. These three buddies also each have their own working styles, so the mystery plot also changes slightly depending on which buddy you choose, though all three routes will eventually bring you to the same conclusion. Basically think of it of having to choose between Watson, Hastings or Goodwin at the start of the story, with the ending being the same, but the way towards the conclusion being slightly different because of the different personalities. It bring some replayability to the game, as once you have chosen a particular Buddy Route, you won't learn much about the others, inviting you to try the other routes too.

As a mystery game, Buddy Collection if - Shukumei no Akai Ito- is a short, but ultimately fairly satisfying experience. The mystery plot is a bit simple perhaps, especially as some of the choices you have to make to proceed in the story are bit obvious (Choice 1: Expected. Choice 2: Not Surprising. Choice 3: OBVIOUSLY SIGNIFICANT CHOICE), but the story is adequately clewed and due to some of the characters' personalities, things become far more exciting that you'd first expect. But as this is an episodic game, there are also quite some issues that aren't resolved within this episode, as they'll be addressed in subsequent episodes (for example, the mystery of how Nagisa lost her memories in the first place is left unanswered, and even the motive for the culprit in this first episode is still rather ambiguous, suggesting it will be explained later).


This enhanced version on the Switch added the word If to the title, indicating it was more than a simple port from the original (free) version on PC/iOS/Android. Buddy Collection if - Shukumei no Akai Ito- adds a new short storyline, with two new buddies. This storyline titled Detectives VS Culprits is a parallel world to the main storyline (it happens instead of the main storyline) and has the students participate in a variation of the Werewolf/Mafia party game, with two students playing the "Culprits" who have to kill a detective each night, and each day, the Detectives, including the Culprits who pretend to be Detectives too, have to execute someone they suspect is a Culprit. The Culprits win when they outnumber the Detectives, and the Detectives win if they execute all the Culprits. It's a short and entertaining story that shows some of the characters from the main storyline in new ways, but it's also a really mean storyline, in the sense that unlike the main storyline, it is intentionally designed to trip the player up at every corner. The game actually warns you before you begin, but it's basically throwing many, many choices at you that almost all lead to a game over screen, so it's quite difficult to find the correct route here (especially as I encountered a recurring game bug that either froze the game or booted me back to the title screen at a certain point in the story).

While those bugs late in the game were quite annoying, I did have fun Buddy Collection if - Shukumei no Akai Ito- though, even if it was a very short-lived experience (two, three hours?). The mystery plot, while simple, betrays the love of the creators for the mystery fiction genre, and this first episode hits just the right notes of both providing a story that can stand on its own, but that also invites you to play the other episodes to find out more about the overall storyline. I for one hope the other episodes will be released soon too.

Original Japanese titles(s): 『Buddy Collection if -宿命の赤い糸-』

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Comic Book Mystery

"In a few minutes, this famous cartoonist will be dead. Who killed him? Was it the ambitious lettering man? The layout expert? The background artist? The figure specialist? His disillusioned secretary? Or was it someone else? Match wits with Ellery Queen, and see if you can guess who done it!" 
"The Comic Book Crusader"

My own earliest experiences with the mystery genre were through visual media. Series and direct-to-TV films like Scooby Doo! Where Are You?, Agatha Christie's Poirot and the four animated adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes novels are some of my earliest memories of the mystery genre. And while I did read mystery novels by writers like Christie and LeBlanc before, I only really started reading mystery fiction after I started with mystery manga like Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo. So for me, there has always been a very intimate link between mystery fiction and the visual format, and I absolutely love it when mystery fiction makes full use of its medium. Mystery fiction in the form of comics (manga) and animation for example are fantastic in bringing certain clues, like colors or intricate floorplans, or insane murder tricks that are difficult to reproduce in real life, with the amazing Detective Conan episode Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau as a good example. It's for this reason that I have always kept a good eye on various puzzle plot mystery comics, as I am quite aware of the possibilities they offer over the written word in regards to our favorite genre. In fact, I think of the regular mystery bloggers around here, I'm probably the one who looks at these things the most often.

For people interested in mystery manga however, an amazing book and absolute must-read has been released recently. Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi ("Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar", 2018) collects a series of very informative columns by mystery critic Fukui Kenta, originally written for publisher Tokyo Sogensha's Web Mysteries! web magazine. The columns have been edited and updated for this book release, so even those who have read them will find this book very informative. In the two-hundred or so pages of this volume, Fukui presents an incredibly comprehensive history of mystery manga published in Japan, spanning the period from after World War II until the present. As for the question of how comprehensive this book is: Fukui introduces over 800 different titles within this volume, so you are absolutely sure to come across a manga title you never heard of.

Fukui's "seminar" on mystery comics traces a chronological line of mystery manga in Japan, focusing on publishing history. The book is roughly divided in two halves, each comprising of two sections. The first half focuses on comic adaptations of mystery fiction both domestic and foreign. Fukui's story starts with the earliest comic adaptations of Edogawa Rampo's Shounen Tantei Dan series in the fifties, of which there were quite a lot. The many Rampo titles mentioned here not only show the popularity of Rampo's series among the younger public, they are also the first in a long line of novel adaptations. Of particular interest is the part on the comic adaptations of Yokomizo Seishi's work, in particular the novel Yatsu Haka Mura. While I was already quite aware of a "Yokomizo Boom" in the 1970s, when his work's popularity suddenly exploded with pocket re-releases and the live-action film adaptations by Ichikawa Kon, I had no idea that the Yokomizo Boom started with comics! Apparently, the immense popularity of comic adaptations of Yokomizo's work was what convinced publisher Kadokawa Haruki to publish pocket re-releases of Yokomizo's novels in the first place, and what led to Inugamike no Ichizoku becoming the first theatrical film produced by the then brand-new Kadokawa Pictures, which is still one of the four major film studios to this day. Fukui continues tracing the release history of various authors and titles, domestic and foreign, from these earliest successes to the present. Interesting notes of interest include for example the TOMO Comics Masterpiece Mystery series, which included adaptations of books like Crispin's The Moving Toyshop or Futrelle's The Thinking Machine, the part on popular adaptations of contemporary works like Yonezawa Honobu's Classic Literature Club (Hyouka) series and the part solely devoted to Sherlock Holmes and Lupin adaptations. Note however that few of these were monster hits though. The 70s ~ early 90s in particular saw many releases that... just were.

The second half of Fukui's seminar focuses on original mystery manga, and is roughly divided in two parts: the period before the mega-hit series Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, Detective Conan and QED, and after. The section on original mystery manga before the 70s does not provide many surprises: I already knew that many series back then weren't really about solving a mystery, but more like spy stories, with the "detective" acting as an agent fighting crime. Examples cited are for example Tezuka's work (like Chief Detective Ken-1). The period from the 70s until the mega-hits is interesting though, and it makes so much sense in hindsight. Apparently, mystery manga series with longer runtimes started mostly in the magazines aimed at female readership, with for example Puzzle Game☆ High School as one of the longest running mystery manga ever (with the original series running from 1983 until 2001, and spin-offs/sequels still being published today). These female-oriented magazines also published many one-shot mystery stories. As I mentioned, this makes quite a lot of sense in hindsight, as the 70s and 80s were also the time when horror manga genre for girls really exploded, and the horror and mystery genres have always been very close. For those interested in the history of mystery manga, I think this pre-Kindaichi Shounen/Conan/QED period holds many interesting titles, and I definitely dotted down some titles I want to read.

While the other "lectures" (chapters) in Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi are all focused on either time periods or themes, Fukui dedicates three chapters to three specific titles. As mentioned, Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, Detective Conan and QED together symbolize the watershed moment for mystery manga in the early 1990s (some years after the shin honkaku movement started in literary world). Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo was the first classically-styled mystery manga series with a built-in Challenge to the Reader, which also became a big hit with live-action adaptations (the first drama series starring KinKi Kids' Doumoto Tsuyoshi and Tomosaka Rie was a big hit on TV). Detective Conan was created as a direct answer to the success of Kindaichi Shounen and became even bigger, reaching incredible audience numbers (Detective Conan: The Crimson Love-Letter was 2017's best grossing Japanese film. Not just animated or mystery: the best grossing domestic film in general). Personally, I never really got into QED and its spin-offs, though I'm aware of its popularity (you don't run for as long as QED if it were just an average series). Even so Fukui manages to point out interesting points for someone like me, like how author Katou studied architecture in college and how he uses that in his plotting. Spin-offs and related titles are also discussed in their respective chapters by the way, so series like Tantei Gakuen Q, Magic Kaito and CMB are also discussed.

The remaining lectures focus on original mystery manga after the watershed moment. Not all of these were big success of course: magazine Shounen Jump's direct reaction to Shounen Magazine's Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo & QED and Shounen Sunday's Detective Conan's immense successes as mystery manga was the short-lived Karakurizoushi Ayatsuri Sakon, but that never really made a lasting impression. An interesting point made is how in the late 2000s and early 2010s, we saw the uprise of mystery manga with detectives with very specific fields of specialty, like Kuitan (food) or Reizouko Tantei (refrigerators). Fukui also looks at mystery manga with specific themes or audiences, like mystery manga aimed a younger public, or those that mix science-fiction with the mystery genre. Of particular interest are the lectures on "logic game" mystery manga and manga created by mystery authors. The latter is obvious, as we have many authors who write novels who nowadays also write for comics (like Ayatsuji Yukito and Sasaki Noriko's Tsukidate no Satsujin). The 'logic game' mystery genre is one that has really boomed the last decade or so, with Death Note and Liar Game being excellent examples: mystery manga that focus on characters trying to outsmart each other using clearly defined 'game' rules. Mahjong and gambling manga also fall within this genre, as these series too often revolve around surprising use of game rules to outwit the opponent.

If I had to voice a complaint about Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi, it'd be that the book focuses very closely on publication history, meaning that most titles mentioned in this book are really only mentioned  (and perhaps followed by one short sentence saying whether it's good or not). Many sections of this book are just lists of titles, so those who want to learn more about certain titles will have to do some digging themselves too. As Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi is about publication history, it does help if the reader has some rudimentary knowledge about manga publication history in general, because some trends and connections are more easily recognized. The book itself doesn't provide much context if you're not familiar with that. Don't expect this book to explain what kashihon are for example and what they meant for the Japanese manga market in general, as it assumes you know. The Japanese comic industry also has some major differences in terms of serialization and publication practices if compared to for example the European or the US comic industry, and being aware of the characteristics of the Japanese industry naturally helps when reading Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi.

That said though, it is undeniable that Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi is a seminal work for this genre. An amazing amount of titles have been researched for this book, and by categorizing these titles by release year and original publication magazines/lines, Fukui manages to point out trends in the development of the mystery manga genre in Japan, with the genre responding to both internal and external stimuli. The indexes are a godsend too, as they are divided in both titles and authors. The comprehensive framework sketched in Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi makes this a must-read for anyone who wants to seriously write about the topic of mystery manga and I myself can't wait to read new, exciting research on this topic built on the foundation laid out in Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi.

Original Japanese title(s): 福井健太 『本格ミステリ漫画ゼミ』 

Friday, May 11, 2018

番外編:The 8 Mansion Murders Released

I really should stop doing announcements of upcoming announcements, because it always leaves me with next to nothing to say with the actual announcement...

So yeah, I have little to add to my previous post, but to say that Takemaru ABIKO's The 8 Mansion Murders (original Japanese title: 8 no Satsujin) is now finally available as both a trade paperback and e-book, translated by me and published by Locked Room International. The previous shin honkaku mystery novels brought by LRI were obviously inspired by Agatha Christie (The Decagon House Murders) and Ellery Queen (The Moai Island Puzzle), while also having their own, distinct voice: The 8 Mansion Murders continues that trend of building on the context of Golden Age mystery fiction, but within a modern, setting as the impossible murders committed with a crossbow within a curious 8-shaped house invoke clearly the spirit of John Dickson Carr, which is even emphasized with a genuine Locked Room Lecture. The 8 Mansion Murders is also by far the funniest novel I've translated until now, but don't let the comedy fool ya! Publishers Weekly said in its starrred review the book is "one of the funniest and cleverest novels of its type to hit the English-language market in years."

ABIKO was the third author to debut from the Kyoto University Mystery Club, after Yukito AYATSUJI (The Decagon House Murders) and Rintaro NORIZUKI ('The Lure of the Green Door') (ARISUGAWA Alice was also a student in Kyoto, but he was at Doshisha University). ABIKO's career in the mystery genre expands beyond novels, as he was also the mastermind behind the epoch-making Kamaitachi no Yoru videogame for the Super Famicom in the mid-90s, changing the form of mystery games (an English-language localized version titled Banshee's Last Cry is available on iOS/Android). The Starship Damrey (3DS) and 428 - Shibuya Scramble (first English release in 2018) are some other games he worked on that are available in English, but The 8 Mansion Murders will be the first time one of his novels is published in English translation.

For those who have read LRI's earlier releases of (shin) honkaku mystery novels: you probably know what you can expect, so why wait? For those who haven't yet: I actually think this is the most accessible one until now. Like with the other novels, there are a lot of references to classic mystery fiction, but the banter of the characters in The 8 Mansion Murders is really funny to read and the main impossible mysteries are a blast.

And that's it for today's service announcement. I hope you'll enjoy The 8 Mansion Murders!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Good Medium is Rare

 "Nothing is impossible," declared The Thinking Machine with equal emphasis. He always spoke petulantly. "The mind is master of all things. When science fully recognizes that fact a great advance will have been made."
"The Problem of Cell 13"

I've reviewed a couple theater mystery productions now, but still haven't seen one live....

Divine Dragon Village is a small community in the mountains on the verge of extinction because of its rapidly greying population, but also because it might be literally wiped away from the map because of talks of a dam being built nearby, which would lead to the flooding of the village. The one thing that keeps it alive now is a small filming studio, where the popular live-action series Psychic Academy Sigma is being filmed. Prosecutor Mitsurugi Reiji, police detective Itonokogiri and the energetic thief-in-training Mikumo are invited there by Mitsurugi's friend Yahari, who works at the studio as an assistant-director. The discovery of the body of the director puts a hold to the filming, but an initial investigation quickly leads to a suspect. Actor Asukai, who plays the lead Psychic Teacher admits he's the murderer, but there is one, enormous problem to this conclusion. The body of the director was found in the morning at the studio, but they have proof she was killed last night at the shrine high up in the mountains where the village treasure, the Dragon's Scale, is kept. However, the only path that leads up to the shrine was blocked last night due to a landslide following a heavy rainfall, so how was the body moved from the shrine down to the studio if the road was blocked? Asukai claims he used his psychic powers of teleportation to move the body, but Mitsurugi refuses to accept this supernatural explanation and tries to figure out how the body was "teleported" down the mountain in the stage play Gyakuten Kenji -  Gyakuten no Teleportation ("Turnabout Prosecutor - Turnabout Teleportation", 2016).

Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney is a comedic mystery adventure game series starring a defense attorney defying unsurmountable odds in crazy trials that started in 2001. A spin-off game Gyakuten Kenji ("Turnabout Prosecutor") was released in 2009, starring the popular character of prosecutor Mitsurugi Reiji (known in the localized games as Miles Edgeworth), who'd investigate crimes himself on the scene to find his suspects. The spin-off was followed by a sequel in 2011, a manga series, and even a musical version performed by the all-female troupe Takarazuka. Gyakuten no Teleportation is a stage play (not a musical), performed by the same troupe that brought the two stage plays Gyakuten no Spotlight (2014) and Saraba, Gyakuten (2015) based on the main Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney series.


The story of Gyakuten no Teleportation is based on an unused plot idea originally conceived for the second game, though it is difficult to say how much of it has been changed for Gyakuten no Teleportation. Anyway, it does feature an interesting mystery plot, as we are soon introduced to the suspect who gladly confesses to the crime, but who could not have done what he says he has done: teleporting a dead body from a mountain down to the studio in the village. What follows is a plot that mainly revolves around looking around at the crime scene and finding clues. This is similar to the games the play is based off, so that is something for the fans, but the story can feel a bit slow at times, as there are few plot developments until the finale, with most of the time being spent on exposition on locations/character backgrounds, making it feel like the main problem of teleportation is being pushed aside for something that could've been presented in a more direct, concise manner. The mystery of the teleportation trick is a bit crude, but adequately clewed, though there is a missed chance of presenting a truly great clue to the audience: I was convinced that they'd reveal a certain clue in the finale, as it appeared everything was pointing towards that, only to find out they totally ignored a chance to come up with a memorable clue. There is a great piece of misdirection going on though, one which worked perfectly with the medium of the story.

Of the three stage plays, I think the first made best use of its medium as it was a stage play about a murder happening during a stage play, and while this one is somewhat similar in idea (a murder that happens in a studio with actors), I thought this play was less... ambitious? The things they do with the props and other theatrical "tricks" are similar throughout the three stage plays, but whereas it was exciting and new in the first play, it's just not as original anymore when you see it performed for the third time with nothing new. There are also some points about the plot that don't seem to synergize well with the medium: the way the locations are connected is for example fairly important to the plot, but on stage you only see discrete sets without really showing how the previous set is connected to the other in geographical terms.
 

The live-action film and the Takarazuka musicals were made to appeal to a wider audience, but the stage plays have always been more directly aimed at existing fans of the franchise, so generally, the acting is usually a lot closer to the original games, with many of the quirks and motions of the actors being lifted straight out of the game. This works for these fan-oriented productions, though even as a fan of Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney, I never disliked the more serious, darker tone the live-action film had, even though I always hear people complaining how it was not EXACTLY like the original games. People who do want their live-action productions to be very, very much like the games, they need to seek out these stage plays, because these productions are very clearly made to appeal to that audience. There is also more interaction with the actors and the audience (talking about their favorite characters), and there is ad-libbing going on too, so these stage plays have more at-home feeling.

Gyakuten Kenji -  Gyakuten no Teleportation is a good mystery stage play though, that manages to combine a faithful adaptation of the source characters and atmosphere to a decent mystery plot that the audience can also solve themselves. If you have never seen any of these, you're in for a treat, though in terms of production, this play is not very different from the previous ones, so it might feel a bit underwhelming.

Original Japanese title(s): 『逆転検事 逆転のテレポーテーション』

Sunday, May 6, 2018

She Died a Lady

Dance into the fire
That fatal kiss is all we need
"A View to a Kill" (Duran Duran)

Mystery fiction has always thrived on the re-use of concepts. When you read a mystery novel, chances are that the underlying core tricks or ideas behind the mystery plot are not completely original, but a variation of an idea that has been used somewhere before, often by a different author even. This is not a bad thing per se, as a good writer should, and will bring their own originality even if the core concept is old. For example, many classic mystery authors will, ultimately, use some concept used in the Father Brown stories, but a good author will manage to add enough of their own to transform it into something not easily recognized as 'oh, that's from Father Brown, and perhaps even improve on the original idea. Reuse of ideas is also prevalent within the canon of one single author. Agatha Christie is infamous for re-using her own ideas across several works, but she was always careful to change enough of the characters and scenery so you probably wouldn't notice it the first time around. This redressing of older ideas still requires originality though, as you can't just copy-paste chapters or paragraphs of an older book to write a new mystery, right?

Reuse of assets is however quite normal in other mediums, especially in videogames. Graphical assets like characters and backgrounds are very often re-used within series (and even if they're not the same series), as are musical tracks and game engines (the series of back-end programs that actually run the game). A mystery novel isn't likely to use the same written passages from earlier novels in the series, but mystery game series will often reuse these assets from earlier entries in the series. The Tantei Junguuji Saburou series re-uses many background scenes for example, and many of background music tracks are also (remixes of tracks) borrowed from earlier games. The Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney as well as the Danganronpa series do similar things, with recurring characters retaining their graphical and audio assets from earlier appearances for example.

The game Keiji J.B. Harold no Jikenbo - Kiss of Murder, also known as J.B. Harold - Kiss of Murder however has a form of asset re-use I had never seen in mystery fiction before though. This hardboiled mystery adventure game was originally released in 1987 for the PC in Japan, and has seen re-releases on hardware like MSX, Nintendo DS and Switch. It is the third game released in Riverhillsoft's J.B. Harold mystery game series, though it is not considered the third entry in the series. The subtitle of the game is Another Story of Manhattan Requiem, and that is precisely what Kiss of Murder is: an alternative version  of the second game in the series, Manhattan Requiem. Both games start similarly, with the mysterious death of Sara Shields in Manhattan and Liberty Town police detective J.B. Harold being asked by his old friend and insurance investigator Judd to investigate her death, as J.B. became acquaintances with her during an earlier investigation. This is where the similarities in the stories stop though, as Sara's death is clearly a murder in Kiss of Murder, and this time a sapphire called Blue Sorrow which Sara had been keeping for her brother-in-law has disappeared. It doesn't take long for J.B. to discover that quite a few people had some beef with the woman, so it'll take a lot of good old-fashioned footwork to uncover who killed Sara and where the sapphire went.


What makes Kiss of Murder so strange is that it's a parallel world to Manhattan Requiem. Not only are both games about the death of Sara Shields, Kiss of Murder actually re-uses a great number of assets from Manhattan Requiem, most notably its graphical assets. While the stories of both games are completely different, with different characters, both games share character art. This means that the art of many characters in Manhattan Requiem is also used in Kiss of Murder, but for different characters. So while these characters might look exactly the same (as they are the exact same assets) in these two games, they represent different characters, with other names and backgrounds. So some people who supposed to be dead in Manhattan Requiem are alive here, and vice-versa. It's a bit like having the same actor playing different roles, but it's something very seldom seen in games and mystery fiction. It's perhaps similar to how the Nero Wolfe TV series used an ensemble cast that played different roles in different episodes, though at least the actors weren't wearing the exact same hairdo and outfits like in Manhattan Requiem and Kiss of Murder. In the original PC release, Kiss of Murder was a bit cheaper than a regular PC game, but you needed the disc of Manhattan Requiem to play the game (as it literally uses assets from that game).

In terms of gameplay mechanics and story, Kiss of Murder is also very similar to its two predecessors. Once again, the story starts out in a non-linear manner,  allowing you visit most of the suspects in any order you want, asking them about all kinds of manners. Right after the short prologue for example, you could choose to go to Sara's apartment to look for clues there, but also go to her work to ask about her last few da, or visit the library to look up some old files that might have to do with her death. A chat with one of Sara's acquaintances might raise your suspicions about them, making them a suspect, but they might also point the way to another suspect, or tell you something about another person whom you first thought to be completely innocent. There are nearly thirty suspects, and at first you learn all kinds of random pieces of information of them which can be A LOT to process, but as you progress, you'll slowly connect the dots. For example, at first person A might say they have an alibi, but interviews with person B and suspect C might prove that A wasn't where they said they were, making them a suspect too. The game isn't really helpful here though: it will say whenever you have collected enough testimony to consider a person a suspect, but it doesn't repeat what those clues were, so you really need a good memory, or write things down, or else you'll go "Okay, the game now tells me this person is a suspect, but I can't remember why." Eventually, you'll gather enough testimony and evidence to confrot suspects with their lies, uncover their relation to the death of Sara and in the end, solve the murder. As the game progresses, it loses its non-linearity, as you cross off all the possibilities. What sets Kiss of Murder apart from the previous two games in the J.B. Harold series is the chapter structure: Kiss of Murder is slightly less linear as it's actually divided in several chapters, with some characters and events only happening after certain chapters, whereas the previous games had less structure. Knowledge of previous games is not required per se, though Kiss of Murder does adress a plot point raised in the first game, Murder Club.


As a mystery story, there's nothing fancy here: no locked room murders or impossible alibis or anything like that. Kiss of Murder's emphasis lies on unraveling the complex ties between all the characters. At first, you'll only have a face and a name, but as you progress, you'll slowly uncover how each of these characters are connected, and most of them will turn out to be quite different from your first impression. As a game it's certainly not a very engaging or thrilling experience, as you're basically only going through dialogue, with everyone snitching on each other, The fun lies in going through this story in a non-linear fashion and making the connections yourself in your mind, as the game itself doesn't explain (for example, the game might tell you need to confront suspect A with their lies now, but you yourself have to remember that a while ago, suspect B and C both provided proof that suspect A had lied in completely different testimonies). At the best times, it does really feel like you yourself are solving this case, but at the worst of times, Kiss of Murder feels like a chore, as you run around asking everyone about everything in the hopes of coming across a clue. The division in chapters in Kiss of Murder doesn't help much to help this problem the previous games also had.

If you have played any other J.B. Harold game, you know what to expect from this game. Kiss of Murder does not only borrow its graphical assets from Manhattan Requiem, but the gameplay is also exactly the same. It is a very sober and small adventure game that focuses solely on conversations, with no puzzle-solving demanded from the player themselves, but slowly discovering how everyone is connected can be fun, but only if you pay attention all the time, because the game doesn't want to explain a lot to you. As a game written by Suzuki Rika (known for the Another Code and Hotel Dusk games of the late CiNG), you can expect a lot of focus on the human characters, but Kiss of Murder offers very, very little besides that.

『刑事J.B.ハロルドの事件簿 キスオブマーダー』