Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Mourning Locomotive

"My name is Hercule Poirot, and I am probably the greatest detective in the world."
"Murder on the Orient Express

A lot of the media we consume nowadays is an adaptation of some other work. I myself don't consider that a problem by the way. It has happened often that I read/watch/listen to an adaptation of a work I might not have consumed otherwise. It might be very difficult to procure the original work for example, or perhaps the format of the adaptation is much better accessible (for example, one film of two hours as opposed to having to read a six-hour novel). And sometimes, your initial interest in an adaptation was only piqued because of a certain name involved with the project, for example an actor. And while I certainly don't deny there are err... less optimal adaptations out there, I do think that the change in medium and format can often add new, surprising dimensions to a work. I don't often watch the Detective Conan animated TV series for example, because I prefer the pacing and artwork of the original comic, but some scenes definitely become much more engaging with the awesome voice-acting of the series.

The first time I ever experienced Agatha Christie's famous mystery novel Murder on the Orient Express (1934) was with the 1974 theatrical adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet. I don't remember how old I was (I was quite young), but the film was on the television on a holiday afternoon, and I think I only started watching halfway through, but it really got me. I was already aware of Christie's egg-shaped detective Poirot through the TV series starring David Suchet, and it took some time for me to realize that the character Albert Finney was in fact the same Poirot, but by the time the denouement had started, I felt the the same wonder of surprise I felt when watching the Poirot TV series. I absolutely loved the whole setting, from its wonderfully diverse cast to the romantic, yet claustrophobic setting of a luxury train stranded in the snow and of course a classic Christie solution. Yes, the solution might be a bit too well known these days, but the way the story slowly plays with reader expectations as it moves towards the conclusion and the way the various characters play foil to each other is fantastic.

I have afterwards also read the original book, but have always kept a weak spot for the 1974 film as it really visualizes the grandeur of the setting really well and I love the denouement scene, which in my opinion has more drive, more energy than the original novel as Poirot reveals truth upon truth. Murder on the Orient Express might also be the work I've consumed the most adaptations of. The BBC Radio audio drama adaptation for example is a fantastic adaptation that is quite faithful to the original novel. I was quite disappointed in the adaptation for the Poirot TV series in 2010. While it definitely managed to set itself apart from the 1974 adaptation by focusing on Poirot's internal turmoil on the issue if murderering the victim, a ruthless child murderer, was a sinful crime or not, but it went way too far into the darkness for my taste. The Japanese 2015 adaptation for TV directed by Mitani Kouki consisted of two episodes. The first episode was entertaining, but far too close to the 1974 film. The second episode however did something that had not been done before: it was an inverted mystery story, which told how the murder on the Orient Express was planned and eventually executed. This second episode suited Mitani's style much better, as he mostly specializes in comedies about "backstage" settings (Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald for example is about the antics going on during the live performance of a certain radio drama, while The Uchoten Hotel is about the most chaotic night ever at a hotel). This adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express was not perfect perhaps, but definitely worth a watch and an exciting adaptation that truly added something new.

To be honest, I was not very enthusiastic when I first heard that 2017 would bring us a new theatrical adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. Recent adaptations of Agatha Christie's work were a bit of a hit or miss for me (And Then There Were None was a hit, Partners in Crime a miss) and I had already consumed so many adaptations of this story, could this new film directed by Kenneth Branagh actually bring something new to the table? In any case, there was a star-stud cast on board (of which Judi Dench definitely interested me the most), and it appeared to be a fairly faithful adaptation, in the sense that it would actually take place in the past, and not in contemporary times or the future. So I decided to bite the bullet, and watch it. For those not familiar with the story in any form (why have you have read until this point?): the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is travelling back from Istanbul to Calais with the luxury train the Orient Express. On the second night one of his fellow passengers on the Calais Coach, a Mr. Ratchett, is horribly stabbed to death. It just so happens that the train stranded in the snow that same night and because all the coaches are kept locked in the night, the murderer must still be present in the Calais Coach, and Mr. Bouc, a director of the Wagon Lit and friend of Poirot, implores Poirot to figure out who of the remaining passengers on the Calais Coach is the murderer before the train is rescued and the police arrives.

As I said, my expectations were not very high, but I have to admit, I enjoyed this film more than I had expected. The first and most important thought on my mind was of course, can this adaptation bring something new, or at least something to set it apart from the other adaptations? And I think it does. First of all, it manages to find itself a nice spot right between the at times far too glamorous and lighthearted 1974 adaptation, and the into-the-depths-of-my-soul darkness of the 2010 Suchet TV adaptation. While I love the comedy of the 1974 film, and I think it also fits the atmosphere of the tale because many characters in the cast play off well against each other, I think the 2017 film manages to bring more gravitas to the story, without going overboard like the 2010 TV edition. The victim Ratchett is soon revealed as a horrible murderer himself, and while the 1974 film ends with basically a dinner party celebrating the man's death, the 2010 TV edition focuses extremely on Poirot's internal struggle on whether he himself should condemn the person who killed someone who is perhaps better of dead. The 2017 film focuses more on the effects the evil deeds of Ratchett had upon others, and it allows this film to actually address similar issues like the 2010 TV adaptation did, but without sounding too high-handed.

The 2017 film also does a good job at presenting the viewer with diversity to the eye. An often heard critique on the original story is that most of it consists of dry interviews by Poirot with the many, many suspects, so you get a long line of scenes of people telling their stories inside a small train. The 2017 film at least attempts to bring more variety, by changing up the background scenery of the scenes (one of the interviews is done outside the train for example) evey time, and through the streamlining of some of the interview scenes (the jumping might perhaps make the story slightly harder to grasp for someone not familiar with the original though). Poirot also makes some wild accusations at his suspects to rile them up, leading to a few early confrontation scenes that are not present in the original story, again to make the long middle part more exciting to watch. The effect of this is debatable: I actually think the denouement of this 2017 adaptation misses a bit of the energy the 1974 film had, because the revelations were more end-loaded there, resulting in a more impressive denouement scene, whereas in the 2017 film, it's fairly short and depends less on the mystery-solving, but other elements like visual allusions. This film is also interestingly not particularly gory or yelling bloody murder. In fact, you don't even get a good look at the body when it is first discovered, and even in the denouement scene, you don't really get a good look at how the actual stabbing of the victim is done. Despite the word murder in the title, the actual death of Ratchett is really not the focal point of the story, but into the effect he had on other people while in life.

Those who have seen the trailer, might also have noticed a few scenes that might appear like *gasp* action scenes. Poirot is certainly not a fighting Sherlock Holmes like Robert Downey Jr. portrayed the great detective, and the scenes in this film that actually involve people running or doing even something remotely strenous amount to perhaps to three, four minutes in total, but still it's weird to see Poirot in action scenes. Poirot is not portrayed even remotely as an action hero, mind you, but even the little things he does here feel a bit weird. Ah well, perhaps this is a slightly younger Poirot who still has some of the old policeman in him. And obviously, these "action scenes" are again to shake things up a bit in the middle part. Poirot himself works really well on the screen by the way, he's the compassionate seeker of truth and champion of justice you know from the books and other adaptations, and also has the streak of mischief and eccentricity that belongs to him.

I have no principal objections against changes when adapting a work, and you really have to go against what I think is the spirit of the original work before you hear me really complain. The Japanese 2015 adaptation was set in Japan for example, but still worked as the characters were still loyal to their original counterparts. That the Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson is changed to a Latina missionary because she's played by Penélope Cruz in this film doesn't really bother me for example, especially not because her new name is actually borrowed from another Poirot story. A few new red herrings work out quite well too. Other changes are less troublesome, I think though. The characters of Doctor Constantine and Colonel Arbuthnot are merged in this film for example, but that doesn't work for me: Doctor Constantine was needed in the original story to give independent insight into the time of murder, because he could not have committed the murder. In the 2017 film, it's Dr. Arbuthnot who examines Ratchett even though he himself is one of the suspects, so that affects the strength of his testimony. The biggest problem however occurs during the denouement, when the murderer confesses to the crime and explains how it was commited from their point of view. I might've missed a line of dialogue somewhere, or perhaps the editing was not optimal, but the presentation at the very least made it seem like the order of certain events had been swapped in this film, which however renders most of the actions taken by the murderer quite meaningless! They were done for a certain reason in the original story, and all the other adaptations I know stuck to that, but by changing that detail, the reason for doing all those actions disappears, so it makes you wonder why those actions were taken anyway in this film. Perhaps I just missed a line though, and it's all my mistake (which I hope, as it'd be a rather big mistake in the plot).

Spoilers for Murder on the Orient Express (original novel and 2017 film) (Select to read):
In the 2017 film, it appeared like Linda Arden called for Michel and spoke French to him from Ratchett's compartment after they had killed him. In the original story however, that line was only spoken to fool Poirot into thinking Ratchett had already been dead by that time (as Ratchett couldn't speak French), which was during a period when everyone in the Calais Coach had an alibi. In truth Ratchett was murdered long after that line was spoken, when nobody had an alibi. In the 2017 film however, it appears the crime was committed in the wrong time period.
End Spoilers

Oh, and something on Poirot's mustache in this film. It looks ridiculous, almost grotesque, but it's surprisingly not really distracting or even that present once the film gets going. What bothered me was the inconsistency in how they treated in the film however. Why would Poirot put on a mustache-cover when he sleeps one night, but not the other?

Some final thoughts. I think this 2017 adaptation works despite, or perhaps because of some of its idiosyncrasies. It feels unique enough an adaptation of a work that has been adapted many times and I think it will also be an entertaining view for people not familiar with the original story, or even Poirot himself. The film ends with a reference to another famous Poirot novel, that might or might not be adapted at some time I guess, though my personal recommendation would be The Big Four. Oh man, a straight adaptation of The Big Four would be a hoot, and also have enough action, plot twist and charismatic characters to suit a theatrical release, and I think this Poirot, as played by Kenneth Branagh, would actually be able to fit that story.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Foul Play in Funland

確かなmarionette fantasia
「Marionette Fantasia」(Garnet Crow)

A gentle sound
And a blinding light
And hiding within the depths of my heart
A loved one is smiling in front of me
Truly a marionette fantasia
"Marionette Fantasia" (Garnet Crow)

I find dolls, or human-like puppets, incredibly creepy, to be honest. Just like clowns. There's probably a perfectly sound psychological reason for that, something to do with deformed human characteristics or something like that, but all I know is I think they really really creepy.

After giving up on a career in boxing, young Katsu Toshio is forced to find another way to earn his living, and he decides to answer to a job advertisement of the Udai Economic Research Group. He is surprised to learn that the Udai Economic Research Group is in fact an one-woman detective agency, specialized in performing financial background checks on businesses. Udai Maiko hires Toshio on the spot, and drags him along to help with a little private side-job she was offered by a previous client. Mawari Tomohiro, production chief of his family's toy firm, wants Maiko to tail his wife for a day and Maiko and Toshio do find evidence of her infidelity. The duo shadow both husband and wife at the end of the day, hoping to get a chance to speak with the husband, but they all get caught up in a freak car accident, in which Tomohiro dies. Toshio manages to save the wife Masao, but tragedy seldom travels alone, and it's only a few days after Tomohiro's accident when their two-year old child also dies because of an accident. While at first this seems just like a very unfortunate series of events, a visit to the Screw Mansion inhabitated by the main Miwari family (Tomohiro's uncle and cousins) also ends with a death in the family, and one that is surely not accidental. What is lurking behind all these deaths in Awasaka Tsumao's Midare Karakuri ("A Clockwork Gone Wrong, 1977)?

Awasaka Tsumao (1933-2009) was one of the best known Japanese mystery writers in his lifetime. He was also a gifted stage magician, and he used his knowledge of both stage magic, and the art of misdirection to create fantastic mystery stories, like the Father Brown-esque impossible gems in the A Aiichirou series, or stories that were about all about magicians like 11 Mai no Trump. Midare Karakuri might not be about stage magic, but the work (his second novel) is considered to be one of Awasaka's best novels. It also carries the English title Dancing Gimmicks.

In my review of 11 Mai no Trump, I praised how the story incorporated stage illusions in the mystery plot: Awasaka was obviously very knowledgeable on the topic, but he made it accessible to the reader, and mixed the theme in a meaningful matter with the core detective plot. Midare Karakuri too focuses completely on one single topic: karakuri toys, or toys with "gimmicks" or "gadgets". The mysterious deaths of the members of the Mawari family, and the history behind their toy firm, is richly decorated with a lot of talk about toys, especially toys with some kind of mechanism inside of them. Mechanized toys have a long history in Japan: the Edo period for example was a flourishing time for karakuri puppets, highly sophisticated automatons which could serve tea or play an instrument. "Modern" toys for children are actually simply an evolution of those toys which were once meant for adults. Several characters hold fairly detailed "lectures" on the topic of pre-modern karakuri puppets, which can be very interesting and educating, but I can't deny that these segments also feel like huge info-dumps, which take you out of the story. Lecturing was also present in 11 Mai no Trump up to a point, but it never felt so outright back-to-school like in Midare Karakuri. The story also features other forms of "gimmick entertainment", like a gigantic garden maze inspired by Hampton Court Maze, and muses a bit on the topic of mazes and labyrinths too.

The mystery plot starts off very slow and especially the first half felt very directionless. Some deaths do occur in that first half, but they are not considered murder per se in the narrative, so most of the story up to that point is about Maiko and Toshio just poking around, talking a lot about toys. The characters are interesting, and I think Maiko as an overweight ex-policewoman running a shady detective agency was a great character (I even think this is the first time I've seen a strong female main character in Awasaka's stories). But still, the story takes a long time to arrive at the point of an actual investigation into a murder, and into a more pro-active stance towards detecting. In a way, Midare Karakuri reads more like a light detective series, with a male/female duo as the protagonists (and a minor, and somewhat melodramatic romance subplot between Toshio and one of the suspects) for most of the book. Preferences differ, but compared to the grand box of magic tricks that was 11 Mai no Trump, Midare Karakuri feels a bit "light" and less impressive on the whole. The comedic tone is strangely enough not as pronounced as in Awasaka's other works. There's still some comedic chattering going on at times between Maiko and Toshio, but it never reaches full total chaos like in 11 Mai no Trump or the slapstick-esque situations of the A Aiichirou series.

Most of the individual deaths in Midare Karakuri aren't that impressive on their own, but they do string together into a fairly entertaining mystery tale. I think the murderer is rather easy to guess, especially as pretty much everyone is dead near the end of the story, but the whole set-up works great with the theme of the book. There's a minor, simple dying message around halfway in the story, but I think one late murder is very impressive as an impossible poisoning trick: all the capsules in the victim's bottle of medicine had been swapped for poisonous ones, which means the pills could only've been swapped on the day the victim took the pills, but they couldn't have been swapped then, as he was on his guard the whole day because of the other deaths. The solution is ingeniously simple and brilliant, and this part is probably the best part of the mystery plot. It's truly a trick that a magician would think of, I think.

So I'd rank Midare Karakuri, as Awasaka's second novel, not as high as his first novel, but it's still a good, entertaining mystery novel. It can feel a bit slow early on, with a few longwinded lectures on karakuri puppets and a somewhat meandering plot, but the overall mystery plot is solid, even if a bit simple, and the impossible poisoning deserving a special mention as an ingenous piece of misdirection.

Original Japanese title(s): 泡坂妻夫 『乱れからくり』

Friday, November 10, 2017

Distant Memory

Oh no, not me
 I never lost control 
You're face to face 
With the man who sold the world 
"The Man Who Sold The World" (David Bowie)

The longer a book remains in my backlog of unread books, the less likely I'm going to read it, to be honest. Books don't move up the figurative pile based on how long they've been there, but are more likely to remain in the lower regions, as I tend to favor the books that have arrived more recently. This pile never shrinks by the way, so books which fall down to the lower regions remain there, without any hope of making their way to the top. The only way out of this limbo is a whim, when I suddenly decide to read that book for one reason or another even though it's been here for quite some while.

Not remembering what happened exactly last night isn't exactly a rare occasion for most people, but losing six years worth of memories is of course a tad extreme. The last memories Sergeant Hui Yau-Yat of the Hong Kong Police Force has are those of him investigating a brutal murder on a married couple (and unborn child) inside the Dungsing Building in 2003, but the following day, he wakes up with a splitting headache in his car and after he arrives at his work, he realizes it's now suddenly the year 2009. He has no recollection of anything that has happened in those six years, which makes the visit of a female reporter working on a story on the 2003 Dungsing Building Murder Case the more surprising. He learns from the newspaper clippings she brought that the Dungsing Building Murder Case had a tragic ending a few weeks after his last memory, with the main suspect dying in a horrible traffic accident they themselves caused while on the run, and the reporter wants to write an article on what happened after the case ended with the people involved, starting with Sergeant Hui as one of the detectives on the case. While his amnesia is definitely a problem, the detective feels the Dungsing Building Murder Case needs to be investigated at once, especially as he vividly remembers that he was the only one who thought they were in fact on the wrong trail, and that somebody else had committed the murders. The detective and reporter thus dig in the old Dungsing Building Murder Case while also looking for an explanation for his six-year blank in Chan Ho-Kei's Yíwàng, Xíngjǐng (2011), which also carries the English subtitle The Man Who Sold The World.

Chan Ho-Kei (also known as Simon Chan) is a mystery/science fiction novelist from Hong Kong who lives and publishes his work in Taiwan. His 2015 mystery novel 13.67 gathered much critical acclaim, and is available in English as The Borrowed, and in some European countries as Hongkong Noir (don't you just love it when they come up with so many variations on the title?). The book was recently published in Japanese and gathered a lot of praise there too, also from some major figures in the Japanese myster fictoin industry. All the commotion reminded me I had a book of him lying around too. The Man Who Sold The World was the winner of the second Soji Shimada Mystery Award, a Taiwanese award which involves international publication deals and as I can't read Chinese, I read the Japanese translation Sekai wo Utta Otoko (The Man Who Sold The World), which was published in 2012. The third Award was won by Hú Jié's Wǒ Shi Mànhuà Dàwáng by the way.

Amnesia is of course one of the most overused tropes in mystery fiction. It is an easy way to add suspense and mystery to a story, and a character. It's a way to add an internal conflict (or confusion) to a character, especially if, and this is usually the way the trope is used, the character suffering from amnesia is in fact connected in one way or another to the case at hand and their memories are of crucial importance to solving the whole problem. As the amnesia is involuntary, the character thought to be in possession of important information can't give them even if they wanted. But the many variations on the plot device are rather easily recognizable as they are simply so incredibly common, so it's quite difficult to really surprise the reader using the amnesia device.

The Man Who Sold The World obviously doesn't use the amnesia trope just for fun, so yes, it is involved with the main mystery plot, but the precise manner is sadly enough telegraphed very obviously, and as such, its execution falls a bit flat. To be completely honest, it's perfectly well-clewed and set-up, but the effect the novel apparently wants it have on the reader is not nearly as strong as intended. Mind you, I don't think a puzzle being easily solvable is a bad thing on its own. One of the most educative "Aha" moments I had with mystery fiction was with a short mystery story where the intention behind several elements were quite clear to the readers from the start (Don't worry, I can guarantee almost nobody read this story and never will). For example, the author wanted the reader to pick up that the murderer was lefthanded, and that they used a particular hallway to get to the crime scene. And it was clear that the dinner scene and the commotion about the watches was to show which of the characters was lefthanded. But I, and the other readers, still had fun with the story as while the intention of many elements were clear, we still had to puzzle around a bit as we needed to hunt for the elements we knew we needed. The puzzle wasn't just about who was lefthanded and who could've passed through the hallway, there were several characteristics the murderer must have, and the reader had to look very carefully in the text to see which character fitted all those characteristics, gathering several clues that were simple enough on their own, but made more complex due to how they interconnected. In The Man Who Sold The World however, the function of almost everything is to serve single one point, which makes it less satisfying as you either see it or not, and the execution is not bad, but certainly not astonishing. 

The solution to the Dungsing Building Murder Case is similarly executed in an admittedly very able, but still not terribly exciting manner. Describing the structuring, and clewing in The Man Who Sold The World as utilitarian might be going too far, especially as the narrative on its own is thrilling enough to keep the reader hooked, but I would've appreciated a bit more playfulness in terms of clewing, just to keep the reader on their toes better. For now, most of the clues connect too directly to their destination, and you don't really need to puzzle with several pieces to arrive at the solution.

Some might be interested in Hong Kong as a setting for a mystery story, as it's definitely not a common place to see. I am not entirely unfamiliar with Hong Kong, but I am not terribly familiar with the place either, but I thought its portroyal in The Man Who Sold The World interesting enough. It's definitely not alienating for the reader who has never been to Hong Kong, but you'll pick up little things here and there, like the food they eat in restaurants. I gather that the location is better portrayed in Chan's 13.67/The Borrowed/Hongkong Noir, as it's divided in various short stories spanning a longer period of time.

The Man Who Sold The World was in my eyes a decently written mystery novel, that however does lack a bit of oomph. The clewing is perhaps a bit too straightforward, which becomes all the more apparent as the core mystery plot, of the murder in the Dungsing Building, is rather small in scale, which makes the connections between clue and conclusion too transparent. I sadly didn't find out why Chan's other novel is so well received in this particular novel, though I still plan to read that one sooner or later.

Original Taiwanese title: "遺忘・刑警 - The Man Who Sold The World"

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Double Death

ざわめき Cry 大空へ飛び立つように時を通り抜ける
哀しい位ささやか 淡い記憶 やさしくそそぐ光
「Nostalgia」(Garnet Crow)

Noisy cry / Jump in the blue sky like you're passing through time
A memory so faint and small it's sad / The light gently pouring in
"Nostalgia" (Garnet Crow)

Every year, I try to return to Fukuoka, even if it's only a fictional version...

The dead man and woman lying on the beach of Kashiihama in Fukuoka seemed like a clear-cut case for the local police at first sight. Considering how neatly they were lying next to each other, a double suicide seemed like a reasonable conclusion. However, the deceased man was a ministry official who been the target of a large-scale corruption investigation back in the capital Tokyo, and fact is that his superiors can breathe a lot easier now they know he's dead and can't talk anymore. Detective Mihara of the Metropolis Police Department can't believe the man committed suicide and suspects someone set him as a scapegoat, while detective Torigai of the Fukuoka police too suspects the apparant love suicide might hide something more sinister. The trail eventually leads to a certain suspect, but there is one major problem: the suspect must have been in Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu on the night of the double suicide, but he has an iron-clad alibi that puts him all the way in the northen outskirts of the country, in Hokkaido that night! Can Mihara and Torigai break this unbreakable alibi in the 1958 film Ten to Sen ("Points and Lines")?

The movie Ten to Sen is based on the first full-length novel written by Matsumoto Seichou with the same title. Matsumoto is best known as the main figure in the shakai-ha (social school) movement, a school in mystery fiction that places emphasis on the social backgrounds of crimes, and is often juxtaposed against honkaku orthodox puzzle plot mysteries. And while his first novel does include shakai-ha elements (the corruption scandal that lies at the heart of the case), it's also a classic alibi-deconstruction puzzle plot mystery in the spirit of Freeman Wills Crofts. The book ranked in 6th in the 2013 edition of the Tozai Mystery Best 100, making it one of the most respected Japanese mystery novels of all time. And speaking of time: the original novel must have been incredibly succesful from the beginning. For the original book was serialized between 1957 - 1958, and the film was released only a few months later in 1958!

The film follows the book quite faithfully, so what you get is a classic puzzle plot mystery about a detective attempting to break an alibi that seems perfect, as his one suspect was on the other side of the country. The story is definitely a bit outdated now, and a lot of modern readers will probably think the main trick seem obviously simple, but imagine yourself in Japan in the late sixties, and you might understand why it was more impressive back then. And even then: the mystery plot has much more than that. The story interestingly enough makes use of actual time schedules from 1957, resulting in one of the more famous "moments" in Japanese mystery fiction, often referred to as the "Four Minutes At Tokyo Station": you'll have to watch the film or read the book to get it. The short story Yonpun wa Mijikasugiru by Arisugawa Alice has a nice meta-discussion about the topic by the way). Anyway, if you like Crofts, I think you'll enjoy this film too. That said though, the film is fairly short at 85 minutes, so while it handles everything in the book, it goes really fast, so you'll need to pay attention, or else you'll miss the connections between the scenes. An additional ten, fifteen minutes would've done wonders for this film.

I'm not too familiar with older Japanese films, so I knew few of the actors, but I was surprised to see Takamine Mieko in a major role: she also played big roles in Ichikawa Kon's film adaptations of the Kindaichi Kousuke novels in the 70s (Inugami Matsuko in Inugamike no Ichizoku and Higashikouji Takako in Jooubachi). Main actor Minami Hiroshi on the other hand had only just debuted as an actor two films earlier, and his stilted acting creates some unintentional comedy: the way he suddenly decides the man in front of him is suspicious is hilariously odd, making him seem delusional.

Ten to Sen, as a story, is definitely a precursor to the travel mystery genre championed by Nishimura Kyoutarou, where travelling and domestic tourism becomes an integral part of the mystery story. The visual medium of the Ten to Sen film obviously strengthens this concept of travelling, as we actually see the police detectives travelling to Fukuoka, Tokyo and Hokkaido. An advantage of this film having been produced around the same period as the original book's publication is that everything looks exactly like'd you'd expect. Recreating the past through proper art design is of course a thing in TV drama, but nothing beats the real thing, right?

I have mentioned this countless of times, but I have lived in Kashiihama, Fukuoka during my studies there, my dorm being located about five minutes away from the crime scene in the opening. The presence of two stations nearby, JR Kyushu Kashii Station and Nishitetsu Kashii Station, plays an important role in the story, as the movements of the dead couple become the focus of investigation. It's pretty odd that those two stations are so close to each other (basically the same street), and the way it's described in the novel shows that Matsumoto really knew what he was talking about, as he ingenously incorporated the two stations in his story. I remember I myself got on the wrong line when I first lived there, arriving at a different Kashii station than the one I had expected. While the film was not filmed at location, the set was nearly identical to the actual Kashii Stations, if we compare old photographs of the stations to how they are portrayed in the film. By the way, the current building of Nishitetsu Kashii Station is moved slightly to the back compared to the original one, so they planted a cherry blossom tree at the place where the original building stood to commemorate it. It is called the Seichou Cherry Blossom as a reference to Ten to Sen, which made the station famous.

The film Ten to Sen is thus a faithful adaptation of the book, which really benefits from actually being produced in the same time the book was written in the first place. The main story about an unbreakable alibi is still a classic tale of mystery, even if it's a bit outdated nowadays. The film suffers slightly from its short runtime, with the story developing at a high pace, but it's an atmospheric, entertaining adaptation. There's also a two-part TV drama adaptation from 2007 by the way, starring Beat Takeshi, which in general has been lauded as a great adaptation too, as it's supposed to have done a great job at recreating the late 1950s atmosphere.

Original Japanese title(s): 『点と線』

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Lucky Seven

「As The Dew」(Garnet Crow)

Unable to go against the flow of time, some feelings will fade away
"As The Dew" (Garnet Crow)

The cover of today's book is simple and clean, featuring deformed illustrations of the authors featured in this anthology, but I really like it!

Disclosure: I have translated works by Arisugawa Alice, Norizuki Rintarou and Ayatsuji Yukito, among which Ayatsuji's The Decagon House Murders.

Ayatsuji Yukito made his debut as a professional author in 1987 with the publication of The Decagon House Murders (org. title: Jukkakukan no Satsujin). The mystery novel had clearly derived its inspiration from the classic puzzle plot mystery novels like they were written in the Golden Age, but it was at the same time also clearly a product of its time, aware of the tropes from, and the discussions surrounding classic mystery fiction, and its story built further on that as a modern take on the classic puzzle mode. Ayatsuji's debut was only the start, as he was followed by many other debuting authors from a similar background (often college students) who'd write in what is now called the shin honkaku or "new orthodox" school of mystery fiction. 2017 is thus not only the thirtiest anniversary of The Decagon House Murders, but also the thirtiest anniversary of the shin honkaku movement. 7-nin no Meitantei ("The Seven Great Detectives", 2017) is a special anthology to celebrate this anniversary, featuring seven original stories on the theme of "the great detective", by seven representative authors of the early shin honkaku movement

The book is also known as part of the bookmark-gacha craze among Japanese mystery fans: three anthologies were published to celebrate the thirtieth birthday of the shin honkaku movement. A special series of a lot of bookmarks were made for these books, and you get one of them at random by purchasing one of the anthologies. A large number of them feature an illustration of one of the seven authors in 7-nin no Meitantei, together with an iconic quote from one of their works, while there's also one which features all seven authors. Behold the fans who try to collect all of them or find the one bookmark with their favorite author or quote. I got the one with everyone on it by the way.

The seven authors included in 7-nin no Meitantei have all been discussed at least once here on the blog, and as I noted in the disclosure message above, I have even translated some of their work. It might be interesting to note that five of these authors studied in Kyoto: Ayatsuji Yukito, Abiko Takemaru, Norizuki Rintarou and Maya Yutaka were all members of the Kyoto University Mystery Club, while Arisugawa Alice belonged to the Mystery Club of his own Doshisha University. Many authors of the early shin honkaku movement made their debuts as students or soon after graduation, and were often active members in the Mystery Clubs (student clubs for lovers of mystery fiction) of their respective universities, which is partly why a lot of the early shin honkaku works featured so many students, and also why the books tended to be so incredibly genre-savvy (as they were written in rather skewed enviroments, among other mystery fans). Oh, one warning: I can only add a certain number of characters in the tags to each post, and I was not able to tag everyone/add all the related tags, so you'll have to click on the author links in the post itself for some of them.

The anthology opens with Maya Yutaka's Suiyoubi to Kinyoubi ga Kirai - Ookagamike Satsujin Jiken ("I Hate Wednesdays and Fridays - The Ookagami Family Murder Case") and features his series detective Mercator Ayu. Narrator/mystery author Minagi is lost in the mountains, but finds shelter in the mansion of the recently deceased Doctor Ookagami. He had four adopted children, who form a musical quartet, and they are scheduled to perform at the mansion the following day for their annual recital. While Minagi is still recovering from his ordeal in the outdoor bath, he spots a cloaked figure making their way to a garden lodge overseeing a cliff. When the figure leaves again, he notices they have shrunk in size, and when he peeks inside the lodge, he finds distinct signs of a murder having occured there: blood, a weapon and a sinister sign featuring a quote from Faust, but there's no sign of any victim. Later, one of the adopted children is found murdered, together with another quote from Faust, but there is no weapon. More mysterious events occur in the mansion, but all is explained when brilliant detective (with a rather abusive attitude towards his "Watson") Mercator Ayu arrives on the scene.

The anthology starts right away with a screwball, because that's the only way I can describe this story. There's something of an impossible crime here (disappearing victim, disappearing murder/weapon), but what this story really is, is a parody on Oguri Mushitarou's infamous anti-mystery Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken. The mansion, the backstory of an eccentric person adopting four children who form a quartet, the Faust imagery, it's all straight out of Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken. Several other later story development are also clearly lifted from that book. The problem I have with this story is that it doesn't really work in its current form. The pacing of this story is incredibly high because it follows the plot of Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken, but that was a full novel and this is a short story. The result is a story that I recognize as a parody on Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken, but it doesn't do much but mirror a few situations and circumstances in quick succession. The core mystery plot is therefore a bit too concise for my taste, as the tale just tries to cover too much ground for a short story. And I happened to have read Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken, but I can imagine that for someone who hasn't, this story will feel disjointed. I think this story would've worked better in a dedicated Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken tribute anthology. As a "Mercator Ayu taking on Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken" type of story, I guess it's okay, but I find it a strange choice for the opening story of this particular anthology. Then again, I guess Maya's work is seldom really straightforward.

Rakugo is a traditional form of Japanese entertainment, where a storyteller tells a comical story with witty dialogues, acting all the roles of the story themselves. Yamaguchi Masaya's Dokumanjuu Kowai - Suiri no Ichimondai ("I'm afraid of Poisoned Manjuu - A Deduction Problem") is part of a series where Yamaguchi builds on classic rakugo stories to turn them into mystery stories. The theme for this story is the classic rakugo story Manjuu Kowai ("I'm Afraid of Manjuu"). The retelling of Manjuu Kowai is followed by the continuation of the tale, where one of the major characters from Manjuu Kowai is murdered by a poisoned manjuu, just as he was about to disinherit his good-for-nothing sons. I liked the idea better than the execution, because the mystery part of the tale is basically a not-even-really-thinly-disguised variation of the "one of them always lies, one of them always tells the truth, who is the liar?" riddle. At this point, it doesn't feel like a story anymore, but just a slightly dressed-up riddle.

The previous story was set in pre-modern Japan, but Abiko Takemaru's Project: Sherlock is clearly set in the present, or even in the future. It tells the story of how a special computer database named Sherlock is built by a police IT engineer. Sherlock is a database that allows anyone to simply solve crimes by inputting the necessary data in it. Sherlock has a rich open source database of case files (both real and fictional) which is fed by a worldwide community, and by comparing circumstances and detecting patterns, the program can solve any mystery laid before it. This is a weird story: it reads more like a prologue for a longer story than an independent one, and while a murder involving Sherlock does occur late in the tale, it's not really meant for the reader to solve. There is potential for more in this story, but as it is now, it feels like you were only allowed to read the first chapter of many more.

Arisugawa Alice's Senchou ga Shinda Yoru ("The Night The Captain Perished") stars the criminologist Himura Hideo and his friend/Watson/mystery author Arisugawa Alice. Himura and Alice are on their way back from one of Himura's work trips when they decide to swing by a small villlage on the foot of a mountain where a murder happened last night. The victim, commonly referred to as the Captain, had been stabbed during his sleep in his home, and while a security camera nearby had caught the figure of someone fleeing the scene that night, this figure had covered themselves wisely in a large sheet of blue plastic, making it impossible for the police to identify them. The Captain had recently returned to his home village after a long life on sea, and his manly appeal had attracted the attention of at least two women in the village (one of them married), and it appears love-gone-wrong might be the motive. I have the idea the story is a bit longer than it needed to be (it is by far the longest story in this anthology), but the mystery plot is probably the best of the whole book. The structure is very familiar (short whodunit with three suspects), but it's expertly clewed. It's of course in the style of Ellery Queen, where you need to deduce what the murderer must have done on the night of the murder, how it was done, and eventually, who could've done those things we just deduced. The process as done here is great, and I think this is a good story to showcase how a good puzzle plot mystery doesn't need to rely on misdirection solely: it takes tremendous skill to lay down clues and puzzle pieces right in front of the reader, without any smokes or mirrors, and still have a puzzle that perplexes them, but the satisfaction you gain when you see how everything fits together is arguably even better than when an author uses aimed misdirection techniques.

Norizuki Rintarou's Abekobe no Isho ("The Switched Suicide Notes") features his series detective named after himself. Rintarou's father, Inspector Norizuki, has a weird case on his hands. Two suicides, one by poison, one by jumping off a flat. Suicide notes were also found at both scenes. So no problem, right? The conundrum Inspector Norizuki has however is that the suicide notes were switched: both victims had the suicide note of the other person! The two victims knew each other, and were both vying for the hand of the same lady, so they had no reason to be committing suicide together, but why did they have each other's suicide note? It's a wonderfully problem that feels realistic, and yet mystifying at the same time. The story unfolds by Rintarou proposing several theories to his father, which his father sometimes shoots down as he reveals a new fact he hadn't told his son yet, but the two do slowly move towards the truth. Or do they? A gripe I do have with this story that it is mostly built on theories: eventually the two arrive at a solution that is actually quite clever, and one that does seem to fit the facts, but they only arrive there by making several assumptions, and the story basically ends with the Inspector finally moving to check whether their theory is true. The story makes a good case for puzzle plots focusing on logical reasoning, with Rintarou proposing theories and having to adjust them as the Inspector introduces new facts, but it also undermines it a bit as we never leave the land of theories.

Utano Shougo's Tensai Shounen no Mita Yume Wa ("The Dream Of The Prodigy") is set in the future, starring the last few remaining pupils of the Academy, once the home to people talented in fields like hacking, engineering or even ESP, but once the war broke out, survival was the only thing left on everybody's mind. Acting on a rumor that the enemy country will launch a new destructive weapon, the students lock themselves up in the Academy's bomb shelter and while they do feel that something with tremendous power hit their city, they have no idea what happened outside because all communication was cut off. But then one of the students is found hanging. She appears to have committed suicide, but the following day another student is found dead right next to the first victim. Another suicide, or is there something else in this shelter? While this story does seem familiar, with its closed circle setting, it's not really a detective story (it is however a mystery story in the broad sense of the term). Explaining too much would spoil it, but the story is trying to work towards a certain conclusion, but that conclusion is barely clewed/foreshadowed, and the story is a bit strangely structured, with a very long intro, while it basically skims over the murders to jump the conclusion. Might've worked better in a longer format.

Ayatsuji Yukito's Kadai - Nue no Misshitsu ("Tentative Title: The Locked Room of the Nue") closes this anthology, and while it's technically not really a fairly clewed mystery story, it's a pretty heartwarming story that puts the thirtieth anniversary of shin honkaku in context. The story stars Ayatsuji Yukito, Abiko Takemaru and Norizuki Rintarou themselves, as well as Ayatsuji's wife Ono Fuyumi (a well-known horror/fantasy author herself), who were all members of the Kyoto University Mystery Club around the same period back when they were in college. Guess-The-Criminal is one of the oldest traditions of the club, where one of the members presents the first part of a mystery story to the others, ending with a challenge to the others guess whodunnit. The other members then have to guess who the criminal is, and explain the process that led to their conclusion. Nowadays, the stories are all written and printed out so everyone has their own copy, but back in the early eighties, these stories were told orally, so little remains of them now. Abiko remarks that a while back, he had a few drinks with Maya Yutaka (also a Mystery Club member who joined after them) and that he, while drunk, had said that he had once witnesses a really incredible and illusive Guess-The-Criminal story. The problem: he doesn't remember anything about it. Ayatsuji, Abiko, Norizuki and Ono all seem to have unclear, yet existing memories of such an event, which they vaguely remember as being titled The Locked Room of the Nue, so they start talking about what that story could've been, digging deep in their memories of the Mystery Club.

As said, this isn't really a mystery story, but closer to an essay where Ayatsuji, using the other authors as his fictional devices, looks back at his own time at the Kyoto University Mystery Club. As the four slowly start to remember more from the past, we also read about what the club activities were to what cafes they went to when they were still students, painting an image of the place and culture that would eventually lead to the birth of the shin honkaku movement. There are some nice moments, like when each of them remembers something else about the illusive story, to which Ayatsuji draws parallels with each author's writing styles, as well as a heartwarming ending. Read as a story that mixes autobiographical elements with a bit of fiction, I'd say this was an entertaining story for those wanting to know more about the shared past of these authors, but again, don't expect any detecting on your own.

7-nin no Meitantei has the usual ups and downs of an anthology, but in general, I'd say it's an interesting showcase of the work of the featured authors. The theme of "the great detective" worked better for some authors than others: Arisugawa Alice and Norizuki Rintarou's contributions were definitely the best detective stories included, and those stories featured their best known series detectives. Yamaguchi Masaya and Maya Yutaka too used their series detectives in their stories, though I found the stories themselves not as good as the previous two for various reasons. Utano Shougo and Abiko Takemaru on the other hand did not choose to go with their series detectives (partly because they haven't used them in decades), but tried to explore the theme of the Great Detective in stories that are almost science fiction, and your mileage on them might vary. Ayatsuji Yukito's contribution is not a mystery story at all, but a sort of nostalgic look back at a long forgotten past, before there was such a thing as shin honkaku, and works wonderfully as a closer for an anthology meant to commemorate thirty years of shin honkaku.

Original Japanese title(s): 『7人の名探偵』: 「曜日と金曜日が嫌い 大鏡家殺人事件」(麻耶雄嵩) / 「毒饅頭怖い 推理の一問題」(山口雅也) / 「プロジェクト:シャーロック」(我孫子武丸) / 「船長が死んだ夜」(有栖川有栖) / 「あべこべの遺書」(法月綸太郎) / 「天才少年の見た夢」(歌野晶午) / 「仮題・ぬえの密室」(綾辻行人)

Monday, October 30, 2017

Angels Flying In The Dark


This cruel angel's thesis
Will soon take flight out of the window
"Cruel Angel's Thesis" (Takahashi Youko)
Mystery fiction encompasses much, much more than just books, and that is why I try to discuss a variety of mediums on this blog. Television and films are of course the usual suspects besides books, but then there's comic books, theater plays, musicals, radio plays and more. These mediums all can offer new possibilities to a puzzle plot mystery, deepening the experience and giving the consumer new surprises. The audio-visual mediums can obviously offer all kinds of passive hints to the viewer without telling the audience. People like to use the phrase show, not tell for almost everything now, but it does explain what for the audio-visual medium can do best: it can show hints and clues without making it too obvious about it. Sure, one can use all kinds of narrative techniques to explain that a character is left-handed, but nothing is more simpler than to actually show it on the screen, for example when making a phone call. The moment the action is described with the printed word, it attracts attention, but such actions are much less obvious on the screen. This obviously also holds for sounds as clues in audio dramas.

But the most exciting medium is the videogame, as it can offer the possibilities of all the other mediums, and even more due to its interactive characteristics. It can be a semi-passive experience like a novel, it can offer the audio-visual stimula of screen or audio productions. It can literally include books or films or anything within the game world, so there's much potential. If one accepts the puzzle plot mystery story as a kind of intellectual game, than the possibilities of the videogame became clear: it's only here where the consumer is actually expected to intellectually engage with the story. The passive nature of the other mediums means that no matter what the consumer does, the story will go on. Sherlock Holmes will explain what happened, even if I myself have no clue whatsover, as long as I read on. I might've missed each and every clue, but Conan will explain what happened at the end of the film. But not so with a game! How this interactivity is implemented is a different topic, but the thing games do best in terms of mystery fiction is actually having the consumer understand the plot and do some detecting themselves.

But interactivity is not all games can do. Games can also present extremely complex elements in an accessible manner. Machi, a game I reviewed earlier, for example has the player juggle simultaneously between eight seperate storylines that occasionally intersect. One could choose the order in which to play these storylines themselves, and the storylines and their interconnections also changed depending the choices the player made, which led to very complex storylines that would be impossible to present in a linear book form. Machi made things clear by having a flowchart function, which showed how each storyline was connected. Of course, diagrams are not unknowns in mystery fiction, but having such things available with just one push on a button is sometimes a true game-changer, and maps, diagrams and the like have much more potential in videogames, as they can be updated on any spot, and one can even have the player add in notes themselves for convenience. Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books have a form of non-linearity too, but the non-linearity as featured there is peanuts compared the things videogames can do.

Non-linearity was what was on my mind as I was playing through the videogame Keiji J.B. Harold - Manhattan Requiem, also known as J.B. Harold - Manhattan Requiem, as it presented a mystery story in a manner no novel, film or audio drama could ever hope to do. The second entry in the J.B. Harold series was originally released in 1987 on the PC, and later ported to other platforms like the MSX, iOS and Nintendo DS, but it remains even now an interesting example of what the mystery fiction genre can do on various platforms. The way the story is told could not work in the same form as a novel and while the execution is certainly is not without its flaws, I think Manhattan Requiem, like the other games in the series, does make an interesting case for non-linear detective stories.

The start of the plot is fairly simple: police detective J.B. Harold learns from his old friend Judd that a beautiful musician he knows, Sara Shields, has passed away in Manhattan. While the police seems to be steering towards a suicide, Judd himself thinks there's something fishy about Sara's death, and he invites Harold to come to Manhattan himself to investigate the case. When Harold arrives in Manhattan, Judd gives you a few pointers as to where you could go, for example Sara's apartment or some friends of hers, but this is basically all the set-up you get in this game, because once you're past this two minute-long prologue, you're free to go anywhere in Manhattan Requiem.

A detective story in most mediums tells its story in a linear fashion. In chapter 2, suspect X is questioned, in chapter 3 they find clue Y and in chapter 4 they learn of the existence of secret lover Z. It is also a passive experience, as even though you might want to know more about suspect X's alibi right now, it might not be investigated until chapter 7. Manhattan Requiem however gives you freedom about who you want to question about what when. There is no set order in which to complete your tasks in the way you want. Short example: after the prologue of Manhattan Requiem, I decided I'd first swing by the victim's apartment, and interviewed her landlady. From her I learned about the victim's roommate and where I could find her, but also about the witness who first found the victim. I then proceeded to the roommate, who in turn told me about her boyfriend, but also about the victim's work and other things. But this was the route I took and it's perfectly able to first start the game by visiting the police first to get more information, or to go to the victim's work to ask about her and her relation with the customers. If I had gone to her work first, the people there might've told me where to find Sara's roommate, as opposed to the landlady. Or perhaps I'd heard about a rumor first, and I'd have gone after that first, rather than first checking up on the people close to Sara. This system is by the way exactly the same as it was featured in the first game in the J.B. Harold series, which I reviewed last year.

This non-linearity can be overwhelming at first, as you'll learn a lot about dozens of characters who all seems suspicious, and you need to check on everybody's alibi and motives with the other suspects. Suspect A's alibi might depend on the testimonies of suspect B and C for example, but A might also give you decisive information about suspect D. There are about thirty characters in Manhattan Requiem, so especially in the opening hour or so, so there's a lot to keep track of. But there's something liberating about being able to choose who you'll go to next, to ask them about what. It changes the detective story in a much more engaging experience, as you, the consumer, are deciding what to check and you decide the flow of the story. It is almost impossible for someone else to have the exact same experience I had, for everyone will decide to follow up on different clues in different orders.

The game does not help keep track of all the clues/accusations you have, so you might want to keep a note on certain important revelations and stuff (it's here where you really have the feeling you're playing an adventure from the 80s). After a while you start to get complete profiles of each character and you might even be able to strike suspects off the list, but in other cases you might gather enough incriminating testimony and evidence that justify a harder approach. Eventually, you'll strike off more and more suspects until you've uncovered all the underlying plots and schemes. Slowly all the loose points will turn into lines, and they'll all converge at one point, so the conclusion of the game is naturally very linear in comparison (you might for example need the testimony of a certain character to 'break' another character, so those need to be done in order). The game is not difficult at all, in theory, as all you do is ask questions, and you can't go game over or get stuck, though it has some really old-fashioned "traps" like having to ask the same question twice to a suspect to get results and things like that.

Non-linearity is also what hinders the story though. Because the game is designed to be played in a non-linear manner, in a way that each player can decide their own route in uncovering the plot, there is very little that happens during the game. In a linear story, you can have plot twists and the ensueing effects of said plot twist to further push the story forward. Manhattan Requiem does not have that luxury, as most of the game is non-linear, meaning that I might uncover information (the basis of a plot twist) in a completely different order than another player. I learned relatively late about the existence of a helpful policeman in this game for example, who would give me an important piece of information, but one could've come across his path very early in the game actually. Information flow to the consumer is what every puzzle plot mystery revolves around, what allows a story to build over time, but as the information flow in Manhattan Requiem is mostly free-form, it does not have the room to feature a plot that truly develops. From the start of the game until the very end, you're just interrogating suspects about each and every subject you can think of, and in between there are very few developments that truly drive the story forward. You're just digging in the alibis and motives of the many characters and it can soon become boring, as you're just talking and talking, with no thrills presented throughout.

Of course, the story and presentation could be rewritten for a linear experience. Just give a proper order of who you get to question when and what. But that would take away the feeling of the consumer of investigating the case themselves, and that is what this game can offer what a normal book can't, and that's what makes this so unique an experience.

The J.B. Harold series was written by Suzuki Rika during her time at the game developing company Riverhillsoft. Later she'd move to the company CiNG, where she'd be responsible for some of the more memorable adventure games on the Nintendo DS and Wii. Interestingly though, her later games are much more linear and also feature more traditional adventure game puzzles (using inventory items etc.), instead of the questioning-oriented style of her earlier games at Riverhillsoft.

J.B Harold - Manhattan Requiem thus forms an interesting, if at times also very flawed example of the non-linear mystery story. It is definitely fun to carve your own path through the mist, to choose yourself where to go and when, and pursuing each lead yourself does give you the feeling you're really investigating your case yourself, but at the same time, the story is rather sober and very focused on simply talking to people because it needs to facilitate for this non-linearity. You have the most freedom in the first three-quarters of the game, which is also perhaps the most tedious part, as non-linearity also means you are often just poking around in the hope of picking up a lead (at least that's realistic!) and there's nothing to really drive the plot. Only at the end you'll make some more engaging revelations, but by then most paths have already converged to a standard linear experience. So perfect, it definitely is not, but I think it's worth looking at. J.B Harold - Manhattan Requiem is available in English on iOS and Nintendo Switch by the way.

Original Japanese title(s): 『刑事J.B.ハロルドの事件簿 マンハッタンレクイエム』

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Crooked House

やけにバカげた気分になる 投げやりな感じ
「君の家に着くまでずっと走ってゆく」(Garnet Crow)

Sometimes my mind feels like a labyrinth
It makes me feel so foolish, as if I want to give up right now
But even so, I'm a being that feels lonely when I'm left all on my own
It makes me want to see you
"I'll Keep On Running Till I Reach Your Home" (Garnet Crow)

And once again, I'm reading a series out of order.

The enigmatic visitor who suddenly dropped in on Inspector Kane to tell him that he feared for his friends' life did in fact not surprise the detective very much. As a person with quite the reputation, kane had some experience with people who are convinced they were on the trail of some nefarious scheme or dastardly murder plot. These suspicions were usually just imaginary of course, so on this occassion, Kane naturally shrugged off the story that a certain Aaron Loring was in danger, until Kane received a concealed message from Mr. Loring himself, pleading for help from the police inspector. As there is no formal case yet, Kane has to infiltrate stately Loring mansion as an innocent lodger. The house is basically cut-off from the outside world: Mr. Loring has been bed-ridden for almost a year, with his wife and sister-in-law remaining inside too. Only the servant goes out, while the doctor attending to Mr. Loring also drops in regularly. Kane instantly notices that something sinister is stirring between the cooped-up inhabitants of the house and it does not take long for the pressure to built towards a deadly climax in Roger Scarlett's In The First Degree (1933).

Quite some years ago, I picked up a Japanese translation of Roger Scarlett (pen name of Evelyn Page and Dorothy Blair)'s Murder Among the Angells (1932), which had been reprinted as part of a summer campaign of the publisher. I had first heard of the novel through the writings of Edogawa Rampo and Yokomizo Seishi, and I enjoyed it greatly as a classic puzzle plot murder story set in a mansion. I did note that even though the Scarlett novels were somewhat known in Japan due to the mentions by those grand figures of the Japanese side of genre as well as reprint campaigns, I was surprised how you could find basically nothing about Roger Scarlett and their books on the internet in English. Roger Scarlett had basically been forgotten by time and the little useful information I did find on Scarlett back then was in Japanese.

But now the five novels by Roger Scarlett have finally been reprinted in English (split across three volumes), which will hopefully bring them more fame, as they really did not deserve to be so absent from collective memory! Oh, I have to admit I was very surprised when I saw I got referenced in the introduction in these reprints...

In The First Degree is the last of the five Scarlett novels and once again stars Inspector Kane in an entertaining murder mystery with an attractive setting. Though this time, Inspector Kane isn't involved with the case as a representative of the police force. In fact, he is only on the scene, in the Loring mansion, because of vague hints that something might happen, which is why he's there as "merely" a lodger. The absence of a police force to support Kane is what gives In The First Degree a unique atmosphere, as especially the first few chapters do not feel like a classic puzzle plot murder mystery, but more like a Gothic thriller novel. Kane manages to rent a room in the Loring mansion with surprising ease, but as he slowly learns more about the other inhabitants of the house, he's confronted with one suspicious event after another: from the servant who very probably knows more than he's saying and Kane sneaking around to eavesdrop on suggestive conversations, to people giving him veiled warnings and even people sneaking in and out of the house. You can almost imagine the scene visually as a gothic thriller film, with everybody acting as suspiciously as possible.

The atmosphere is strengthened by the presence of the Loring mansion itself. I had talked about Murder Among the Angells as an example of the yakata-mono: the mansion story. The sinister location itself played a silent role in the story, and while the term "mansion story" might invoke the English "country house mystery", the yakata-mono is distinctly darker than its English counterpart. This feeling of uneasiness might be achieved through its physical presence, for example because of its strange architecture, but also at a more spiritual level, for example through backstory. Ayatsuji Yukito's House series in particular builds on this concept, but one can also trace a line through other works like Oguri Mushitarou's Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken and Philo Vance's The Greene Murder Case. The Loring mansion in In The First Degree is fairly tame compared to the utterly odd building from from Murder Among the Angells, but there is certainly a dark mood hanging about. The Gothic thriller mode is enhanced because basically all of the story is set within this building, giving it a distinct claustrophobic feeling. You seldom get time to really breath in fresh air and this all adds up to give you, and Inspector Kane, the idea that there's really something brooding in the house, but you never really get any confirmation on anything (till the end, of course), which makes In The First Degree quite different from what you'd expect from a mystery novel starring a police detective.

The mystery plot taken on its own is quite decent, but not without some flaws. It might not be as bombastic as Murder Among the Angells (with a murder in an elevator among others), but I do like what the plot is aiming for, and the clewing is adequately done, but there's just one part of the murder scheme that seems insanely difficult to pull off. It's shrugged off with a "Sure, it was risky, yes, but it worked", but everything would've failed immediately if it hadn't worked out like the culprit had intended. I don't expect realistic naturalism from my mystery novels (no, please), but I think the reader is quite correct if they want to object to this point. While it might not be extremely difficult to make an educated guess about the truth behind the case because of a few scenes that seem a bit too obvious in acting out their roles as clues, I did enjoy the plot overall though.

So it quite some years have passed since I read my first Roger Scarlett, but In The First Degree was more than an agreeable return. The first few chapters might be a bit slow because it appears everyone is just acting suspicious for no reason and the scope is arguably a little small, but by the time you reach the end, you'll have read a well-planned mystery novel and I can't wait to read the other Scarlett novels too.