My Annihilation by Fuminori Nakamura, translated by Sam Bett

Originally published in 2016 as 私の消滅
English language translation first published in 2022

What transforms a person into a killer? Can it be something as small as a suggestion?
Turn this page, and you may forfeit your entire life.
With My Annihilation, Fuminori Nakamura, master of literary noir, has constructed a puzzle box of a narrative in the form of a confessional diary that implicates its reader in a heinous crime. 
Delving relentlessly into the darkest corners of human consciousness, My Annihilation interrogates the unspeakable thoughts all humans share that can be monstrous when brought to life, revealing with disturbing honesty the psychological motives of a killer.

Recently one of my friends, curious to start exploring some Japanese crime fiction, asked me what I thought of Fuminori Nakamura’s work. It was a really nice question to be asked but it proved to be surprisingly difficult to answer, at least with a simple response. You see, while I have only a limited sample size to judge, what I had read had left me feeling quite conflicted. Certainly I admired the author’s skill and his ability to depict some very uncomfortable psychology, especially with regards to disaffected young men. I cannot however describe any of them as particularly enjoyable reads, including this latest work.

The novel is narrated by a young man who is in a cabin in the woods. There he encounters a short, autobiographical manuscript apparently written by the person whose identity the narrator has intended to usurp. As he and we read that story, it soon becomes clear that this person was a deeply damaged and dangerous person. The question is what has the writer of that manuscript done and how will it affect the reader.

It’s an intriguing starting point for a story that lives up to its billing as a ‘puzzle box of a narrative’. Nakamura carefully constructs a story in which we are not prompted to answer who or why something has happened but rather to simply try to comprehend exactly what is taking place. Multiple documents and accounts are stitched together and our task is to see if we can comprehend how ideas and characters interact with one another so we can understand how this story will be resolved.

I admire the tightness of that construction. Nakamura’s story is far more complex than you would expect from a book of this length (like many of his other works, the pages are generously spaced meaning that it reads quite quickly) but I felt it was ultimately cohesive and coherent, even if I occasionally had to revisit some passages to be sure I understood how everything connected. While some elements of the story struck me as fantastic, Nakamura takes care to explain those ideas to provide context for the reader so they can understand their relevance and anticipate how they might be expanded upon.

As interesting as some of those ideas are, I do not intend to discuss them in any detail. This is a short work and to do so would inevitably strip the book of much of its sense of surprise. That would be a shame as I think it is a more compulsive read than either of the other works by the author I have read up until this point. While I may praise the book for its construction and thoughtful development of its themes, I doubt many readers will guess where this is headed until much later in the story. If I can, I would suggest preserving as much of the surprise as possible.

There are a couple of aspects of the book though that I do want to address as they relate to that question of the book’s entertainment value, at least for this reader. I have found each of the Nakamura books I have read to date to have elements that are unsettling or disturbing but this is the darkest that I have read by far. Part of that is the nature of reading the thoughts and experiences of the young man as recorded in that journal which, were I minded to include a trigger warnings section to my reviews would prompt one of the longest ones for any of the works I have written about to date. Be warned, some of that material gets pretty disturbing.

That of course reflects on the effectiveness of Nakamura’s writing. It wouldn’t unsettle if it wasn’t well observed. That young man strikes me as being a pretty disturbed individual and while the first person nature of his account may have us wondering about its reliability, some of the descriptions of the things he has done or tried to do may well unsettle and horrify readers.

The other aspect of this book that really struck me as adding to that sense of darkness is that the book draws upon some true crimes, namely the murders of four very young girls by Tsutomu Miyazaki. There are a few lengthy passages describing and reflecting upon that man’s crimes and while I understood their relevance to this story and the themes the author was exploring, they made for some very uncomfortable reading.

Which leaves me with one other aspect of the book I want to discuss which is its genre categorization. Those who remember my review of The Thief may recall that I find this topic a little frustrating. There is an assumption often made that crime fiction and literary fiction are exclusive terms but as with the other Nakamura titles I have reviewed, I would stress that I think this has a fair claim to belong to both traditions.

I will certainly acknowledge that the reader is not really involved in much of a game of wits with the writer so much as they are being carefully steered through a series of sensations and reactions. With context comes greater understanding and so it can feel a little like the reader is simply waiting for that context to come properly into focus.

At the same time, this is undoubtedly a work about crime. There are multiple transgressions, both legal and moral, explored in the course of this book and there are attempts to exact what may be viewed as either vengeance or justice depending on the reader’s perspective. While there may not be a detective-style investigation, there is certainly an exploration of causes and the context of those crimes and while some aspects of their treatment may feel akin to a thought experiment, the reader will eventually be given the answers they need to understand them.

To reiterate, readers should not come to this expecting a quick or easy read. My Annihilation is, as the title may suggest, a heavy and often difficult book that delights in confusing and unsettling its reader. While I cannot say I enjoyed it as an entertainment, it is undoubtedly an interesting one that is more often successful than it is not. I would suggest though that crime fans new to the author might be better served with starting with The Thief which has a somewhat more traditional structure before trying this.

The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

Originally published in 1987 as 十角館の殺人
English translation first published in 2015

[…]The members of a university detective-fiction club, each nicknamed for a favorite crime writer (Poe, Carr, Orczy, Van Queen, Leroux and — yes — Christie), spend a week on remote Tsunojima Island, attracted to the place, and its eerie 10-sided house, because of a spate of murders that transpired the year before[…]

A fresh round of violent deaths begins, and Ayatsuji’s skillful, furious pacing propels the narrative. As the students are picked off one by one, he weaves in the story of the mainland investigation of the earlier murders. This is a homage to Golden Age detective fiction, but it’s also unabashed entertainment.

Today’s post is going to be rather special as it will be my five hundredth book review on this blog. As this struck me as a pretty significant milestone, I wanted to be sure to mark the occasion with a book review of a title that mattered to me.

I mulled over a number of titles before finally settling on Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders. There were a couple of reasons for my selection. One is that it was relatively recently reissued in a very handsome new edition by Pushkin Vertigo which is pictured above. The other is that this is one of a handful of titles that caused my interest in mystery fiction to blossom, leading me to discover some of my favorite detective fiction blogs and eventually, a couple of years later, to start my own.

The story takes inspiration from the premise of one of the most famous works of mystery fiction, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. As with that story a group of people arrive on a remote island to spend time together in a house. They settle down to enjoy themselves, only to find that they begin to get picked off one-by-one.

The Decagon House Murders is hardly the first example of a mystery novel to take inspiration from that story. Look back over my previous 499 book reviews and you will find at least a couple of overt homages, not to mention a handful of stories that less directly reference it. What I think elevates this effort and helps to make it a masterpiece of impossible crime fiction is that the characters are aware of that work, directly referencing it at points in the narrative, and that it uses it as the basis for a fascinating exploration of detective fiction as a genre.

The group of characters who find their way to Tsunojima Island are all members of a university detective-fiction club. Each of the members has adopted the name of a classic crime writer – Carr, Christie, Leroux, Orczy, Poe, Queen and Van Dine – and they refer to each other by those pseudonyms. I loved that idea on my initial read but I have only come to appreciate it more having returned to it with significantly more knowledge of some of those writers. Part of the fun for me was observing the similarities between the student and their namesakes, particularly in the case of Ellery Queen whose insistence on treating the whole thing like an intellectual exercise feels absolutely in keeping with the character of Ellery from the books.

Soji Shimada’s introduction to the Locked Room International edition mentions that when the book was first published, some critics found the characters a little shallow. I can understand why some might feel that way as the game always comes first for Ayatsuji and we get minimal details of the lives these people lived outside of the club beyond a few details about the subjects they study. In this case however I think that a lack of detail about their background does not equate to a lack of a personality. Each of the people on the island, as well as those on the mainland, possess striking and identifiable personalities. The interactions between members of the group can be quite dramatic, particularly as tempers flare and those differences in approach come to the fore.

Ayatsuji tells their story quickly, rattling through a number of the deaths in quick succession. That will also play into that sense that we are not really invested in the group as human beings and yet I think that is part of the point of what is being done here. Several of these mystery enthusiasts are responding by indulging in playing detective, indulging their egos with the notion that they might somehow solve this crime themselves.

In spite of the speed at which the bodies pile up, I feel that the deaths are impactful. That reflects in part that Ayatsuji employs a nice variety of methods so the killings never feel repetitive. I think it is also elevated by the idea that the killer surely lies within this group which seems so close-knit. With each new death the monstrousness of what is being done only seems to become more apparent.

Each death brings with it questions about how and why the murders were conducted. The answers to those questions are clued pretty effectively. By the time the novel is completed you will both know the solution and what the killer had planned. Some of those explanations will be more surprising than others but I love the way the author walks us through what happened and provides context for why some choices were made.

Another thing that I think the writer does really well is set up a parallel investigation that takes place on the mainland. Several individuals receive suspicious letters and come together to try to work out what they mean and why they had received them. This strand of the story involves investigating the history of the island itself and some grisly murders that had taken place there some time before. I enjoyed discovering how neatly these story strands fit together and felt largely satisfied with the cleverness of the ending.

My complaints with the book are all relatively minor. My biggest is that I think a pronoun choice is made in a chapter near the beginning from the killer’s perspective that helps eliminate some suspects a little early. In practice that will happen anyway as the bodies stack up but I don’t think it would have harmed the story too much to give it an extra suspect.

The Verdict: I had a wonderful time revisiting The Decagon House Murders which is just as entertaining and creative as I recalled it being. It’s a truly clever story and I really hope to discover more soon!

Case Closed, Volume 6: The Last Loan by Gosho Aoyama, translated by Joe Yamazaki

Originally published in 1995
English translation first published in 2005
Volume 6
Preceded by The Bandaged Be-header
Followed by The Case of the Moonlight Sonata

It’s Conan versus the Phantom Thief! Who is this mysterious masked man? And why does he know Conan’s true identity? 

Later, an investigation of an extramarital affair leads to bloody murder! Also, Conan’s elementary school friends decide to become super sleuths when they form the Junior Detective League! But will they get into more trouble than they can handle?

Can you figure out whodunit before Conan does?

The previous installment of Case Closed left us on a bit of a cliffhanger with Detective Conan in peril from a masked man. This sixth volume begins with the conclusion to that Conan Kidnapping Case but while it does wrap things up, I cannot say that I found it at all satisfactory.

One of the things I had liked most about the story as it began in the previous volume was that it seemed to tie into the series’ on-going mystery about the identity of the men who transformed teenaged detective Jimmy into the body of an elementary schooler. This final part does not deliver on those suggestions though and while it may provide a necessary explanation for why our hero will remain in the care of Richard Moore, I found the circumstances to be far too contrived. The good news though is that this is just one chapter and the remainder of the volume is of a significantly higher standard.

The first full case here, presumably titled The Last Loan, concerns the savage murder of a moneylender. Richard Moore and Conan visited the victim to report their findings after trailing his wife, revealing that she has taken a lover. They are interrupted during their meeting and asked to wait while he speaks with a visitor. When he does not return they investigate to find him dead having been run through with a sword and the walls and ceiling of the room are covered in vicious slashes from a similar blade.

The police arrive on the scene and quickly establish that the killer must be one of the four people the victim planned to meet with that afternoon. Three are people he had loaned money but the other is Richard Moore as he stumbles over explaining his own presence there.

One of the aspects of this story I enjoyed most was the rather bizarre crime scene. This not only provides us with a really striking visual, I appreciate that the oddness of the killer’s actions grow more apparent as you ponder the scene. While there is one aspect of the case that would require some detailed cultural knowledge to fully appreciate, the reader should still be able to recognize its significance by thinking about the evidence logically.

The crime scene from The Last Loan

I also really enjoyed the story’s colorful cast of characters. This begins with the victim who I felt is one of the most distinctive we have had to date in the books and extends to his wife and the three men who visited him. Each feels well-defined and the story does a good job of providing each with a credible motive.

As much as I liked that one, I liked the next story, The Junior Detective League, even more. This is another story that features Conan interacting with his elementary school classmates who have now banded together to form a detective agency. It’s a very cute conceit that plays with the junior detective agency trope nicely and I love the way the scope of the group’s investigation expands from trying to find a missing cat to investigating a bloody murder.

The puzzle at the heart of this story involves the disappearance of a body from within a house that our kid detectives kept under observation while they waited for the police to respond to their call. The investigation does a great job of reinforcing those constraints and emphasizing the impossibility of that disappearance and several elements of the explanation of what happened are rather clever.

I only have one problem with the story and that is I am not entirely convinced that the killer, who had little reason to expect the police to show up, is able to pull together a plan to hide the body rather quickly. This seems to me to be reinforced in the confession at the end of the case. If you can suspend a little disbelief about that, I really enjoyed some of the ideas here and I found it to be one of the most entertaining storylines in Case Closed up to this point.

The final story in the volume was particularly suited to my tastes as it is essentially an inverted mystery. The case involves the murder of a famous writer in his hotel room during a festival. From the start of the case we and Conan will suspect the man who had been staying with him but he seems to have an unbreakable alibi – one that involves Richard Moore, Rachel and Conan themselves.

The tone is not unlike that found in many episodes of Columbo in which we have what amounts to a cat and mouse game between our sleuth and an overly confident killer. The latter is absolutely sure that he will get away with it, seeming to invite suspicion on himself with some of his actions.

Readers should be aware that they will not get the solution in this volume but you will have everything you need by the end of this book to solve the case. Expect that you will want to immediately go and get the next volume to check that you are right! I will cover that solution properly when I come on to write about the next volume but I think it delivers a satisfying conclusion to the story here.

The Verdict: With the exception of the first chapter which concludes a story from the previous volume, this has been one of my favorite volumes to date. The three new stories it starts are all very entertaining and are well clued. The only problem is that you’re bound to want to immediately go and buy the next one to find out if you were right!

Gold Mask by Edogawa Rampo, translated by William Varteresian

Originally published from 1930-31 in King magazine as 黄金仮面
English translation first published in 2019

The actual blurb to the Kurodahan Press translation contains a very significant spoiler about a key plot point from this story. Instead of reproducing that blurb, as I would usually do, I have opted to provide my own below.

Plot Summary

Detective Akechi Kogorō is called upon to investigate a crime spree orchestrated by a figure seen wearing a golden mask and cloak. On several occasions the Gold Mask is seen committing audacious thefts and is cornered only to miraculously disappear, baffling the police and striking fear into the public’s imagination.

Before I start to discuss this book I feel I ought to reiterate a warning I provided in the book details section of this post. Gold Mask is a novel that is constructed around a surprising reveal that occurs about two thirds of the way into the story. Rather unfortunately the blurb to the English-language translation from Kurodahan Press tells the prospective reader exactly what that is, hence why I felt the need to provide a plot summary of my own.

I wanted to draw readers’ attention to this for a few reasons. Firstly, to warn those who wish to avoid being spoiled to handle this with caution (I would also suggest not looking at the table of contents too closely for much the same reason). I would not suggest that the novel necessarily needs that reveal to entertain and engage readers – the book being as much about the process and sense of adventure as the ultimate destination – but it’s a nice moment, handled pretty well and so why rid it of its impact unless you have to? That is not to say that I blame or criticize the publishers for their choice here. Given the potential draw that this idea presents it is unsurprising that a publisher would emphasize it in their marketing.

The other reason is that I want to emphasize that I will be doing my best to avoid directly referring to that part of the story in the main body of the review. This does limit my capacity to talk about the handling of that reveal and that part of the story a little but honestly, I think it happens so late in the story in any case that my feelings about it feel quite secondary to my interest in the plot which, like The Black Lizard, is a great example of a pulpy, detective thriller with lashings of danger and adventure.

With that out of the way, it’s time to discuss the book itself. This was originally published as a serialized novel and so the style is quite punchy, the narrator often directly talking to the reader and teasing things to come or driving home the strangeness of a moment, and each chapter seems to end on a cliffhanger or moment that suggests an escalation of the danger facing Akechi. It makes for excellent, page-turning fare offering plenty of disguises, double bluffs and tricks with identity as the story seems to get progressively grander and wider in scale as we near its conclusion.

The book begins by establishing Gold Mask as a sort of odd urban legend that spreads after a young girl in Ginza claims to have seen a man in the mask looking through a shop window and further sightings take place around Tokyo. Things escalate however when during the Gold Mask steals a pearl during a great exhibition and is chased into a theater where a theatrical production about his legend happens to be underway. The police chase him and eventually corner him on the roof of a building that is surrounded on all sides yet he somehow manages to evade detection and vanish into the night. A feat he repeats on several subsequent occasions.

It is for this reason, as well as a couple of other moments in the novel, that I opted to categorized this as an impossible crime novel though I will add the caveat that I do not think this really reads as such. Rampo’s emphasis falls consistently upon the adventure elements of the story rather than the detection, but I enjoy the way this story tries to surprise the reader with improbable identity reveals and disappearances from right under Akechi’s nose.

On a similar note, I also enjoy the battle of wits element that Rampo creates between his hero and the Gold Mask as each tries to best the other. This becomes increasingly direct in the later parts of the novel, leading to some entertaining exchanges and culminating in a very fitting and enjoyable conclusion that feels appropriate to all that had come before it.

The image of the figure with the expressionless golden mask is a pleasingly visual one and I had little difficulty imagining him chased through a gallery or standing threateningly in a window. The lack of any facial details is a powerful idea and I think the novel sells the strangeness of that image well, making it clear why the public interest in this figure would grow so strong and how his sudden appearance might seem quite haunting and unsettling.

The only dissatisfaction I feel with this aspect of the story gets us into solid spoiler territory and so I am afraid I will need to be a little vague here. I feel that Rampo’s efforts to emphasize that Akechi is brilliant and heroic require a slight diminishment in Gold Mask’s character. It is quite understandable that this might would have been Rampo’s method of storytelling but I feel it is sometimes a little unnecessary.

Other than that, I found this to be another example of an entertaining, if sometimes quite far-fetched, story stuffed full of reversals of fortune and bravery that I think may well be worth your time. I would still recommend The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows as a better place to start with getting to know the author’s works.

The Verdict: More an adventure-thriller than a fair play detective story, though it does what it does very well.

Case Closed, Volume 4: Explosives on a Train by Gosho Aoyama, translated by Joe Yamazaki

Originally published in 1995
English translation published in 2005
Volume 4
Preceded by One and the Same?
Followed by The Bandaged Be-header

Bloody murder is committed at a museum, reproducing a scene from a gruesome painting.

Later, the men in black are back! Will Conan be able to come any closer to getting his old body back? 

Also, Conan’s friends from grade school find a treasure map–but will it only lead them to a trove of trouble?

Today finds me returning to Case Closed, the manga series about a brilliant teen detective who has been transformed into the body of a grade schooler. It’s a fun, lighthearted series but given that it is best read in order let me send you back to the first review and I’ll see you in three books time!

Okay, where were we? While the previous volume featured just two cases, this one has three. The nice thing about this is that it does mean that there is a little more variety but that does come at the cost of depth. Each of these three cases feel a little simple compared to those in the previous volume.

The first involves the strange case of an ancient suit of armor that supposedly roams the halls of a museum. One day the gallery is being visited by its obnoxious new owner who steps into the Hell Gallery only to be run through by a sword.

The case is a solid murder mystery though it suffers a little from having just two characters who might be suspects, particularly when one becomes the focus of the investigation. I think though that rather than viewing this purely as a whodunnit, it is more interesting to view this as a howcatchem and ask what clues will lead Jimmy toward the truth.

While the case is short and relatively simple, it does offer some points of interest including a dying message and a pretty clever trick used to get to the truth. All in all, a very solid start to the volume.

In my previous Case Closed post I noted that I had one issue with the second and third volumes: that Jimmy seemed to have forgotten that his purpose in getting close to Rachel’s father and assisting him in his work as a private detective was to find out information about the gang who drugged and de-aged him. Happily the next story in this fourth volume sees Jimmy cross paths with two of its members, even if he gets sidetracked along the way.

He is traveling by train with Rachel and her father when he sees the two heavies climb on board carrying a dark briefcase. Following them to the dining car he learns that they have sold the case and its contents to a passenger but they have a secret. The buyer is unaware that their new locked briefcase contains a bomb that will detonate. Jimmy needs to find the buyer and dispose of the briefcase before that happens.

This is a fun setup and it feels like a nice change of pace from some of the previous cases. The time element certainly adds to the sense of tension but I also appreciate that this is another example of a story where Jimmy’s small size and apparent youth is a real barrier to his investigation. This is not just physical though there are moments where that comes into play – it’s also that Jimmy has to contend with Rachel trying to babysit him.

It’s a fun adventure and there is a subtle element of deduction involved. More than anything though I just feel it’s nice to acknowledge properly that Jimmy is supposed to be looking for the solution to his situation and while I understand that this obviously will be stretched out, it’s nice to see that addressed from time to time.

The final story sees the return of an idea from the second volume that I liked in theory, even though I felt that the case was not wholly satisfying. This is another case featuring the characters from Jimmy’s class in school who this time find themselves involved in something of a treasure hunt.

While the reader doesn’t have much opportunity to solve anything, the idea is a lot of fun and I do enjoy the dynamics of that group of children. It is always interesting to see Jimmy put in awkward situations and I do appreciate that the series is not forgetting to show the other half of his issue with de-aging – that he is intellectually far above those who are supposed to be his peers.

Overall then I felt this was another very solid installment in the series. I appreciate that each of the three stories feels quite distinct from the others though I did feel that the first two could each have benefited from a little more space to add complexity. In spite of that though this is a lot of fun and I look forward to seeing what other adventures Jimmy has in store for him…

Case Closed, Volume 3: One and the Same? by Gosho Aoyama, translated by Joe Yamazaki

Originally published in 1994
English translation published in 2005
Volume 3
Preceded by The Woman of Mystery
Followed by Explosives On A Train

Jimmy, Rachel and Richard take a vacation aboard a cruise ship, but little do they know that the patriarch of the wealthy Hatamoto family is about to be murdered.

With the perpetrator still aboard ship can you figure out whodunit before Conan does!?

Case Closed is a long-running manga series with the entertainingly far-fetched concept that a genius teenaged detective is transformed into the body of a young child. He continues to solve mysteries however, helping his almost-girlfriend’s private investigator father without his knowledge, all the while trying to keep Rachel from realizing her crush who is supposedly away solving a case is actually right there with her. If that sounds like a somewhat convoluted and fantastical premise, it absolutely is, but I enjoyed both the previous volumes and would suggest reading them in order (for my thoughts on Volume One, see here).

This third volume contains two complete cases. The first, which is the longer of the two, concerns the murder of the head of a wealthy family on board a yacht following the marriage of his granddaughter. The victim was found dead inside his locked cabin to which there was just one key.

This is technically a locked room and you may have noticed that I have tagged this book as such, though I would caution readers not to expect too much in that regard. The locked room problem is pretty simple with a fairly familiar solution and it is solved by Jimmy in just a couple of pages. It is however just the start of a case that ends up incorporating several other mysterious twists. The solution, while not startling, is competently handled though I was not entirely convinced by the killer’s motive. In spite of that however I found the story to be both entertaining and engaging.

Though the second case is shorter, I found it to be the stronger of the two stories. In his first outing we were told that Jimmy wants to be the new Sherlock Holmes and this case feels rather reminiscent of a Holmes short story in that it is an exploration of some odd circumstances rather than an overtly criminal act.

This story begins with Rachel’s father being approached by a man who wants to hire him to investigate who is the mysterious benefactor sending him large gifts of money and children’s toys each month. The client has felt uncomfortable for some time, particularly concerning the gifts of money, but what prompts him to seek advice is a letter that came with the most recent gift saying that the benefactor will visit soon to ‘complete the transaction’.

As with the previous case the solution was not particularly hard to guess but this is not a story that really is about springing a surprise on the reader. Instead the solution feels like a very logical explanation and we just need to wait for all the relevant information to be shared with us to be able to piece it all together. It is nonetheless a pretty powerful conclusion, in part because it hits some unexpected emotional notes that I think are earned. It’s a pretty great case and of the two cases, it is certainly the more original storyline.

Perhaps the most striking element of the second story is the way it begins to more seriously float the idea that Rachel might recognize Jimmy, even in his de-aged form. In the comments to my previous posts, TomCat (who is responsible for initially interesting me in these books) has suggested that her inability to recognize her crush is frustrating and I can see why. Her obliviousness in some of these stories can seem quite ridiculous.

Here at least she notices some of Conan’s frankly odd and decidedly Jimmy-like behavior. These observations feel natural and I appreciate the way these thoughts grow in her mind as she watches him work on the case. Given how fantastical and ridiculous the idea is, it is understandable that she holds back on asking some questions, and I think the way Conan resolves this does at least provide a solid reason to delay those questions again, if only for a short while. I will say though that I may not feel quite the same way in another seventy volumes time…

The other thing I appreciate about this third volume over its two predecessors is that it allows itself to call back to and reuse elements from previous stories, whether it is showing us memories of events in previous installments or using one of the professor’s devices without feeling the need to introduce it within that same story. It feels much more natural than the Bond-like introduction of a gadget that will solve exactly the issue our hero will be confronted with and I am hoping that this will be the norm in the subsequent volumes too.

In terms of the bigger mystery, there is really nothing that relates to that bigger mystery at all. It does feel a little odd that Jimmy, who is living with Rachel and her father specifically to research the villains responsible for his transformation has seeming done nothing with regards finding them. It’s not exactly a problem with the book – more just a little odd. I can understand why those details need to be rationed out slowly, particularly given the number of volumes I have ahead of me.

Overall, I felt that this volume more or less matched the quality of its two predecessors. Both cases entertain and while I have a preference for the second, I enjoyed both and felt they were each paced pretty well. As for this series, I already really enjoy them and given that apparently the stories get even stronger in a few volumes’ time, I am excited to see where it goes!

The Verdict: This volume offers two solid cases. While the solutions may not necessarily surprise, I really enjoyed the process of reaching them.

The Mystery Train Disappears by Kyotaro Nishimura, translated by Gavin Frew

Originally published in 1982 as ミステリー列車が消えた
English translation first published in 1990.

Japanese National Railways runs a special Mystery Train that leaves Tokyo on a Saturday night, scheduled to return the following Monday morning. It has no announced schedule or destination, just the promise of an entertaining trip for the passengers.

This time, the passengers end up getting more “entertainment” than they bargained for. A phone call to railway officials demanding one billion yen in exchange for the safe return of the train and its passengers is thought to be a hoax – until the train fails to arrive at one of its scheduled stops.

Now railway officials really have a mystery train on their hands. How can a twelve-car train just vanish? Where can more than four hundred hostages be kept without being seen?

Clues are scarce and time is short. Nishimura uses masterful plotting and gripping suspense to create an investigation where the police are seemingly always one step behind the kidnappers – until some unexpected twists at the end.

We are talking about a twelve-car train, you know? Eight hundred and thirty feet of train doesn’t just disappear like that.

Earlier this year when I reviewed the short story anthology Old Crimes, New Scenes, I remarked on how I wanted to read more Nishimura in translation. Well, in doing my research for that post I learned that one of his many, many novels (there are over 400 apparently) was translated into English in 1990 and after doing a little scouting around I was able to track down a reasonably-priced copy.

The novel is The Mystery Train Disappears – a title that seemed to be suggestive of an impossible crime plot. As such, I was tempted to read and review it for my impossible crime series but having been burned on impossibilities several times lately I decided to go for a sure thing instead and to read this with no expectations. For the record it offers two impossible crimes. First, let’s outline the general scenario:

Japanese National Railways, keen to find ways to reduce its operational deficit, has decided to run a series of special journeys with the exciting hook that the passengers will be traveling to a mystery destination. The promotion seems to be a hit with the railway receiving a huge number of applications for the four hundred seats. A magazine decides that it is a good enough story to send a reporter to write about the trip and a reporter is dispatched, promising his fiancée that he will call her when they reach their first stop. When he fails to do so she is concerned and approaches the railway to ask for details of the trip.

The railway officials feel sure that everything is okay, particularly when they call the museum that the travelers were meant to visit who confirm that the travelers had shown up as expected but when they call the next station they are told that the train never arrived. While there is some speculation that the train may have broken down they learn that other trains have travelled on each of the tracks between the two cities, suggesting that the eight hundred foot train has just vanished off the tracks. As concern seems to grow the train company receives a phone call demanding a ransom payment for the safe return of the train and its passengers.

The disappearance of the train is our first impossible scenario. While I think some explanations will come to mind, the scale of the crime and the challenge of abducting a train when no one knows its eventual destination adds layers of complexity to the situation. I might suggest however that while this is an impossibility, the way it is explored does not really focus on the question of how it was done as the process of following leads to discover where the train and its passengers are now.

Ho-Ling Wong in his excellent post about this book (linked below) notes that a Japanese mystery fan wiki suggests that the solution to how this was done is actually impossible. Even without that knowledge, I think there is something rather underwhelming in how it is described even though I appreciated a few elements of it. I think I might have appreciated it even more though had the publisher provided a map of the line and a timetable to pour over – not that they would necessarily have helped me but it would have made me feel like there was a greater chance of my working out the relationships between the various clues and snippets of information that we are given.

The second impossibility, while shorter and less flashy, struck me as a more compelling one for impossible crime fans to work through. It concerns the ransom money which manages to vanish from the moving train while traveling between stations. The passengers’ luggage is thoroughly searched while the windows are sealed and the baggage train was completely inaccessible, adding to the mystery.

There are times that I feel rather stupid for failing to solve an impossible crime but this is not really one of those. I certainly think that the solution is pretty clever but I never really had a strong enough sense of the space to have been able to imagine what happened. Perhaps that reflects more on me and my lack of regular train travel than the mystery itself as the moment the explanation was given I could see exactly how that would work.

While the novel offers up two impossibilities, the style of the storytelling is all procedural and not unlike taking a mystery train journey. It soon becomes apparent that the investigation is on a set of tracks, offering a clearly defined path with few surprises or diversions. It is also clear that the reader has little chance of drawing any firm conclusions from what they have learned until close to the end. Even when we near that resolution, solving this has less to do with applications of logic or thinking through a problem as it does simply piecing the bits of information we have together and even that feels rather minimal.

The bigger issue is that the investigators themselves feel quite bland and I certainly had little sense of who they were beyond their function in the story. That perhaps reflects that one of the characters had appeared in a number of previous Nishimura stories but it means that there is no sense of personalities within the department – something that can often liven up those moments in a procedural in which the investigators seem to be getting nowhere (which in this book is quite a frequent feeling).

The characters from the railway company perhaps feel a little more defined though here I have an issue with empathizing with those characters. While they are doing the right thing by paying out the ransom, it is hard to sympathize with a company’s prime concern being avoiding a public relations scandal, even if that is quite a realistic view of how many executives would view the situation.

Perhaps the biggest cause of dissatisfaction for me lies in the ending’s novel. Now, I have no intention of spoiling exactly what that resolution is but I think it is worth stressing that there is a decisive part of the ending that happens in spite of the investigation rather than because of it. While such moments are pretty common early in an investigation, it strikes me as rather unsatisfactory to have a key development happen regardless of your protagonists’ involvement and while probably realistic, it struck me as quite anticlimactic.

Overall then my first novel-length Nishimura struck me as rather disappointing. There are some fun ideas here and it offers some appeal points for those who like gentle thrillers and stories involving trains but I found it rather underwhelming in terms of its puzzle plot. That being said, assuming that this isn’t the pinnacle of his achievement as a novelist, I still hope that some day I will get to read more of his work in translation. He was so prolific it would be nice to get to know him better.

The Verdict: Some interesting ideas but the focus lies with procedure rather than the puzzles. The train setting adds some appeal however.

Further Reading

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time suggests lowering your expectations for this one but considers it an ‘interesting curio’.

Ho-Ling Wong shares his thoughts on this book, regarding it as rather underwhelming (and querying why this was the title out of his vast, vast catalog of work to be translated into English).

Case Closed, Volume 2: The Woman of Mystery by Gosho Aoyama, translated by Joe Yamazaki

Originally published in 1994
English translation published in 2004
Volume 2
Preceded by The Sherlock Holmes of Modern Times
Followed by One and the Same?

Conan must contend with the murder of a man who burns to death while the prime suspect has the perfect alibi; he helps a seemingly sweet and innocent girl look for her missing father; and he still has time to explore a haunted house with some of his new friends from elementary school!

All the clues are there–can you piece them together and solve these baffling cases before Conan does?

A few weeks ago I reviewed the first installment of the long-running Manga series Case Closed. I had not planned on posting about the second volume so soon but I found myself with less time to read than I would like this past week and rather than rushing some posts out I decided I would go ahead and release one of these a little earlier than planned (sorry, no impossibilities this Monday – I hope to make it up later this week!).

The premise of the series is that teenaged Jimmy Kudo, a brilliant amateur detective who has styled himself on Sherlock Holmes, stumbled onto the activities of a group of mysterious villains who force-fed him a drug that they thought would kill him. Instead it de-aged him by ten years meaning he now has the body of an elementary school student. Until he can identify the villains and find the formula they used on him, he cannot tell anyone his secret. Instead he has adopted the identify of Conan Edogawa and is staying with a private detective, secretly assisting him with his cases whenever possible.

Case Closed volume two contains three standalone cases, though I would agree with TomCat (who inspired me to try the stories) that the series ought to be read in order to follow the overarching story of Jimmy’s transformation. While there are not many developments in these three stories, there is one moment that seems to play into that plot line. With that in mind, let’s start talking about the specific action in this volume.

The first case file begins with Conan being introduced to his new classmates. While this is not directly related to the action in this particular case, it reminds us of the overall premise and reintroduces us to the problem that he always has to overcome – how to exert his influence as a detective when he looks like, and has the body strength of, a young child. Perhaps more importantly it introduces us to some supporting characters who will feature in this volume’s final case, establishing their relationships a while before we get to that action.

The case proper begins with Rachel’s father, Richard Moore, being hired to follow a man around for several days. Shortly after he finishes his assignment however the man’s body is discovered in a fire tower during a village’s fire festival. While this story is not exactly inverted, I think it is safe to suggest that there is an obvious suspect with a strong motive and that this is an example of an unbreakable alibi problem.

I do not think that this is a particularly challenging case to solve – you can imagine many of the developments that will occur by working through the scenario logically – but it is entertaining nonetheless and moves quickly enough that its relative simplicity isn’t a problem.

It also does a couple of things that I really like. For one, there is a visual representation of the unbreakable alibi timeline that works very well, condensing what in a novel would be several paragraphs or bullet points into a single small graphic. For another, I really enjoy the problems Conan encounters trying to steer this investigation and his interactions with the killer, even if I am less enamored of the way this case is resolved. All in all, this is not mind-blowing but a good, solid start to this second volume.

The second story is much meatier involving a high school girl visiting Richard to ask his help in finding her father who moved to Tokyo to find work but then disappeared. Conan thinks to himself that disappearances aren’t much in his line but before long he will find himself also investigating a murder.

This story initially struck me as quite predictable but it picked up for me as it progressed. It is not so much that the facts of the case become more complex but rather the situation surrounding it becomes increasingly intriguing. I also really like that this case sees Rachel take a more prominent role, becoming emotionally involved in the case and showing her toughness in a memorable sequence in which she chases a suspect down. While I have liked the character since she was first introduced, it is nice to see her in a role other than simply being oblivious to Conan being a de-aged Jimmy.

The final story is a bit of a change of pace as Conan is begged by several of his grade school classmates to join them as they investigate a house that is supposedly haunted. Several years earlier a man had been murdered there though the police were unable to discover the killer’s identity. Soon after they arrive however the group begin to disappear one-by-one…

I am in two minds about how I feel on this one. On the one hand it is nice to see the book properly lean into the premise of him having become a young child, involving him in a case that would certainly interest someone of that age. I enjoyed the mix of personalities among his classmates and it is interesting to see him interact with characters who are supposed to be his peers but that he feels quite separate from. That presents him in a slightly different light which I feel is welcome. I also quite like the idea of him effectively taking of a cold case, albeit quite unwittingly.

On the other, I don’t feel that the case is particularly satisfying. While I can understand the motives being explored here, I think the characters and the explanation feel rather flat and they are not properly introduced prior to the case being explained reducing the impact of that moment a little. Still, I appreciate this for trying to do something a little different and I really like the ending of the piece which sets up a fun idea that I hope would be picked up soon.

Overall I found this to be another quick and entertaining read. The cases here are perhaps a little less striking than those found in the first, but the stories all move pretty quickly and I enjoyed seeing how Jimmy would find ways to assert himself in his much younger Conan persona. I certainly plan on continuing to read this series though ideally these posts will be a little more spaced out in the future!

The Verdict: This second volume of Detective Conan stories is as entertaining as the first, though the cases feel a little simpler.

Case Closed, Volume 1: The Sherlock Holmes of Modern Times by Gosho Aoyama, translated by Joe Yamazaki

Originally released in 1994
English translation released in 2004
Case Closed #1
Followed by The Woman of Mystery

Precocious high school student Jimmy Kudo uses his keen powers of observation and astute intuition to solve mysteries that have left law enforcement officials baffled. Hot on the trail of a suspect, Jimmy is accosted from behind and fed a strange chemical which physically transforms him into a grade schooler! Taking on the pseudonym Conan Edogawa, he attempts to track down the people who did this to him. But until he finds a cure for his bizarre condition, Jimmy continues to help the police solve their toughest cases.

Can you crack the case before Conan does?

“I don’t want to write about detectives… I want to be one!!”

The detective manga Case Closed has been on my radar for some time thanks to Tomcat’s enticing reviews of the later volumes in the series. Rather than jump in at the end I thought it best to start at the very beginning with this first volume which Wikipedia tells me is titled The Sherlock Holmes of Modern Times.

The protagonist is Jimmy Kudo, a rich and unsupervised teenaged detective story fan. He has grown up studying his parents’ library of vintage detective novels and fancies himself to be a new Sherlock Holmes, honing his deductive and physical abilities in the hopes of emulating his fictional hero’s feats. Though he is only a junior in high school, Jimmy is already putting his skills to the test and building a reputation for himself by assisting the police in their investigations. For instance, when we first meet him he is on the way to announcing the identity of an unlikely murderer in front of a group of suspects.

There is a further short case (which I will get to in a moment) that follows this introduction before an event happens that changes Jimmy in some quite profound ways. After he solves that case he grows suspicious of a pair of men and follows them, only to get caught. Rather than shoot Jimmy, the men decide to poison him by feeding him an experimental drug and leave him for dead. The drug does not work as expected however and rather than kill Jimmy, instead it deages him by about ten years.

Turning to a family friend, an inventor, for help, Jimmy is told he needs to find the original formula to try and reverse its effects on him. To do this it is suggested that he adopt a false identity so the would-be killers do not know he survived and live with his friend Rachel and her private detective father. The idea is that Jimmy will be able to use the father to help him research the villains who had attacked him. Unfortunately Rachel’s father turns out to be a rather inept detective however Jimmy, who rebrands himself as Conan Edogawa after two favorite detective novelists, finds ways to help him solve his cases.

There are three complete cases contained within this volume though they are not all given equal space. The first is easily the simplest, taking place in just one chapter (which are termed files), and it is really used to provide an origin story for the character. It is quite a colorful case however in spite of its short page count.

Jimmy has taken his friend Rachel to the theme park where they go on a roller coaster ride. Everyone is securely strapped into the cars in pairs. During the ride one of the passengers is suddenly decapitated though it does not appear that the ride itself is at fault. Given the distance between the cars and the use of mechanical restraints it seems that the only possible killer would be the victim’s girlfriend who was sat next to him. Of course appearances can be deceptive…

Because the conditions seem to preclude anyone but the girlfriend from being the killer, I think this can be considered an impossible crime. Certainly I think the question of how the crime was achieved receives the bulk of the focus and while I have some doubts whether the killer could actually pull off their rather daring crime without being seen and suspect most will instinctively guess at at least one element of it, I still think it is a pretty creative murder method. It certainly gets things off to an entertaining and rather macabre start!

The second case involves the kidnapping of a rich businessman’s ten year old daughter by a mysterious figure in black. This case initially seems relatively straightforward with it quickly seeming clear what has happened, only for an end of chapter revelation to spin things off in a somewhat different direction.

The main purpose of this case is to establish the challenges that Jimmy in his Detective Conan guise will face in trying to get adults to listen to him. That makes sense as a choice in developing the series though I think it is unfortunate that it results in a case that it driven more by action than points of deduction. I think it does a good job of establishing the basic structure where Rachel’s father is hired to look into a case and Conan finds a way to tag along and influence the investigation, subtly inserting his own theories, and so it is important to the overall development of the series.

The final case is far cleverer and, offers the reader a locked room murder. A beautiful and popular idol consults Rachel’s father to ask him to investigate a series of home intrusions, strange messages and silent phone calls made to her. He accompanies her to her apartment which she left locked but when they open it they find an unknown man lying dead with a knife in his back.

It seems logical that the idol would not have hired a detective to draw attention to the death if she had committed the murder herself but she was the only person who should have had access to her apartment. Of the three cases, this one was easily my favorite. This case is less twisty than the previous one but I think that the solution is much better clued and rather imaginative.

Having discussed the cases briefly, I think I should end by reflecting a little on our young sleuth.

Jimmy is certainly a rather arrogant kid but I could relate to his detective novel fanboying. There is something rather appealing about the idea that simply reading lots of mystery novels could be the basis for a great career as a detective. The change he undergoes is largely physical but it does mean he must adapt his methods too. For one thing, he is incapable of performing some actions physically while perhaps most significantly, he must figure out ways to be able to influence cases when no one will take him seriously. This leads to many of the book’s most comedic and madcap moments.

One complication that Jimmy has to work with is that he must pretend to not be himself around Rachel, apparently to protect her as if the criminals who transformed him learn his identity then she might be in danger. This is perhaps not the most convincing reasoning but at the same time it does avoid the potentially rather uncomfortable problem of the person she is in love with being in the body of an elementary schooler. While the setup is a little weird, I do like the character and I think she has a few nice character moments late in the volume.

Overall then I enjoyed my first encounter with Detective Conan. I enjoyed the silly premise of the series, loved the references to classic crime writers and appreciated the blend of cases. While none of the solutions are likely to blow the reader’s mind, I like the creativity involved. These stories were great fun to read while I look forward to learning the truth behind the greater mysteries concerning the men who attacked Jimmy.

The Verdict: An entertaining introduction to the series and its young protagonist. This volume is really about setting up the key elements and so the first two cases can feel a little slight but they were great fun nonetheless.

The Red Locked Room by Tetsuya Ayukawa, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

Stories were collected and published in English in 2020

Few writers of detective fiction can match both John Dickson Carr and Freeman Wills Crofts at their own game. Included in this superb collection by Tetsuya Ayukawa, recognized as the doyen of the honkaku mystery, are four impossible crime stories and three unbreakable alibi tales. The final story “The Red Locked Room” can lay claim to be one of the finest ever written in the genre. Judge for yourself.

For the first three months of the year I have tried to post a weekly review of a Japanese crime or mystery novel as part of my participation in the Japanese Literature Challenge. This week’s post will be the final one in that series, though of course my TBR pile still contains plenty more Japanese mystery books to read. It is also something of a transition to my next weekly post theme but there will be more on that in a moment!

An excellent introduction from Taku Ashibe provides some background both about Ayukawa and how the stories he wrote fit into the general development of the honkaku mystery. It discusses his two series detectives Chief Inspector Onitsura and the gifted amateur Ryūzō Hoshikage, both represented in this collection, and outlines the differences between them. Essentially the latter’s stories tended to be howdunnit tales while the former blends elements of the police procedural and the puzzle plot, typically focusing on breaking alibis.

There were seven stories selected for this collection – four featuring Hoshikage and three Onitsura and they are alternated which does help to make the stories here feel more balanced between the different styles which is to be welcomed.

The quality of the stories on offer is generally very high and there is no failure in the collection. Even the weakest stories (which I felt were The White Locked Room and The Five Clocks) still had points of interest and each story felt well clued with solid and detailed explanations.

The best stories on the other hand are quite exceptional. The Clown in the Tunnel is a wonderfully worked story where a killer appears to have disappeared while escaping in a short tunnel that was observed at either end. The author is meticulous in charting out the various movements of the characters throughout the house and I appreciated the clever solution.

The other story that really grabbed me was the preceding one – Death in Early Spring. This story about a man found murdered in a construction site is similarly very cleverly timed, presenting a wonderful unbreakable alibi scenario. Ayukawa’s plotting here is really quite ingenious and everything is very fairly clued.

It is a really strong collection that I think should be of interest to anyone who enjoys Japanese puzzle plot mysteries. I hope that further Ayukawa follows in translation as I was very impressed with this sampler of his work. For those interested in more detailed thoughts on the stories contained in this collection be sure to read the second page of this review!

Finally, as I trailed at the start of this post my Monday posts will have a different theme for at least the next two months. After throwing out some suggestions for themes to that small but brave band of folk who follow me on Twitter I can announce that in April and May #mondaysareimpossible as I post about locked room and impossible crime novels. Is there a better way to start the week?

The Verdict: A very strong collection of locked room and unbreakable alibi stories. Based on this sampler let’s hope more Ayukawa will follow!

Second Opinions

I strongly recommend checking out this review from TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time who was similarly very impressed with the collection but has some different preferences as to what he considers the best stories.

Also check out Nick’s review @ The Grandest Game in the World for his thoughts on each of the stories here.

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