Having solved the mysterious murders of The Kirisaki Island Tragedy in the previous volume, and officially passing the Dan Detective School Entrance Exam, the examinees return to mainland Japan. Here, Japan’s most famous living sleuth Dan Morihiko announces the formation of the “Qualifying Class”, or “Q Class”, a specially-designed curriculum for only the most prospective students from which Dan plans to pick his most suitable successor!
The very first assignment for the Q Class involves a recent disappearance from the Kamikakushi village. Based on his footprints, university student on a school research trip seemed to mysterious step out of his window of the inn at which he stayed, walk 30 meters into the center of a muddy, unplanted rice field, and then vanish into mid-air! Proving their case-cracking bonafides by easily solving this impossible crime, Q Class soon learns that this is only the latest in a long series of similar vanishings in the village and its neighboring village of Hyoutan and Kamikakushi, two lonely villages nestled in a mountain range, and they’re expected to get to the bottom of the case!
Hyoutan Village and Kamikakushi Village are in fact quite isolated civilizations, as to get to Hyoutan requires a 30 minute walk through a tunnel from a bus-stop, and the only way into Kamikakushi is another 30 minute walk through another, spiraled tunnel that only attaches to Hyoutan. Worse yet, the village of Kamikakushi is ruled by a cult who worships a God of Disease, represented by masks representing smallpox, so when a crew of reporters hunting for a treasure fabled to exist in one of the two villages has one of their members murdered and buried in a graveyard, it’s immediately assumed to be the work of the very same God of Disease.
The village of Kamikakushi requires everyone wear masks to walk around the village, so with only two masks to spare the students of Q Class are forced to split up. The aloof prodigy Ryuu teams up with Megumi, the girl with identic memory, to bring the investigation to Kamikakushi, while hyper-active protagonist Kyuu, athlete Kinta, and computer wizz-cum-game developer Kazuma stay in Hyoutan, with the two groups only able to communicate through the phones in the inns in each village. As more mysterious murders pile up, like the impossible flying of a reporter before being dropped to his death, Class Q is on a race against the clock with the constant threat of their own potential murders hanging over them in Case 3 – Class Begins Detective School” (Chapters 14-16) and Case 4 – “The Kamikakushi Village Murder Case” (Chapters 17-29) of Detective School Q.
This is the case of Detective School Q. Fans of the series point to this one as being quintessentially emblematic of the franchise in every way, as well as being the creme de la creme of all of its many cases. Sure, there are many great cases in this manga, but “The Kamikakushi Village Murder Case” is the Great Case of all of Detective School Q if you ask many of its enjoyers. Is this necessarily true, though…?
The transitionary case between “The Tragedy of Kirisaki Island” and “The Kamikakushi Village Murder Case”, “Class Begins at Detective School” is a simple three-chapter case dealing simultaneously with the aftermath of the former while setting up the latter. This sort of “mini-case” between two large cases is quite common in Detective School Q, as it is a series with a consistent inter-connected narrative rather than every murder occurring within a continuity bubble, so of course there needs to be seamless transitions between the cases. That being said, as “Class Begins at Detective School” concerns itself with the serial killing of “The Kamikakushi Village Murder Case”, the two can be considered as one story.
The impossible disappearance of a student from the middle of a field at the end of a track of footprints is a decently creative but ultimately minor technical trick which I’ve seen performed in a more audacious form in another manga series. Like the more Ellery Queenian crime in “The Detective School Entrance Exam“, it’s still impressive that such a crime could be fit into such a small page count, but it isn’t particularly noteworthy otherwise. It instead merely serves as a stepping stone into the principle murders of the case proper.
As for the actual “Kamikakushu Village Murder Case”, it seems as if its immense reputation is one not unlike Shimada Soji’s landmark The Tokyo Zodiac Murders: a technically weakly-constructed story, elevated by the cussed audacity of its central trick. The story has a somewhat similar issue to the one I complained about in my review of “The Legend of Lake Hiren“ from The Kindaichi Case Files, another impossible crime manga Amagi Seimaru worked on. That is to say, the story ultimately feels very loose, due to over-loading the puzzle and cluing into one of the murders while the multiple other murders merely exist in respect to that one. This often leads to a somewhat awkward feeling mystery tale in which one particular crime is dense, but long stretches of time are spent with trivial crimes with few to none important clues.
Within “The Kamikakushi Village Murder Case”, there are three murders. The first isn’t even passingly mentioned in the denouement, with its only contribution to the narrative being to provide a clue. The second murder is an impossible murder with the very interesting impression of a victim flying into the air based on his video recording, but the trick is explained nearly immediately and isn’t incredibly impressive, being a variation on the exact kind of trick you’d expect for this kind of impossible crime. This naturally means the third crime, in which a man accused of the murder challenges the detectives to explain how he could commit a murder soon-to-occur while provided with an impossible alibi, is clearly designated as the “important crime”, and naturally almost all of the clues pertaining to the killer’s identity and the grand central trick of the story are primarily explored through the investigation into this murder.
Until this murder is committed, there is very little in the way of cluing to speak of. The story is especially light on visual clues, disappointingly underutilizing Megumi and her identic memory which often contributes to smart visual clues in the rest of the series. At most, there is a code that gives a little (very important) history on the true nature of the two villages. It’s a trend that often leads to the mysteries feeling “thinner” than their length, and “The Kamikakushi Village Murder Case” would certainly benefit from trimming out the second impossible murder and cutting four or so chapters off of its runtime.
But don’t get the wrong idea! “The Kamikakushi Village Murder Case” swings for the fences in a very major way, and like The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, is a worthy classic because of how well it works when it does work. Although Megumi is poorly utilized, this story still does a great job depicting the many ways the varied skill sets of the Q Class work towards establishing the solution. Kinta’s raw intuitive perception, Kazuma’s access to the immense well of information the internet provides, Kyuu’s pure creativity, and Ryuu’s simple brilliance all contribute their own unique pieces to the puzzle.
Better yet is the central mystery. There is a very important clue involving a piece of paper with the infinity symbol written on it (or maybe it’s a side-ways letter 8? Or a gourd?). This audacious visual clue goes a long way in revealing the central mystery behind the murders in the Kamikakushi villages. A central mystery which is utterly brilliant, by the way, revealing one of the ambitious alibi tricks of the entire genre. It’s an alibi trick so large in scale that it’s baffling, fitting the many comparisons drawn to Shimada Soji’s work. It’s a trick that not only provides the killer with a damnable alibi, but it’s one which offers a compelling, unique, and mystifying motive for the mysteries and offering a compelling conclusion to the cult of the God of Disease. The weight of the denouement is immense, highlighting all of the strengths of the case, while compensating for many of its structural weaknesses.
In the end “The Kamikakushi Village Murder Case” ended up a very similar beast to The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. Boasting flawed and awkward construction, the story nonetheless elevates itself with nothing less than the raw ingenuity of its final trick, one which borders on reality manipulation pure and simple. Trimming down the case would’ve done it wonders, but that doesn’t stop “The Kamikakushi Village Murder Case” from rising above the sum of its parts. While I highly doubt that I’ll walk away considering this the best of the best of the best of Detective School Q, I can safely see that it might very well have the best idea for a central trick in the series, and I can’t deny walking away happy with reading the story!
Hey, two-for-two! Detective School Q‘s reputation for consistent is clearly well-earned, as both of its full and proper cases have been at least very good. I do hate being negative about this case like I had been, because really it does justify itself in what it becomes, but with the awkward trend that Amagi had maintained from working on The Kindaichi Case Files it really did end up losing a bit of the greatness it could’ve had. I especially feel bad because I know many people consider this the absolute height of the series, and I don’t like being a party-pooper with stories people really like. The core trick really is something great, so I feel its place in my ranking is justified, but consider it tentative and reluctant and it might be re-evaluated as I read on in the series.
The Kamikakushi Village Murder Case (Chapters 17-29)
Kyuu isn’t very good at schoolwork. It isn’t that he’s dumb, or that he struggles to learn in an academic setting. Quite the opposite in fact, he simply doesn’t try! Kyuu is a genius trained by an unnamed famous detective whose chosen career path has nothing to do with the classes at his normal high-school: he wants to become the world’s next Great Detective, following in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. To that end, Kyuu decides to forego life as an everyday high-schooler looking to become an everyday salaryman, and instead enroll in the highly exclusive and wildly competitive Dan Detective School, founded by Japan’s most famous living sleuth Morihiko Dan!
When Kyuu arrives at the Entrance Exam, he discovers that the task of the prospective students is to solve an old real-world murder, based on nothing but two photographs — one taken by the victim and the other the police — and six suspects (played by staff from the school). The victim is a master of Judo who was stabbed in his rental cottage in a snowy January, and six suspects were located, all having motives, no alibis, and were staying at a hotel across the lake from the victim. With the help of the identic memory of his new ally Megumi, Kyuu is able to immediately spot who he believes is the culprit and the two, together with other exam-takers, are then tasked with trailing their pick in Case 1 – “Detective School Entrance Exam” (Chapters 1-3), the beginning of shin-honkaku manga series Detective Academy Q by Amagi Seimaru.
Eagle-eyed readers of the blog might recognize Amagi Seimaru’s name by its frequent mention in the comments sections of my blog posts on reviews of the impossible crime manga (comic books) The Kindaichi Case Files. That franchise is itself split into many sub-series, the first of which is predominantly credited to the writing of Yōzaburō Kanari. However, starting with the second series, the writing credit is given exclusively to Amagi Seimaru, who was originally a co-writer and editor under Kanari. Very many The Kindaichi Case Files fans consider Amagi the superior writer between the two, finding the many series written under him to be on average better and more consistent in quality than the original Kanari run, an opinion shared by TomCat of Beneath the Stains of Time and more hesitantly by Ho-Ling of Ho-Ling no Jikenbo. More popular than the opinion that the Amagi-run Kindaichi Case Files series are better than the Kanari-run ones, though, is the opinion that Amagi Seimaru’s original mystery manga series also focusing on impossible crimes and locked-room mysteries, Detective School Q, is even better than those, and more consistent at that! Well, that sounds promising, giving my spurt of underwhelming Kindaichi Case File reads recently…
This is another case where I anticipate I’ll never be able to get the old-guard involved in reading the series (but what do I know? I’ve successfully converted some readers of Detective Conan, after all…). Admittedly, the premise is very kiddish and the tone follows suit. Lots of unfunny prat-falls and lame jokes typical in shounen (young boy) manga, almost cringe-inducing energy and endless melodrama over trivial things, and the incredibly juvenile concept of a detective-creating academy definitely reek of bad kid fiction.
On that note, though, something I’ve proselytized about a lot on this blog is that in Japan “kid fiction” is usually an indictment on the complexity of language and a few storytelling trends, and very little else. So-called “young boy” fiction tend to involve fantastical and melodramatic stories involving inordinately skilled school-age children, but besides that you can’t count on anything being quite how you expect. These “young boy” stories are capable of telling stories as complex or mature as “adult” stories, and frequently do! The demographic is mostly about accessibility, and is rarely used as an excuse to make something sub-par because it’s “for kids”. Hell, even subject matter is rarely policed as much as it is in the English-speaking world (when “kid stories” from Japan get translated into English, it isn’t uncommon for them to get as high as TV-Mature, or 18+, ratings, for instance).
I bring this up because, yeah, the first arc of Detective School Q, “The Detective School Exam“, would have turned me away from the manga immediately if I didn’t both have assurance the series was good or have foreknowledge of the potential of so-called “kid fiction” from Japan.
Of course, in retrospect, “The Detective School Exam” is important as it establishes a few elements that will become the core of this series. Firstly, it introduces us to the central group of detectives, who each specialize in different areas that make up for the weaknesses of their classmates. Kintarō “Kinta” Tōyama has no common sense and isn’t very intelligent, but he has superb 20/10 vision and preternatural intuitive skills. Kyuu has neither discipline nor book smarts, but his deductive reasoning and creativity recalls history’s best detectives, and usually allow for him to be the one to piece everything together in the end. In fact, the specialty of Megumi Minami is central to the way Detective School Q takes advantage of its medium. Her borderline supernaturally acute “photographic” (identic) memory is essentially a giant signpost telegraphing to the audience that visual clues, clues not called attention to by the text but instead planted in the drawings of the comic book, will be part of the series. This is an aspect of Detective Conan or The Kindaichi Case Files that equally well takes advantage of its visual medium, but Megumi’s inclusion also permits for visual clues that don’t need to be addressed immediately, as it’ll be possible for other characters to “revisit” scenes later through her memory. It allows for visual clues that are more subtle and specific, and yet still fairplay while also not as bluntly telegraphed.
Outside of this, however? The core murder mystery is set-up in less than five pages, explored very little past that, quickly resolved, and explained in a few pages in the next chapter. Don’t get me wrong, the Ellery Queenian chain of detective is impressive, being a surprisingly dense and smart piece of ratiocination based on a single clue (or absence-of-clue, another trope of Queen’s) for a murder given less than five full pages of focus, and it perfectly sets up the series’ approach to visual clues. But then it being resolved so quickly and compactly also means you spend quite a bite of time in the “trailing the suspect” portion of the story, a semi-Holmsian tale in which the “suspect” constantly tries to elude the protagonists through a variety of tricks, along with other traps laid by the exam coordinators from Dan Detective School. It isn’t incredibly interesting, and a fairly unflattering introduction to the franchise for people who might be worried there’s a little too much anime in their mystery with its many parallels to “Exam Chapters” in other shounen series.
…Which, of course, is the reason why I decided to review these two arcs in one blog post. The running trend has been that the manga series I review start off incredibly underwhelming and take comically long amounts of time before finally picking up and becoming the great pieces of mystery fiction as which they are now known. To start this series off with an underwhelming review of a three-chapter introductory case would not be doing Detective School Q any justice as, like I’d already mentioned, the average quality and consistency in this series is quite high. So, what of Case 2 – “The Tragedy of Kirisaki Island” (4-13)?
“The Tragedy of Kirisaki Island” shifts gears as Kyuu, Kinta, and Megumi clear the first half of the exam. The final part of the entrance test involves journeying to an infamous island well-known for a gruesome series of impossible killings that occurred there many years in the past, committed by a man claiming to be a second-coming of Jack the Ripper himself. The examinees are instructed to solve these historical crimes, but before the test can even begin a member of their examination group is found murdered, inside of a room locked-and-sealed from within… and, just like the original Jack the Ripper killings, he’d been cut in half. And when more murders begin to crop up, each one involving a corpse cut into pieces, the remaining examinees are on the hunt for a vicious killer before they wind up on the chopping block next!
This is the series’ first proper murder mystery, and unlike both Detective Conan and The Kindaichi Case Files, Detective School Q‘s opener is great. Not only is it great, I’m actually shocked to find that I consider it one of the best mysteries I’ve ever read, and I’m even more shocked to discover that many people don’t even consider this a notable high-point in the series! If “one of the best mysteries I’ve read” is a medium-point in the quality of this franchise, that alone is a testament to Detective School Q‘s later accomplishments…
There’s one particular locked-room trick in this story which is a cussedly original take on an old-hat. As corny as it is, the novelty and elegance of the solution cannot be denied. That being said, the locked-room trick is good and original, but it isn’t an all-timer classic of raw ingenuity, and the impossible crimes are not what make this story such a masterful piece of mystery fiction.
Given the context of the story, there’s an obvious conclusion many readers will draw that is immediately rendered impossible by the fact the murders are dismemberments. This ties into a fantastic “outer-“mystery surrounding the framework of the locked-room murders, boasting one of the cleverest misdirections and best hints of the genre, turning on something that is an inversion of the unique trick of Gur Gbxlb Mbqvnp Zheqref (spoilers, do not click unless you’re sure you’ve read both stories). Utterly fantastic first mystery for Detective School Q, and it sets a wonderful pace for the remainder of the series.
A few extra notes for the curious before I wrap this post up with the ranking of all two cases I’ve read. I recommend not watching the anime adaptation of this one. While I haven’t seen it myself, I know it cuts out a few noteworthy cases (including the just-reviewed “Tragedy of Kirisaki Island”), adds some weak filler cases, and only goes until about halfway into the series. Given that Detective School Q has an overarching plot, that means you’ll miss out by watching the anime, so I suggest keeping trying to find it in you to read the original manga version of this series.
Also, I won’t be mentioning these in the reviews themselves but leaving little notes at the end; these two stories span Volumes 1 and 2! So be sure to pick them up!
I’m pleased as punch to read a detective manga that immediately starts out good and doesn’t have to go through eight books of mediocre mysteries to get to the great stories. This, I suppose, is the benefit of reading a story written by someone who already has experience writing mystery manga. Amagi Seimaru has written many mystery series besides just Detective School Q and The Kindaichi Case Files. Most interesting to me is Sherlock Bones, a series of inverted mysteries featuring a young man who gets the help of a Sherlock Holmes trapped in the body of a dog! I may very well review that series as well!
I don’t believe this ranking is exactly necessary, but it’s a formality I’d hate to break…
(Note: Although this is the third of this review series, I only encourage you to read the first post in the series in order to understand the premise of the series and the intent of the review series)
While on my hiatus, I’ve been catching up on my back-log of manga series I’ve started to neglect such as The Kindaichi Case Files and Detective Conan. Embarrassingly, my reviews for each are significantly behind my reading. I’m as late as book twenty-five of Detective Conan, and I’m six cases past where I last reviewed The Kindaichi Case Files. Initially, I had actually wrote four separate reviews for these four separate stories we’re reviewing today, but I realized at the end I have very similar opinions of these four stories. I knew that four back-to-back reviews saying essentially the same things would make for awful reading, and spreading it out would mean taking longer before I get to review genuinely good cases in this franchise — which is less fun for you and me. Therefore, I decided to blitz through my thoughts on these stories in a mini-review lightning round!
“Smoke and Mirrors”
Kindaichi is conscripted by the Fudou High School occult club to investigate the “Seven Mysteries of the School”. Practically every school in Japan has their own “seven mysteries” — seven different types of supernatural phenomena that many students claim to have witnessed with their own eyes — so Kindaichi is naturally skeptical of tales of fountain water turning into blood or twelve-step staircases suddenly manifesting an evil thirteenth step. However, he nonetheless agrees to investigate for an important reason: at Fudou High School, only six of the mysteries are known, and a letter has recently been discovered claiming that whoever discovers the seventh will be killed!
Naturally, once Kindaichi receives a phone call from the president of the occult club inviting him to an abandoned school-building so she may reveal the secret of the seventh mystery, a murder is committed with her as the victim! Through the window, he sees the club president hanging in a parallel room in an attached school building — a supposedly sealed school building — but by the time he gets to her, the room has been locked from the inside and her body vanished from within!
This story’s impossible crime isn’t even remotely difficult to figure out, and for that I blame the atrocious English title for this case, as well as the uninspired central trick. What makes this case work decently well is the identity of the killer, which is fairly surprising as it’s one of the few instances in which Kindaichi divests itself of the typical “avenger from the past” motif that it relies on so heavily. The killer’s motive in this case actually ties into the architectural history of the school buildings and the fact it used to be a hospital, and while I think this element of the plot is a bit of an extreme departure from the “supernatural school mysteries” premise that we opened with, in such a way that I actually feel like it’s a waste of the premise, it’s nonetheless one of the better stories we’ve seen so far for having it.
“The Legend of Lake Hiren”
Years ago, a movie-obsessed social recluse, bullied into hiding, kept undergoing plastic surgery to make his face look like whatever his favorite movie character is at the time. However, after so many surgeries, his face was eventually disfigured and disgusting, forcing him to adopt the identity of the only fictional character he could resemble: Jason Voorhees, from Friday the 13th. Haunted by his disgusting appearance and manifesting the personality of the man he resembled, “Jason” proceeded to murder thirteen people with an axe, chopping the faces off of each and every one! He was soon caught and sentenced to prison for this gruesome murder…
Years later, Kindaichi and Miyuki are roped into taking Miyuki’s cousin’s tickets to the screen testing of a soon-to-open resort, which itself is also a competition to determine who will receive the resort’s immense membership free of five-million yen! And it is at this resort that bodies start to show up, each killed with an axe before having their faces cut off, supposedly killed by a recently-escaped “Jason”…
This story epitomizes my central issue with this manga: despite the stories being four times as long as Detective Conan cases on average, you’re really getting half the mystery plot and a quarter of the cluing. This is especially exasperated by the fact that every case is a serial killing (typically involving three victims) and in each of the stories only one of the murders really contributes to the mystery plot. The other two are either committed to supplement the trick of the first murder, or for ultimately no reason and are usually forgotten aside from providing a motive. As a consequence, you get clues that only exist in respect to the one murder, and the other two tend to be long time-fillers that have to happen before Kindaichi can figure out the mystery (for some reason?). The result is that the stories often feel thinly plotted and sparsely-clued, not adequately taking advantage of the standardized length of the plots, and this story is the worst example of that! Especially since you’d need to have your own face cut off not to figure the mystery out…
One thing I did like, the movie motif does come back, as the motive relates to a traumatic event in the characters’ pasts involving an “unsinkable ship” which does, in fact, sink. This is of course a reference to the film Titanic. It’s an underplayed part of the story, but I appreciate this touch of thematic cohesion… It’s still quite a bad story though.
“The Santa Slayings”
At the Hotel Europa, a troupe of actors are preparing to put on a mystery drama, in spite of recent death threats against the unlikable and grouchy head actress. It only stands to reason that, despite the heavy police presence, the lead actress manages to get herself murdered by potassium cyanide in the wine she drank as part of the production…
This one is a pretty standard theatrical mystery, but to its benefit it is one of the tighter mysteries in the series. The tricks involving the central murder of poison are ludicrously cheap and obvious, sadly, and the locked-room murder that gets committed later is pretty obvious, pulling from a well of standard mystery tricks that anyone who has read a mystery story before will likely immediately identify as the solution. There is a double-edged bend to the theatrical murder that I enjoy, especially with how it’s weaponized against the killer, but it’s all standard, average fare.
What kills “The Santa Slayings”, however, is its attempt to give the killer a tragic backstory. The backstory is unearned, essentially un-clued except by one of the most ridiculous visual clues in the medium, and entirely ludicrous. It’s such a huge damper on the story, and the killer explaining it takes up a third of the story!
Oh yeah, and there’s something involving a drug-dealing Santa, which thematically has nothing to do with the story around it and sticks out like a bizarre red thumb. Not very good.
“No Noose is Good Noose”
The students and faculty at a preparatory school have ceased to be surprised when someone commits suicide on the premises. In two years alone, more than two dozen students have hung themselves somewhere in the school. It has since been merely written off as a curse of the school and treated as an expected part of everyday life. However, when chickens start being cut up and hung around school, with threatening messages being left around, the school’s mathematics teacher Yoko Asano is the prime suspect thanks to a series of rumors. She’s only finally arrested when she’s found inside of a locked-and-sealed room with the hanging body of a student…
In a better series, this story wouldn’t stand-out at all, but it’s easily the best Kindaichi case we’ve seen so far! What this story essentially turns on is an Agatha Christie-styled gambit with the addition of a locked-room mystery with its own false solution, and a somewhat obvious alibi trick. While individually these two tricks aren’t even close to being impressive, still essentially being two very old dodges everyone should recognize immediately, it was surprising to see them combined in an actually incredibly smart way to create a surprisingly tight murder plot. The clues also make brilliant use of the school setting, with its alibi plot using a class schedule in place of a Croftsian time table, and things like test sheets becoming actual clues in the mystery — Kindaichi even lays a trap for the killer using a school exam!
In a void this isn’t a great story, as it’s still quite obvious and not totally inspired, but it has some fun with the school setting to generate some creative clues, and the combination of two age-old dodges into a surprisingly dense plot make “No Noose is Good Noose” the most decent Kindaichi case thus far… Gives me hope for what’s to come!
Two quite bad stories and two pretty… decent ones fill out this portion of The Kindaichi Case Files, which actually drops us off near the middle point of the original File series. It really is hard to find so many different ways to say “this story reuses old concepts with little originality, and is therefore quite obvious”. Early Kindaichi is kind of hard to review, because it really is a lot of stories that are underwhelming in similar ways. I know the series improves though, and I definitely look forward to it…!
This review has a lot less production value than my typical Detective Conan reviews, and there’s a reason for that — Conan volumes are written with three stories in mind, so the format lends itself to one post dedicated to three or so stories. But since I’m compressing four reviews into one post, it’s a bit harder to do… I was considering turning this into a running format for these reviews, but I decided against it, and will return to reviewing each story as if it were a novel with the next story, “The Headless Samurai”.
And, as always, rounding everything out with new rankings…
I have some very shocking news for you all today. I, l. Stump, of Solving the Mystery of Murder infamy, am a fan of mysteries. I know, I know, I’ve been running this cooking blog for so long, it must be shocking to some of you to learn that I have interests outside of measuring the precise measure of marinade I need to create the best mushroom sauce. In fact, I love mysteries. I’ve dedicated my entire education and career path to mysteries, studying a whole second language in order to read, translate, and even write mystery novels in that language. Therefore, today I’d like to go a little off-topic on my cooking blog and explore my more less-known passion of mystery novels by sharing all of my favorite mystery stories with you all.
I covered this topic once before, on my list of my 15 favorite impossible crime stories. In the interest of brevity, I will not be reiterating those stories with full descriptions on this post, and will instead offer a list of those stories with no notes or further thoughts; if you’d like further thoughts on my favorite impossible crimes, please consider reading that post linked above! Just like that post, this list will be medium non-specific. Novels need not be the only medium represented; cartoons, comic books, television shows, movies, and video games are all applicable! With that out of the way, I’m pleased to announce my list of favorite mystery stories (revision 0)!
Furthermore, while impossible crimes do appear on this list, I do not consider them necessarily inferior to the entries that appeared on the dedicated impossible crime list! Some were passed up because their interests lie elsewhere, others passed-up because I limited myself to a certain number of works-per-author, and others weren’t included because I read them between writing that list and this one. I don’t want to note all of the reasons why an impossible crime wound up on this list instead of that one, just keep in mind that if I include this on this list it’s at least almost as good as any of the stories from the other!
(*TomCat, if you’re reading this, I’ve left a special recommendation for you in one of the entries I think would appeal to specifically and exclusively you! Hope you enjoy it!)
My Favorite 15 Impossible Crimes — Death of Jezebel – Christianna Brand — The Moai Island Puzzle – Arisu Arisugawa — Whistle Up the Devil – Derek Smith — Murder in the Crooked House – Sōji Shimada — Time to Kill – Roger Ormerod — Till Death Do Us Part – John Dickson Carr — Jonathan Creek (Season 1 Episode 2) “Jack in the Box” – David Renwick — The Great Ace Attorney 2: The Resolve of Ryūnosuke Naruhodō (Case 3) “The Return of the Great Departed Soul” – Shū Takumi (2017) — Death Among the Undead – Masahiro Imamura — Death in the House of Rain – Szu-Yen Lin — The Kindaichi Case Files Shin (Case 3) “The Prison Prep School Murder Case” – Seimaru Amagi — Case Closed/Detective Conan (Anime-original, Episodes 603-605) The Séance’s Double Locked Room Mystery Case – Chiko Uonji — “The Lure of the Green Door” by Rintarō Norizuki — “The Clown in the Tunnel” by Tetsuya Ayukawa (1958) — “The Ginza Ghost” – Ōsaka Keikichi (1936) trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2017)
Tour de Force (1955) – Christianna Brand
Christianna Brand’s Tour de Force is, fittingly, a Christianna Brand tour de force. She could’ve called it Mystery Par Excellence and the title would be equally accurate!
On a vacation to Italy, a murder is committed at the hotel at which Inspector Cockrill was staying! However, every person at the hotel who could’ve committed the murder has a perfect, airtight alibi: at the time of the murder, they were all standing right before Inspector Cockrill’s very eyes! The solution to this puzzling alibi problem is audacious in the extreme (part of Brand’s brand), and as always she shows acuity in her misdirection; where other authors are content implanting small ideas into your head, Brand can force you to create entire false narratives! My favorite Christianna Brand that isn’t Death of Jezebel.
Green for Danger (1944) – Christianna Brand
In Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger, a murder occurs in a wartime hospital’s operation room as the building is bombarded by air raids! Inspector Cockrill is on the scene to solve the crime before
Everything that could be said about Tour de Force and Death of Jezebel can be said about Green for Danger. While the mechanics of the crime are less audacious and shocking, this is the epitome of Brand’s powers of misdirection, and the best example of how well she can really force you to imagine entire stories based on slight suggestion! A magician she is! This also features her best-drawn cast of characters, as a bonus! A third masterpiece from my personal candidate for The Grand Mistress of Crime!
I’ve covered Shimada’s influence on the detective genre extensively in multiple posts, so I’ll keep this brief. This debut novel, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, is easily the most important Japanese detective novel to exist, essentially being the reason that classical detection was ever able to return to Japan in the first place. Shimada went on to help spread the gospel of puzzle plot detection, fostering a new generation of mystery writers… His influence truly cannot be overstated!
In this novel, astronomer Kiyoshi Mitarai investigates a decades-old murder case involving the systematic slaying of six young women in accordance to a crazed astronomer and artist’s idea of how he could create the perfect woman! Only, the artist was murdered before he could conduct the plot, and the serial killing was committed by someone else entirely… The bizarre and shocking case has been a focal point among the Japanese people for decades, but it’s only with the help of a sudden clue from the daughter of a man connected to the case that Kiyoko can piece everything together…
This is an impossible crime, but I neglected it for my favorite impossible crimes list because the locked-room isn’t the focus of the plot, nor is it very impressive. Instead, what The Tokyo Zodiac Murders offers is the genre’s most baffling serial killing, with one of the most stunning murder tricks of all time! A truly inimitable novel worthy of its monumental reputation.
I’ve reviewed the first game in the Phoenix Wright:Ace Attorney franchise rather inadequately on this very blog. The review of the first game was somewhat lukewarm, mostly because the first game isn’t my favorite, but felt I did a better job capturing my love for this fantastic mystery series when I mentioned it in my favorite impossible crime lists and my list of 12 shin-honkaku mysteries I want to read, and detailing my history with the series in On Some of the Best Mysteries Ever Written and the Puzzle of Why You’re Not Reading Them… Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is actually my favorite mystery series of all time. It is charming, stylized, and often brilliant! Plus, there are ten other games in the series, each boasting 4-6 mystery stories, most of which being very good, so I’ll warn you now that the series will appear on this list more frequently than any other author… I know most of you will wholesale refuse to “lower” yourselves to playing a mystery video game, but this is my cooking blog and I’ll indulge in my love for this series where and when I can, thank you very much! There’s just that many fantastic mysteries in the series I never get to talk about!
Ace Attorney is a mystery video game series in which you play the role of a lawyer, typically Phoenix Wright, who defends clients falsely accused of murder! Every case of Ace Attorney is organized like a Perry Mason novel, with the first half of each day dedicated to conducting investigations and collecting evidence, and the second half being dedicated to trial segments. During trials, witnesses who have either been tricked by the killer or are maliciously hell-bent on seeing your client be sent to prison will offer testimony littered with lies, mistakes, and misunderstandings! Through simple button-prompts, the game invites players to present evidence contradicting these lies, and then through Ellery Queen-esque series of deductions you explain why the lie was told, what the contradiction really means, and what the truth of the situation really is! By repeating this process and slowly destroying the case against your client, you eventually locate the real killer and solve the mystery!
The second case of the third game, Trials and Tribulations, is called “The Stolen Turnabout”. It is, in fact, my favorite case in the entire series, and a perfect case for TomCat over at Beneath the Stains of Time, because this twisty and tricky baroque alibi plot is something that you’d think could only come out of the pages of a Christopher Bush novel!
In a bizarre departure for the series, you defend Mask☆DeMasque, a phantom thief accused of stealing a valuable vase belonging to a family of spirit mediums from a well-guarded museum! Despite the fact he is by profession a great thief, the true identity of Mask☆DeMasque, a pathetic, mild-mannered little man named Ron DeLite, makes Phoenix doubt whether he could be the true thief…
To go even further into the plot would invite spoilers, but this mystery is a winding path of the best sort, in which, just like in a Christopher Bush novel, the series’s most devious killer becomes apparent halfway into the story, but he’s tricked you into incriminating him in one crime so that he may use it as the alibi for another! Complex and densely-packed, this is the peak of a fantastic mystery series! More cases from this series will follow, but spread-out for your reading benefit!
The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939) – John Dickson Carr
When a man named Marcus sets out to prove that eye-witness testimony is inherently unreliable, he invites three witnesses to participate in a psychological experiment. He’ll perform for them, and they’ll answer questions about what they think they saw. What these three witnesses see is a cloaked-and-coated figure figure in a top hat appear with a medical bag, produce a fat green capsule, and force it down Marcus’s throat! Marcus soon dies to poison that was in the capsule! When investigators arrive to investigate, they are met with an unusual situation, though: although these three people all supposedly saw the same murder take place, none of them could agree on the specific details of what they saw! Exactly as Marcus had predicted in his experiment…
This Dr. Gideon Fell tour de force par excellence extraordinaire is a brilliant mystery from the maestro of impossible crimes and gothic murders! While it might seem like sacrilege to say so, this non-impossible mystery is my favorite from the master’s oeuvre that I’ve read so far. An entirely unique and inimitable premise delivered upon with a suitably baffling solution makes this the ultimate offering from that immense figure of crime, and only reminds me that my neglect of Carr’s writing is unforgiveable…
She Died A Lady (1943) – John Dickson Carr
After two lovers jump off of a cliff, leaving only their footprints behind them, their mutual suicide is accepted as fact. But when the two corpses wash up and it’s discovered they were shot from close range, police struggle to reconcile this with the facts… this killer would to be lighter than air, or capable of floating over the side of the cliff! Fortunately, Henry Merrivale is on scene and ready to offer some illumination!
When I really think about it, I’m actually sure I prefer this one to Till Death Do Us Part, which wound up on my top 15 impossible crimes list… However, I read this one (like all of the Carrs I’ve read) ages ago, so it was likely just a trick of me not remembering which old book I’d read at the time! But really, both novels are fantastic, so I’m glad this list gave me an opportunity to mention both! I intend to read more Carr, starting with re-reads to see if I still love these novels as much as I thought I did, so don’t worry…
As it’s Carr, the impossible is finely laid, and expertly resolved, with brilliantly clued misdirection abound. I never could appreciate Carr as a storyteller, but as a weaver of dastardly deeds and mind-melting mysteries, he’s one of the masters!
Alibi Cracking, At Your Service (Episode 2) “The Alibi of the Stalker” – Ōyama Seīchirō (original), Yoshihiro Izumi (screenplay)
Ōyama Seīchirō is a mystery novelist in Japan who specializes in short fiction, with (apparently) his most popular series being those short stories focusing on a young clockmaker named Tokino Mitani who took over her grandfather’s shop after his death. As her grandfather’s motto was that anything to do with time was the business of a clockmaker, he also offered a special alibi-cracking service in which he would destroy any guilty person’s airtight alibi — for a small fee, of course! Now taking over all of his duties, young Tokino often finds herself secretly assisting a police officer whose instincts always allow him to spot the correct killer in any case, but whose limited imagination prevents him from cracking their usually all-too-perfect alibis…
This series was adapted into アリバイ崩し承ります (Alibi Cracking, At Your Service) a television drama that retells seven of Ōyama original stories, most of which, as you can gather from the premise and title, being semi-inverted impossible alibi problems. The acting is corny and hammy in the extreme, but the actress playing Tokino is absolutely adorable and constantly a joy to watch, and the quality of the stories are quite consistent! The best of the seven episodes is “The Alibi of the Stalker”.
In “The Alibi of the Stalker” a professor of pathology is murdered in her apartment over a dinner of soup. The police quickly zone in on the victim’s ex-husband, who had gotten into a very public fight with the victim hours before the death, and whom insists on his own alibi without even being told what time the murder was committed! However, he is quite correct in that his alibi is airtight: the victim’s time of death can be narrowed down based on the contents of the victim’s stomachs. A number of trustworthy and reliable witnesses place him at the bar for this time, meaning it’s impossible for him to have committed the murder!
A lot of the tricks in this series are fairly good redressings of old hat concepts, but this episode’s central trick is entirely unique and brilliant, as well as simple and believable! It’s actually a kind of trick that feels like it ought to have been done before, but to my knowledge certainly hasn’t. This series has struck fertile new ground in the uses of food in mystery fiction, which we always appreciate on this cooking blog! For anyone interested in imaginative alibi plots, this is a highlight with the sweetest detective in all of fiction.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Trials & Tribulations (Case 5) Bridge to the Turnabout (2004) – Takumi Shū
Back to Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and again with the third game, Trials & Tribulations! In this case, Phoenix Wright and his spirit-channeling legal assistant Maya Fey go to a mountain retreat where members of the Fey clan train to sharpen their spiritual acuity. Phoenix is immediately caught off-guard by the young nun who tends to the temple, Iris Fey, who looks uncannily like his ex-girlfriend Dahlia Hawthorne… It was, in fact, the murder case in which Dahlia Hawthorne committed a murder and pinned it on Phoenix many years ago that convinced Phoenix to go to law school and become a lawyer, after the lawyer Mia Fey proved his innocence and sent Dahlia off to her execution… Naturally, encountering this young woman, who is very much the splitting image of the dead woman who put him through the most traumatic experience of his life leaves him deeply uncomfortable…
However, Phoenix doesn’t have time to be uncomfortable with his situation, as that very night, a child’s book author named Elise Deauxnim, who came to the temple for inspiration, is killed with the seven-bladed sword held by the statue of the Fey clan’s founder! Multiple witnesses swear up and down that Iris is the culprit and Phoenix, unable to shake Iris’s resemblance to the girl he was once in love with, takes her case and sets off to prove her innocence…
This case is essentially the culmination of everything that is, was, and was meant to be Ace Attorney. The plot ties back into characters, stories, and relationships established as early as the second case of the first game, and which have only been built on with time. This mystery is the dramatic culmination of every dangling plot thread in the franchise, going back 13 cases, three games, and four years — and many of these plot threads are hidden in shocking, well-hidden ways! What this all amounts to is one of the franchise’s most labyrinthine, emotionally-charged, dramatic, and complex mysteries — perhaps of all time! — involving complex plots, counter-plots, and counter-counter-plots, killers and attempted-killers of killers, death-defying stunts, the genre’s most audacious and Machiavellian serial killer, and the genre’s most inventive and bizarre clue! Add to that that nearly every returning character in the series has their character arcs concluded, as well as a generous sprinkling characters new to this game! It’s only fitting that so much will be packed into this one case, as this is the original finale to the franchise…
Add to all of that that this is the first, and for a while the only, case that calls upon the franchise’s implied magical elements — the existence of Spirit Mediums who can summon ghosts into their body — and that also makes this an exceptional fantasy-hybrid mystery that could only exist in the world of Ace Attorney. As a story that pays off on nearly 60 hours of mystery-plotting build-up, concluding the arcs of every returning character in the series, there has never been a more suitable swansong or finale than this one! While I am happy the series came back like it did, if this were the final mystery in the series like it was intended to be, I think I’d always be happy with this beautiful conclusion.
“Death in Early Spring” (1958) – Ayukawa Tetsuya, trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2020)
Kazuomi Kokuryō has been fatally strangled at a construction site near Gofukubashi 3-Chōme! The only possible suspect is Fukujirō Fuda, who was competing with Kazuomi for the affections of a girl, but unfortunately for Inspector Onitsura the young man has a perfect alibi…
Tetsuya Ayukawa was a Japanese proliferator of locked-room mysteries, but more than impossible crimes Ayukawa is the Japanese alibi! To Japan what Freeman Wills Crofts or Christopher Bush are to the Anglosphere, Tetsuyawa Ayukawa is famous for his unique perspective that a locked-room is merely a spatial alibi, and an alibi a temporal locked-room… Through this philosophy, Ayukawa’s most notable tales utilize alibi tricks to construct impossible crimes, and impossible crime tricks to construct alibis, creating a unique portfolio of crime fiction blending two rarely-reconciled sub-genres!
As it happens, “Clown in the Tunnel”, another story in the same collection which appeared on my favorite impossible crimes list, was a prime example of utilizing alibi trickery to create an impossibility! It’s only fitting, therefore, that my other favorite Ayukawa story is the one in which he uses locked-room trickery to create a perfect alibi for a murder in a construction site… This one is a brilliant wrinkle on the Croftsian time-tabler, and for my money better than any of the Crofts I’ve read, all in less than two dozen pages…
Death On The Nile (1937) – Agatha Christie
Honeymooning newly-wed Linnet Doyle attempts to commission Poirot to deter the stalking of her husband’s ex-girlfriend and her ex-friend Jacqueline De Bellefort. Poirot refuses payment, but unfortunately fails to deter Jacqueline from conducting whatever schemes she has cooked up. When an unsuccessful attempt on Linnet’s life is followed by a more successful one, however, it comes to light that Jacqueline isn’t the only person on the ship with a feasible motive to commit this gruesome murder!
Agatha Christie, the Grande Dame of Crime, doesn’t need much of an introduction! One of the progenitors of the Golden Age of fairplay detective fiction, Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time in over a dozen different languages. Her most famous literary creation is the egg-headed Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot, who is characterized by his excessive need for tidiness and cleanliness. Death on the Nile is just one of the many fantastic Hercule Poirot novels that demonstrates how, even as she got on in her career and started to get comfortable with some of her old, well-known tricks, she still knew how to throw out brilliant, original plots! Death on the Nile is twisty and tricky and one of the best novels from one of the best authors of the genre. Her writing is always immensely readable, too, making this a very approachable and accessible novel at that. This is the goods! I won’t mention Agatha Christie too much, because if I mentioned every fantastic Agatha Christie novel this would just become a long list of Agatha Christie novels most of you have already read…
“Mom Makes a Bet” (1953) – James Yaffe
I’ve reviewed this collection of Mom short stories on the blog already, so check it out for reviews of the other stories in My Mother, the Detective! The series follows a little old Jewish mother living in the Bronx who, using a combination of Miss Marple-esque understanding of human nature and Ellery Queen-esque logical deduction chains, helps her police officer son David with difficult cases over Sunday dinner! The series is filled with very fun post-GAD mystery stories, and the best of the lot is “Mom Makes a Bet”.
When a rude customer winds up dead in his soup, clearly having ingested poison, David is sad to have to arrest the mild-mannered waiter whom everyone loves. But, of course, since the poison could have only found its way into the victim’s soup between being prepared in the kitchen and winding up on the victim’s table, the only reasonable explanation is that the waiter is the killer… Mom has other ideas, however, based on nothing but the clue of the victim claiming to be on a low-sodium diet and ordering saltless soup!
The deduction chain that derives from this clue is beautiful, allowing Mom to bring the crime home to a surprising culprit with a whole hidden layer to the plot going on right under our noses! This story really is just like any of the best early-era Ellery Queen stories, only with a cross-dressing and aged-up Queen… I’m sure the pair of writers making up Ellery Queen approved of this fantastic story!
Ace Attorney: Miles Edgeworth Investigations 2 (Case 3) The Inherited Turnabout (2011) – Yamazaki Takeshi
Wait? 2004 was supposed to be the finale of Ace Attorney? But didn’t you just say that this game came out in 2011? Yeah, corporate meddling saw to it that Ace Attorney would keep being made after it took off in the west. Game 3 was supposed to be the end, and there are now 11 games in the series, so chew on that a little… the Miles Edgeworth Investigations spin-off series is a little different from a normal game in this series, in that these mysteries are formatted more like traditional murder mysteries. You no longer have clients to defend, merely a mysterious scenario to unravel, and you now play as Miles Edgeworth, the antagonist from the first game in the series! This format lends itself well to the new writer’s unique style of plotting, and the best case in the whole Miles Edgeworth Investigations series is “The Inherited Turnabout”.
When a murder is committed on the set of a baking show, Miles Edgeworth begins to realize that this murder is related to a case investigated by his father in the same location, under the same circumstances, nearly 20 years prior! As the case unfolds, you investigate both crimes, playing as both Edgeworths, in order to solve this generations-crossing murder!
The setting of a baking show is utilized well in this episode, as it’s the kind of setting that’s brought to its insane logical extreme by the post-revival Ace Attorney quirkiness. This is one of the longest and most complex cases in the whole series, as it’s two murder mysteries stitched into one greater, overarching plan! A time-defying murder that defies generational boundaries in one of the most unusual settings for it, this is a very well-done and ingenious entry into one of the best games in the series, though every case in this particular game is simply fantastic… How many more Ace Attorney cases will I mention, you ask? I’d say we’re about halfway through my favorite Ace Attorney cases…
I’ve reviewed part 1 and part 2 of Furuhata Ninzaburō already, so please check out those reviews for more information on this excellent inverted mystery drama! Inspired by Columbo, Furuhata Ninzaburō is a 90s detective drama starring a titular police lieutenant who solves murders all over Japan! Just as in Columbo, at the beginning of every episode we see the culprit commit the crime, and the mystery is in figuring out how Furuhata solves the mystery… The best episode of season 1 of the show is “The Rehearsal Murder”.
In this episode, samurai actor Jushiro, desperate to save his movie studio from being sold and transformed into a mall, concocts a devious plot to tamper with the choreography of a swordfight scene in which his boss guest stars as the villain! Doing this, he’s able to use a real sword to cut his boss’s throat open so that it looks like nothing more than a prop-and-choreography accident during the rehearsal, with dozens of witnesses swearing up and down that the crime was an accident. Now, Furuhata is posed with a new problem: not with proving who committed the murder, but instead with proving that the murder was deliberate and premeditated!
The episode teases you with the clue of a moving moon prop during its entire runtime, and when the explanation for how that nails the killer’s guilt is revealed it is a gob-stopper! This is the show that turned me onto inverted mysteries, and this is the episode that solidified the series’s place in my heart! Absolutely fantastic, but it is by no means the only fantastic episode in the show, so please do consider checking it out at some point!
The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye (1928) – Brian Flynn
Brian Flynn, that author recently rediscovered by Dean Street Press, is one of my most sorely-neglected authors and it’s so odd… When the first batch of ten were released, I ate up three or four of them and really generally enjoyed them! But then the next ten came out, and I was just already on reading other stuff and never got back to him… Hmph…
Brian Flynn’s oeuvre is eclectic. There is no style of plotting that defines his Anthony Bathurst series, and that is exactly what defines his writing. Every damn kind of plot under the sun from adventure stories to chase-thrillers and pulp-ish yarns and classical detection and legal dramas and inverted mysteries and impossible crimes has been written by Flynn, but sad purist as I am it has always been his third novel, the pure, classical mystery novel of The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye that I’ve always enjoyed the most!
It’s odd I haven’t read more of Flynn, actually, because this stands as one of my favorite mystery novels of all time, boasting a devious piece of meta-misdirection that’s as clever as it is original! The workmanlike attitude of the novel betrays none of the very subtle, deft, and imaginative cluing under the hood that eventually culminate in the reveal of a stunning killer and a clever plot! Very good stuff here!
“The Hornet’s Nest” (1968) by Christianna Brand
When a rotten man is murdered at a dinner celebrating his soon-to-be nuptials, killed by a poisoned apple, Inspector Cockrill is at hand to resolve the crime!
Christianna Brand is at top-form in this short story offering, providing all of the brilliant twistiness, misdirection, and false-thought-implanting of any of her best novels. This reasonably short story is impressive in managing to do all it does in its page count, even managing to fit in three false solution(!), without feeling bloating or like it’s rushing through to the end! The story isn’t even 30 pages long, at that… Brand’s brilliance is always on display, but especially so in this story which I consider one of the best-constructed puzzlers of the short-form mystery.
Ace Attorney: Miles Edgeworth Investigations 2 (Case 5) The Grand Turnabout (2011) – Yamazaki Takeshi
Long after exposing the culprit of the failed assassination of the president of a far-off nation of Zheng Fa, Miles Edgeworth is shocked to find out that he’s been killed, this time entirely for real! Together with his partner, Kay Farafay, Miles begins to investigate the murder, but ends up being sidetracked by a kidnapping of a child that might have something to do with the murder… Soon Miles Edgeworth learns that the series of seemingly unrelated murders he’s recently investigated have a common link, and the plot spirals fully out of his control!
What Bridge to the Turnabout was to Trials and Tribulations, The Grand Turnabout is to Miles Edgeworth Investigations 2. Similarly, this is a very complex case that benefits from it being the culmination of long build-up, tying the resolutions of multiple other mysteries together into a grand narrative, and it’s a striking send-off for the Miles Edgeworth Investigations side-series… While this one is a little less tightly-wound than Bridge to the Turnabout, as that one bakes the long-lasting plot threads more intimately into the central murder plot in a way that makes the actual murder mystery more dense, this is still nonetheless another striking finale case for Ace Attorney that expertly brings multiple parallel long-running plots dovetailing together into a striking end point. Fantastic fun and shows just how damn convoluted (in a positive way) Ace Attorney could really make itself without losing control of itself or becoming uncomfortably bloated!
The Miles Edgeworth Investigation series is also notable in that many of the mysteries touch up on topics that feel more “hard-boiled” than the rest of the series, including smuggling rings, kidnapping, international political conflicts, judicial corruption, and even the involvement of Interpol. Let it be a testament to Yamazaki, then, that never do his plots ever stop feeling like classical Golden Age mysteries in construction despite the subject matter! This spin-off series is a great little nugget of Ace Attorney canon.
Detective Conan / Case Closed (Case 18 – Volume 7 Chapters 2-7) “The Moonlight Sonata Murder Case” – Gosho Aoyama
Detective Conan is the biggest Japanese franchise of all time, having well over 700 unique mystery stories within it across every medium of comic, animation, video game, live-action television, plays, novels, movies, and everything else you could think of! It’s probably the series that turned a lot of today’s Japanese mystery writers onto the genre, and to celebrate this fantastic series I’ve been reading, reviewing, and ranking every single case in the entire series… While I might need to reevaluate my ranking a little, as it stands “The Moonlight Sonata Murder Case” is my favorite case in the whole series, and a fantastical musical murder mystery…
In “Moonlight Sonata Murder Case”, an island town is haunted by the ghost of a world-famous pianist who, after going mad, locked himself and his entire family in their house and burnt the whole place down… As he burnt to death, the pianist stayed at his piano, playing the Moonlight Sonata until his very last breath! Now, the piano has become something of a haunted relic of the island, with it playing the Moonlight Sonata all on its own, and every time it does, a corpse is soon to follow… In light of these strange events, famous detective Richard Moore is summoned to put a stop to things…
This is a fantastically written murder mystery which turns on a neat alibi trick that entirely relies on the fact that the case is a serial killing — it simply wouldn’t work as well in a single death! While I think the murder plot itself isn’t as brilliant or audacious as many other cases in the series, “Moonlight Sonata Murder Coast” can still be considered the best-constructed story in the whole franchise, eventually ending on a sour note that becomes something of a trauma for Conan throughout the series… The ending is beautiful, giving the killer a touching send-off. It works even better in the anime adaptation, where you can hear the Moonlight Sonata playing in the background as the house burns… That all said, I’m willing to admit that after ranking 70+ stories of this series (about 1/10 of the way done), I’ll be sitting down and reevaluating my opinions soon. But as it stands, this is still the perfect representative case for Detective Conan…
The beginning of this story, in which the man commits suicide by fire, especially appeals to the sensibilities of this cooking blogger.
The Case of the April Fools (1933) by Christopher Bush
Ludovic Travers, a financier, is invited to a party by a pair of men who intend to make a fool out of him on April Fools day… However, when the prank is co-oped by a mysterious party to contrive a dastardly double murder in which the two plotting men die — one man shot, the other stabbed — Travers is now embroiled in a complex and mysterious scheme against his wishes..!
Described as “to the alibi what John Dickson Carr is to the impossible crime”, Christopher Bush is a master of alibis like Freeman Wills Crofts but with an extra dose of imagination and flair… It might seem odd, then that my first chosen Bush novel is one without much of a focus on alibis, but of all the Bushes this is the one I adore most. It isn’t the most baffling or tricky, but the April Fools motif is used expertly to create a very clever and ingenious murder plot in perhaps the only novel-length exploration of the concept! Fantastic Bush that borders more on the Carr-ian than the Croftsian…
The Case of the Missing Minutes (1936) – Christopher Bush
Trowte, a vicious child abuser, gets his just-desserts when his home is broken into and he’s knifed right in front of his door! While taking care of his now-orphaned 10 year old granddaughter Jeanne, Ludovic Travers manages to find the killer but is damned by the cussedness of his perfect alibi…
I couldn’t help it! Now this is vintage Bush, complete with a killer obvious halfway through the novel and sudden shifts from a whodunit to a howdunit! The alibi-trick is one of Bush’s best, and the ending is incredibly sweet…
In the only honorable mention on this post, Cut Throat by Christopher Bush has an alibi plot that is equally brilliant, if not even more so, but I’ll be damned if it’s not one of the driest pieces of writing I’ve ever read. I almost never find myself caring about straightforward prose, but my eyes glossed over multiple times while reading it and I had to try to finish the thing on four separate occasions. It turns into a great mystery novel, but it needs more of a running start than these two… Nonetheless, I think very highly of it nowadays, but I still had to reduce it to being a mere honorable mention…!
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice (Case 2) The Magical Turnabout (2016) – Yamazaki Takeshi
In the sixth game of the main Ace Attorney series, Spirit of Justice, we return to classic courtroom battles. Spirit of Justice actually has a ludicrous over-arching narrative involving a lawyer-hating country whose government you overthrow through pure logic and reason. It’s, frankly, not a very good story, and one of the worst-realized in the series, but the overall quality of mystery-writing in this game is still very high, and much higher than many of the new-era games preceding Spirit of Justice. It makes it very refreshing, therefore, when you get to take a break from the oppressive revolution storyline with Case 2, The Magical Turnabout, in which a fantasy stage play (mixed with magical performances from all of the actors) ends with an actor being stabbed for real at the end of a sword-stabbing magic trick, and Trucy Wright being accused of the crime!
This story has lots of fun with its magic setting, including going so far as to have you “cross-examine” a magic trick and scenes in the play! Not only aesthetic, the magician lore and stage production play a heavy part in the plot, creating one of the most unique and fun murder mysteries in the entire Ace Attorney series, and a stand-out from the modern era of games that works well without relying overmuch on gimmickry or ongoing plotlines! A pure, traditional mystery from the franchise that’s as good as any other!
This game also introduces the concept of being able to view the memories of the victims’ ghost! Because this is a well-known facet of the country’s legal system, many killers take advantage of this to create misleading memories for the victim… Part of the mystery-solving of finding lies and contradictions now involves finding “tricks” in the senses of the victim! What does the victim see, hear, taste, smell, or feel at his time of death that shouldn’t be there? This is a brilliantly-handled gimmick that adds lots of fun mystery-solving concepts, and while it’s not used in this particular case it is used in three of the other four and I couldn’t help but add a footnote here for the other fun mysteries in Spirit of Justice. Good fun all-around!
We return to Japan’s answer to Columbo. The first episode of the second season, “The Lawyer Murder” is a classic of the series! In it, Furuhata’s bumbling sidekick Imaizumi is arrested for a murder after accidentally stumbling into the crime scene. The catch, however, is that the true killer is the very same lawyer who is now defending him in court. The killer is now trying to manipulate the court in a professional capacity to get Imaizumi arrested for his own crime!
This is a fantastic episode and one of the best examples I can think of to demonstrable how much more comfortable Furuhata is with getting high-concept than Columbo. The setting of a courtroom is intrinsically thrilling, and watching the killer act in his capacity as a lawyer to manipulate a murder trial is a fantastic, tense way to execute on the inverted mystery premise! The killer is eventually caught on a “slip of the tongue” trap that is so common in this series, with the show having a dozen different variations of the idea. However, this is easily the best one, a slip of the tongue buried under so many layers of assumptions and inferences that it’s impossible to spot even though it’s staring you right in the face! This is an exceptional inverted mystery that shows this drama’s deftness of plotting and concept that puts it over Columbo in my estimation.
Fun note: This episode actually inspired a case of Ace Attorney! It was so shocking to watch this episode and realize that I’ve seen the core of the plot before, but the two stories are different enough that seeing one doesn’t hurt the other…
“The Alibi of Issunbōshi” (2019) – Aoyagi Aito
I was surprised to mention this story, because it’s one I actually finished while making this list! This Japanese-language short story is the first story in the Mukashi Mukashi Aru Tokoro ni, Shitai ga Arimashita (Once Upon a Time, There Was a Corpse) collection by Aoyagi Aito! In this collection, every story is a murder mystery in the tradition of the fairplay Golden Age puzzlers with a twist: every mystery is cobbled together from the magic-filled stories of Japanese folklore!
“The Alibi of Issunbōshi” is a twisting of the epic of Issunbōshi, a tiny man who, although only an inch tall, shows immense bravery in wanting to protect his princess! As per the original legend, Issunbōshi is eaten by an Oni (a Japanese ogre-like demon) while protecting the princess, but manages to defeat the beast by attacking it from inside! He’s awarded a magical hammer that grows him to a man standing over 1.8 meters tall!
However, deviating from the classical tale, it later comes out that Issunbōushi is now also the main suspect in a murder. The detective is convinced Issunbōshi is guilty, but is thrown off-kilter by his unusual alibi: at the time of the murder… Issunbōshi was inside of the stomach of an Oni, a fact attested to by many witnesses, including 9 members of the Princess’s own faithful royal guard! How could Issunbōshi have committed this murder, then?
I’m not ashamed to admit that, as I am American and not Japanese, I had no pre-conceived attachment to the fable of Issunbōshi. I don’t really know any Japanese fairytales outside of the few that get referenced in anime or video games, honestly. Going into this collection, I was worried my enjoyment would be curbed by this fact, but I was wrong! This first short story is an excellent example of the fantasy-hybrid mystery, utilizing its magical aspects in clever, properly-clued ways to tell an unique mystery splot that can only exist inside of this story. The alibi plot meets fairytales, and I’m all for it! If this is the standard of this series, I can only look forward to my Japanese expanding far enough to read the rest of the stories…
The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932) – Ellery Queen
Queen, the King, is the American detective story. So much is said about this pair of pseudonymous writers ad nauseum, and as with a few others on this list Queen hardly warrants an introduction. He is the byword for mysteries relying on rigorous chains of deduction and sliding-piece puzzlers, and a favorite of so many people! The Greek Coffin Mystery, involving the murder of a Greek art dealer, is easily the most famous of their “National” series, and for good reason, as the plot is brilliant and a blasted classic! Perhaps a not very inspired pick, but it’s deserved!
As is the standard with early-era Queen, The Greek Coffin Mystery presents us with a mysterious problem that is solved through deftly-placed clues and impressive (if but occasionally dubious) logic unraveling a very neat, complex scheme! Forgive this rather generic description, but Queen really is both “see it to believe” phenomenon, and also someone whom you all have already seen and already believe! That being said, it’s easy to see how Ellery Queen has become so noteworthy that no less than four authors in Japan have developed into worthy successors to his style and form… Fantastic work!
Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (Case 3) The Golden Court (2012) – TakumiShū
And here we’ve come to the final Ace Attorney case on this list (to great applause, I’m sure!) Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a spectacular crossover between Ace Attorney and fellow mystery-solving mystery series Professor Layton, a game franchise that focuses more on brain-teasers and logic problems than murder mysteries! In this bizarre mash-up, the protagonists of both games and their sidekicks are transported to Labyrinthia, a fantastical medieval kingdom inside of a storybook where witches run amok among the people! Here, all trials of law are Witch Trials, and instead of defending innocent people accused of murders you defend women falsely accused of casting spells and being witches! By using the witches’ magic tome, which contains all of the rules by which magic must abide, as well as logic and physical evidence, you point out lies in the testimony of witnesses who are hell-bent on seeing your client burnt for their witchcraft!
This is an insane premise. Ace Attorney never shied away from hinting at magic in its universe, and even using it in four of its 30+ mysteries, but no game in the series has committed as hard to such a far-out premise as this non-canon spinoff — which, frankly, only works because it is non-canon. The game perfectly blends elements of both series, so that every plot, character, and locale would be right at home in either Professor Layton or Phoenix Wright. While I think the overarching story will frustrate some people who aren’t fans of Professor Layton, relying on its dubious science-fiction to explain everything away, the individual magical murder mysteries are just cracking good, vintage Ace Attorney cases that spin excellent mystery plots from this outrageous fantasy premise.
This particular case is not only one of my favorite cases in the series and one of my favorite pieces of mystery-writing ever, but it also beautifully captures everything that this crossover should be! When Professor Layton — the Professor Layton, protagonist of the Professor Layton game series! — is murdered by being turned into a golden statue by magic, Phoenix’s own legal assistant Maya Fey is accused of the murder by witnesses who claim to have seen her committing the crime! Worse yet, one of the witnesses who believe Phoenix’s legal assistant committed the murder… is Layton’s own assistant, Luke Triton, a young boy only about ten years old who is training to be a gentleman like the Professor! Outraged and confused by this apparent betrayal by their friend Maya, and Phoenix’s betrayal in defending her, Luke Triton is one of the critical witnesses in the case against Maya Fey, which risks seeing her executed for a crime she didn’t commit…!
Maya Fey being a defendant in an Ace Attorney case is normal — at a stretch if you play with technicalities, she’s the defendant in every single game she makes a speaking role in. But committing to the shocking premise of murdering the protagonist of one of the two series you’re crossing over was a huge shock, and by pinning it the secondary protagonist of the other game series in the crossover, you get to have a surreal kind of confrontation that suits both games but could exist in neither without the crossover. Furthermore, putting Layton and Triton into this kind of situation is very unlike Professor Layton, where Layton always has a hold on every situation he’s in and rarely in dire straits. By taking it to this opposite extreme and putting Layton in extreme danger, you also put Luke Triton out of his depth, placing him into a situation he’s never been in and getting some surprisingly fresh characterization out of this otherwise typically one-note character! It especially works that Layton usually reigns in Luke’s more childish tendencies, so giving him this room to be awash in very childlike antagonism and anger and confusion makes it an entirely in-character scene that still shows a side to his personality that other factors typically keep in check — a more compelling use of a crossover to enhance characterization, I’ve never seen!
Of course, the mystery plot at the heart of this is fantastic too! It’s as good as any of the best cases from Ace Attorney, with a surprising and creative culprit and a twist that expertly makes use of the unique setting of the game, this being the best use of magic in any of the game’s cases. But for all of that, what makes this case so strong in my estimation is how perfectly this case does everything that any crossover should strive to do, perfectly blending elements of the source material so masterfully that what comes out of it is something that could existence in either game, but needs the other to thrive. Using one to enhance the other, this crossover isn’t mere fanservice: it’s a genuine exploration of how the two games can bring something special to the table. In my opinion, not only the best crossover of mystery fiction, but one of the best crossovers of all time, and nothing displays it more than this excellent, surreal, fantasy-infused mystery case.
This is the last Ace Attorney case on the list, and I think I’ve done a good job at covering the series in a variety of different contexts. Cases that function from paying off on years of build-up, cases that thrive on their implementation of unusual elements like magic and ghosts, cases that incorporate more hard-boiled elements, cases that cross generational-boundaries, cases that play with alibis and have fun with the theming of more outlandish mystery sub-genres, and pure good fun cases that excel without reliance on any gimmick, content to just be excellent murder plots. The series is excellent and boasts an insane variety in style, form, and structure while rarely compromising on quality! I hope some of you reading this aren’t too annoyed with Ace Attorney‘s representation on this list, and are instead inspired to seek the series out and play through it for truly fantastic mystery plots…
Magpie Murders (2016) – Alan Conway
Magpie Murders is the latest modern homage to the Golden Age following the exploits of German detective Atticus Pünd! In this thrilling installment in the series, Atticus is commissioned to investigate the death of a house-servant in a faraway countryside village, not only to determine if the death was murder, but to also bring the crime (if any should there be) home to the culprit! What follows is another triumph from this author that waves all of the clues under your nice with one hand while making you look at the ceiling with the other, perfectly capturing the energy and spirit of Agatha Christie and her contemporaries…
…only, the ending isn’t there!? What kind of mystery novel ends without a solution!? The kind, as it happens, which appears in Magpie Murders (2016) – Anthony Horowitz.
In actuality, the 300 pages you just read was an unfinished manuscript, sent to an editor to finalize for publishing! Dot the t’s and cross the i’s. Only, as we just established, the ending is missing! Well, she can’t publish this novel without its final chapter, so she goes to find Alan Conway, only to find him murdered..!
This novel is an utterly brilliant meta-mystery in which the interplay between a modern Golden Age-styled mystery novel and a modern-world murder mystery are central to the narrative. The novel is not only entirely fairplay, but blindingly clever at misdirecting you, boasting wholly original solutions to both problems that dovetail into one another beautifully. This is also a mystery novel that explores mystery novels intro- and retrospectively wonderfully through its “novel-within-a-novel” structure. A modern masterpiece if there ever was one from someone who clearly understands the genre and what it sets out to accomplish.
“A Stretch of the Imagination” (1973) by Randall Garrett
Randall Garrett is an author from well after the Golden Age who sought to keep the blood of mysteries flowing with his fantasy-imbued locked-room mystery Too Many Magicians, featuring his wizard-detective Lord Darcy in an alternate 20th century where the laws of magic evolved in place of the laws of physics. I don’t entirely love Garrett, as I feel he doesn’t commit as much to the fantasy side of his writing as he should — he doesn’t produce mysteries informed by fantasy, he produces mysteries set within fantasy — stopping him from being a proper classic crafter of the hybrid mystery. However, “A Stretch of the Imagination”, collected in his Lord Darcy short story collection Murder and Magic is still a damn good locked-room mystery in spite of all that!
This locked-room mystery, involving a hanging in a room that nobody had entered or left for quite some time, has a devious and dastardly original hanging trick that, while not enhanced by the fantasy elements of this story, is still a pleasure to see in action! A hybrid-mystery that makes for a better pure mystery than the hybrid variation, nonetheless excellently done!
“The Urban Legend Puzzle” (2001) – Norizuki Rintarō
Norizuki Rintarō, detective, hears from his police officer father a description of a recent murder of a university student in which, after a party, a young woman returns to the house to retrieve her bag. The next day, the body of the student who hosted the party is found, with a message written in blood reading “AREN’T YOU GLAD YOU DIDN’T TURN ON THE LIGHT?”. Norizuki is shocked; after all, this is the exact same thing that happened in an urban legend he’s heard about! Together, the two men get to work to solve the mystery of this urban legend-mimicking murder!
As you can tell from the fact that the author shares his name with his detective, and his detective just so happens to be part of a crime-solving team with his cop father, Norizuki Rintarō is one of the many Japanese descendants of Ellery Queen! Another story of his, a biblio-locked-room mystery called “The Lure of the Green Door”, also appeared on my list of favorite impossible crimes, and his excellent story is pretty much just as good! The plot eventually turns on breaking apart an airtight alibi with a satisfying solution, nd the urban legend backdrop is compelling! While neither story have the rigid chains of deduction that are so prevalent in Ellery Queen or Arisugawa Arisu’s Moai Island Puzzle, and I’m proud to say I fairly easily solved both stories, this is nonetheless an excellently clever and well-realized tale from another master of the Japanese detective story! It was collected in Passport to Crime — the Janet Hutchings one, not the John Pugmire one — so go read it and the other stories in that collection!
Death After Evensong (1969) by Douglas Clark
One of my favorite spin-off genres of the classical Golden Age puzzler is the ways that authors after the Golden Age blended the clue-heavy puzzlers with more modern trappings. One of my favorite examples is the very excellent Roger Ormerod who blends the private eye thriller with a fairly-clued impossible alibi problem in his superb debut, Time to Kill, which I mention on my favorite impossible crimes list, as well as in the very traditionalist locked-room mystery More Dead than Alive. Recently I learned that another member of this esteemed spinoff-sub-sub-genre is Douglas Clark, who writes the same sort of traditionally fairplay Golden Age-styled puzzle plots, married with the styles of gritty post-World War II police procedurals!
Death After Evensong is a superb impossible crime involving a bullet that disappears from mid-air, the method for which reveals how well Clark could incorporate modernity to create a truly unique, baffling, and striking impossible crime set-up and resolution that likely couldn’t or wouldn’t exist in the Golden Age proper. Nothing short of fantastic, and I’m excited to see some of Clark’s famously genius poisoning methods in his other novels.
Super Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair (Case 5) Smile at Hope in the Name of Despair (2012) – Kazutaka Kodaka, Akira Kawasaki
I’ll be frank, right out of the gate, I have a very complicated love-hate relationship with the Danganronpa franchise. I consider myself a fan, but with about a dozen footnotes, conditions, and exceptions. The series is very teeny-bop, with lots of unfunny and crass humor filling the runtime. I also don’t like any of the mysteries of the first game, and it takes nearly the entire second game to get to the first mystery in the series I think is genuinely great (that being the case immediately before this one). After that it’s a lot more consistent, with the third game in the series frequently having very good mysteries, as the game writers commissioned an award-winning mystery novelist to co-write and plot the cases for the game. If I were to recommend Danganronpa to a mystery fan, I’d probably recommend only playing Danganronpa V3, because while there’s a lot of overarching plotwork, the series’s interweaved narrative is also ludicrous and I believe it’s better to ignore it. V3‘s ending also comes off a lot better if you’re not an established Danganronpa fan who is likely to get upset at the way it de-canonizes the entire franchise (including itself!) in a shocking way that made everyone incredibly, incredibly angry. Plus, as I mentioned, because they’re written by a proper mystery novelist, they’re as a consequence consistently among the best cases in the series, being very clever mechanical crimes. That being said, the best mystery in the series is actually truly fantastic…
Danganronpa is a game series inspired by Ace Attorney and boasting a lot of the same gameplay of finding contradictions in testimony. However, in this game, you play as a student who attends Hope’s Peak Academy — one of fifteen extremely talented students who are the best in the world at what they do. Shockingly, you find out that Hope’s Peak isn’t actually the haven for geniuses you thought it was, but instead the new grounds for a killing game in which fifteen students are locked inside of the school. You’re instructed that, in order to escape, one of the students must commit murder and avoid detection in the ensuing Class Trial! If the killer is found out, they’re executed… but if they succeed in tricking you, everyone else is executed and the killer is permitted to leave the school!
It’s hard to discuss the set-up to this case, as in Danganronpa revealing who dies when, and who is alive when, is considered major spoilers, so it’ll suffice to leave it at saying that this case is one of the few instances in which the “rules” of the school are employed in a way that intimately informs the murder plot. What ends up coming from this is not only a murder mystery plot that can only exist in the Danganronpa setting, it’s a type of mystery storytelling structure that can only exist in the Danganronpa setting, totally recontextualizing what it means to discover “the killer” in a shocking way. This extremely innovative mystery story is the second great case in the series, with the first being the previous case, Case 4 of Danganronpa 2, a surreal a tricky mystery that also makes use of the technology exclusive to the school to create an equally unique plot that relies intimately on the Danganronpa universe to function. These two cases, as well as the near-entirety of Danganronpa V3 are the saving graces of this series, and while this case is my candidate for best case in the series, I recommend anyone interested in the series go play Danganronpa V3 as that’s the one game in the series I unconditionally consider to be great mystery material, and then play the second game if they’re interested in more and seeing the ways Case 4 and 5 evolve the mystery genre with its unique setting.
If this seemed like a very weird, paradoxical review in which I’m very negative about the series while calling this case one of my favorite mysteries of all time, while also telling people not to play the game that this case appears in and to instead skip it and go straight to Danganronpa V3, then I am sorry. This messy self-conflicting review, I think, perfectly captures my opinions on Danganronpa: messy, and self-conflicting. I still recommend checking the third game out, though!
When the Old Man Died (1991) – Roger Ormerod
Hey, Roger Ormerod! You know that name, right? I mentioned him above in reference to Douglas Clark as another exceptional author specializing in puzzle-plot mysteries infused with the trappings of modern police fiction! Roger Ormerod’s specialize trope is the blending of alibi and locked-room mystery, not unlike Tetsuya Ayukawa who appears earlier in this list! Combining the trickery of locked-room mysteries to established airtight alibis works just as well in When the Old Man Died as it did in the earlier “Death in Early Spring”, featuring a tricky and well-clued narrative that represents the best of Ormerod’s work. As I keep saying, Ormerod’s understanding of crafting and shattering alibis is unparalleled, especially among English-speaking authors who wrote after the Golden Age ended! I cannot recommend this novel enough, as it is the third excellent novel of his I’ve read (compared to one bad one), so, hey! What a track record!
And, there we have it. 30 more favorite mystery stories from every corner of the genre. I thought this would make for a fun way to return from my hiatus, simply writing up on my favorite mystery stories. Originally it was supposed to only be 10, then 15, then 20… But eventually when I realized I wanted to write about sixAce Attorney cases, and wanted to spread them out, I settled on 30, with three stories between each Ace Attorney entry and the next! And, easy it was not, as I had a medical health scare in the middle of writing it, and it took me three days to assemble this list.
I had a lot of fun writing this, but I anticipate most people won’t read a lot of the reviews as this blog post is incredibly long, and will likely skim the titles and ignore the “less respectable” ones, like mysteries from video games, manga, and J-dramas. I hope the four of you who read those reviews and feel compelled to check out the mysteries represented have fun, however!
This post also represents a return from my hiatus. In the meantime I am also working on an essay on hybrid mysteries — mysteries infusing fantasy or science-fiction into their plots — inspired by current events in the Golden Age Detection group, and the other projects described in On My Hiatus and Blog Projects. Those take priority over reviews for the time being. Also if this post seems like it’s missing, like, a lot of tags… that’s because it is. I’ll add them later!
In the meanwhile, happy reading, and good sleuthing!
While it’s not uncommon for my blog to simply not have updates for an extended period of time by sheer merit of real life getting in the way of my writing and reading, I rarely do formal hiatuses. My blog has always been rather chaotic (I’ve been convincing myself that’s just part of its charm), and I’ve been keeping it on a “I’ll write what I feel like, when I feel like it” schedule. But, for the time being I’m putting the blog on an indefinite, formal hiatus. As with the last two hiatuses, this is mental health-related, especially with my growing feelings of inadequacy as a writer and reviewer. My last few posts have been especially poor as a consequence of my growing burn-out.
I want to take time to really reflect on what I want to do with my blog, and learn how to develop myself as a blogger and writer of detective fiction. I want to learn how to really sink my teeth into analysis instead of nibbling on “it’s clever” and “it’s readable” and other superficial impressions. I know that blogging is not my job, and just something I do for fun, but nonetheless it’s important to me that I know how to do better, and then execute upon that knowledge. That’s what I’ll be spending the hiatus working on.
Furthermore, the main element of my blog I intended to be a defining feature was the “Discussion” posts — the name “Solving the Mystery of Murder” is a joke, referring to me solving the mystery surrounding the concept of murder, and by that I meant I’d be discussing the devices of detective fiction. I have sorely neglected this aspect of my blog in favor of reviews. It’s actually ironic, because my first blog was called “Beyond Christie”, and was meant to be dedicated to exploring Golden Age mystery authors who weren’t Agatha Christie. THAT blog ended up being overwhelmed by discussion posts analyzing the plotting devices of mystery stories!
Anyway, I’ve had a few big projects in the works that I intended to be something of a return to writing discussion posts as a habit. I figured I’d share those in this post as well.
On the [n] Ways to Create Alibis and the [n] Ways to Destroy Themis something of a spiritual successor to one of my personal favorite posts, On 50 Locked-Room Solutions of Our Own, in which I offered a taxonomy of 50 potential types of impossible crimes solutions. This post is a similar taxonomy, addressing the many different tricks that can be employed in alibi-centric mystery stories.
On a Defense of Pastiche, Caricature, and Adaptation in Detective Fiction is the most difficult of all of these posts. In it, I am attempting to offer a defense of pastiche in literature, offering many examples of good pastiches, as well as reasons why pastiche and homage are written outside of the cynical answer of “money”. This was conceived as a response to the overwhelmingly negative reception to the recent Marple anthology before the book was even available to purchase.
On the Modern Soul of Classic Detection: Video Games as Idealized Mystery Fiction is me doubling down on the topic I brought up in On Some of the Best Mysteries Ever Written and the Puzzle of Why You’ve Never Read Them, in which I proselytize about the merits of mystery fiction as they appear in “the less respectable mediums” — in this case, video games. I primarily pay lip service to The Centennial Case – A Shijima Story and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney as examples of how video games can capture the spirit of mystery novels even better than literature itself.
The New Frontier of Detection: On Why and How to Write Hybrid Mysteries is another daunting one in which I discuss the necessity of embracing “hybrid mysteries” — mystery stories that derive puzzle plots from genres such as fantasy or science-fiction — and lay down a few helpful guidelines on what I consider to be successful strategies in writing and plotting hybrid mysteries.
On Some of the Best Mysteries Ever Written and the Puzzle of Why You’re STILL Not Reading Them is a planned retrospective for once I read Case 100 of Detective Conan and Cases 5 of Kindaichi Case Files and Detective School Q. It’s a reaffirmation of the points made in the first post on the topic, as well as discussing the stories retrospectively, as well as pleading people to keep in mind that I’m reading the stories because they’re good and to please keep up with my reviews and consider involving yourself in “less respectable” mediums.
I will be working on these projects and making them the best I can while going on hiatus. I do not intend to retire the blog, only to take a break and work on improving my work.
FURTHERMORE, as my Japanese studies progress, I am becoming increasing capable of reading stories in the original Japanese language. I will start reviewing Japanese-language mysteries before the end of 2023, and, if possible, posting translations of public domain works. I look forward to taking my first steps into the world of shin-honkaku translation, and I hope you all look forward to it as well.
As for how long this hiatus will last… As always, “until I feel like it”. I intend for the hiatus to last a month and a half, but it’s equally possible that within a couple weeks I’ll see a sudden upshoot in my mental health and I’ll return to regular posting. I should be back at the latest around January 2023, but I could just as well be back in November 2022.
Well, until then, happy reading and good sleuthing!
A couple of months ago, A. Carver left a message on my blog asking me to review his debut impossible crime novel The Author is Dead. He pitched it to me as [a case involving] rooms taped shut from inside, plus other classic impossible scenarios, [which] also directly reflects on particular Golden Age Detection texts. The detectives are a modern-day teenager and a mystery reader born in the Golden Age itself, and more broadly includes elements both of classic detective fiction and the world of today. Naturally, I couldn’t be more interested!
Adam Carver is an author of the wildly successful Gothic mystery series of Castles in the Sky, stories “as brilliant and melodramatic as the author himself” which were often compared against the works of Agatha Christie “and other equally dead authors” only for it to be decided that his were unequivocally the best of the entire history of the genre. Enjoying great success and wealth, Adam Carver spends his days in his modern castle-mansion overhanging the edge of an island in the middle of nowhere with his wife Victoria… His works are often discussed in the online messaging board Besieging Heaven where fan-fiction writers, fan-artists, review bloggers, and all stripes of fan meet to bond over their shared admiration for the great Adam Carver.
…that is to say, within The Author is Dead, this is the life of the author Adam Carver!
The novel follows Alex Corby — known in the Besieging Heaven group as “RedRidingBlood” — a young, self-conscious mystery reader and reverent fan of Adam Carver. By random chance, Alex won a competition hosted by Besieging Heaven‘s owner to join him and other influential members of the community in an opportunity to meet their mutual hero Adam Carver at his great modern castle Carver’s Rest to celebrate his birthday. Only, of course, with a mix of the weather and her misreading “10 am” as “10 pm”, she was 13 hours late, and missed her one chance to meet the great, the glorious, the charming, the brilliant Adam Carver, and feeling stupid in the process…
She is received at the house by Carver’s agent, Maria Bole, who admonishes Alex her mistake but nonetheless sends her off to her room in the dark of the dank castle’s corridors. Finding the door by nothing more than the glint of the key in the keyhole, she finds it mysteriously difficult to get into her room. Only managing to push in with a forceful shove from her shoulder, she is shocked… her hero, Adam Carver, the greatest mystery author to ever live, was taped to a chair in her bedroom, stabbed through the chest! Next to his corpse was a wrapped present containing Death in the Walls, the first Castles in the Sky novel…
Suddenly realizing that the room was difficult to get into because the door was taped shut the realization that the killer must still be in the room dawned on Alex… only, of course, for the room to be impossible empty, save for the corpse. Unsure what to do with this real-life locked-room murder, as Alex has “never correctly guessed a mystery in her life”, she quickly goes to find Maria to help her report the murder, but instead finds the shy-in-real-life, intense-online fan artist Colin West, alias “DaVinciCorpse”. Only, of course, when she tells him Carver’s been murdered, he returns to her room and… nothing is there. No corpse, no blood, no tape. The entire crime scene has vanished in the mere 60 seconds since she left the room.
Knowing that nobody will believe her, Alex Corby is forced to play out the rest of the day with her fellow forum-goers until something happens that helps her corroborate her experiences! And soon, such an event occurs, as Maria, the literary agent, also winds up murdered, tapped to a drawbridge, and stabbed by a sword tapped to the top of a gatehouse with the raising of the drawbridge. Only, of course, the murder happened that morning, on the other side of the only exit to the building, a door taped shut from the inside making it impossible for the killer to leave, with the controls to the gate on the other side of a patch of snow with no footprints to account for the killer’s walking across it to close the drawbridge. The only clue? A copy of the second Castles in the Sky mystery, Hand at the Threshold.
Another impossible murder that brings her into contact with CorvusCrown, a genius who could solve all of the Adam Carver novels from mere excerpts — or, in more extreme cases, even just the synopsis on the back of the book! The ultimate reader of mystery novels with an encyclopedic knowledge of every mystery every read! And, as it so happens, Alex’s mystery-reading great-aunt Cornelia… who takes it upon herself to lead the group in solving the murder before the worst could come to happen…
The Author is Dead is clearly written by a lover of Golden Age mysteries. Similar to Peter Lovesey’s Bloodhounds, the group is filled with different stripes of mystery-lover who namecheck many famous authors and sleuths both in the text and on the book’s Amazon page. The book has not one, not two, not three… but four Challenges to the Reader. The first occurs immediately after the murder of Adam Carver, reassuring you that the book you are holding is, in fact, a puzzle true and proper, and “The Author” promises to give you all of the clues you need to solve the mystery. The second introduces Knox’s Ten Commandments, and promises to abide by them entirely. The third is a minor lecture on the three kinds of deceptions in locked-room mysteries, and swears that all three are used. The fourth, immediately before the denouement, reminds you that the book has given you all the same clues as the detectives and tells you that before flipping to the next chapter you have an opportunity to solve the mystery ahead of time. The enthusiasm is evident!
And, not only that, but in addition to the two impossible crimes I described above, there are two more, all of which clearly inspired by the taped-rooms of Clayton Rawson’s “From Another World” and John Dickson Carr’s He Wouldn’t Kill Patience. One of which involves a taped room in a solarium behind four locked doors, and one which involves a victim found stabbed in a ribbon-tied Iron Maiden.
To answer the book’s Challenges to the Reader, I am sorry to report that I did in fact solve each of the four mysteries — as far back as Chapter 5 of 24, I pieced together the principle locked-room murder and identified the culprit in one fell swoop. The first impossible crime is a rather old dodge I’ve seen (and even written!) a few times in the past, and when you identify a few tell-tale mistakes Alex makes upon discovering the crime scene the trick employed by the killer becomes crystal-clear.
Sadly, the remaining three locked-room mysteries don’t employ classical misdirection, instead relying on tricks that are mechanical without being ambitious, and are as a consequence similarly easy to solve. Even the detective identifies the murder method employed in the second crime as something of an old hat, and these all rely on a tired sort of artifice, played entirely traditionally.
Well, that is all to say, I found the locked-room mysteries not totally inspired, and was able to identify the who and the how. What I didn’t quite as easily piece together was the why…
On that point, I want to address the elephant in the room: Adam Carver’s self-insert.
The Adam Carver character is actually a very smart piece of writing. What may seem from the synopsis, and indeed during most of the book, a very self-indulgent, bordering on self-fellating, portrait of an author who believes himself a second-coming of every Golden Age mystery author wrapped together in a trench coat actually evolves into a very neat piece of meta-misdirection I can only compare to Anthony Horowitz’s The Magpie Murders. Indeed, it’s a piece of misdirection that defies the barriers of the text — when this piece of the narrative snaps into place, not only does it retroactively make the self-insert make a lot of sense, but it also shows how the misdirection extends itself to the covers of the novel and even the Amazon store-page! It’s a kind of ambitious, almost self-destructive piece of writing that could literally only appear in the self-published novel of a first-time writer. And while I did piece this part together as well, it was a consequence of some very fair (if somewhat heavy-handed) cluing at the true nature of the author Adam Carver that dovetails into a neat motive for a killer that totally recontextualizes the entire book, blurring the lines between perpetrator and culprit in an incredibly smart way, as well as offering a neat reflection of the nature of detective fiction, and the attraction of intimate versus forensic investigation…
This neat conceit is the element of the novel I took the most from after reading it. Without it, The Author is Dead might’ve only ended up being a bogstandard, average locked-room mystery novel that I’d quickly forget about. But this clever twist of writing revealed a brilliant underside to the novel on which I’ll think back fondly. No, it doesn’t quite elevate The Author is Dead to the level of being a hidden gem of self-published locked-room mysteries — as I said above, the locked-rooms themselves are middling affairs — but it does show the extent of a burgeoning author’s plotting cleverness that makes me excited to see how his plotting evolves and matures with time. I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes on A. Carver!
Question for the Author
I actually wonder if A. Carver has any history with Japanese detective fiction? The in-universe Adam Carver’s Castles in the Sky series, turning on complex castle-like architecture, reminded me a lot of Ayatsuji Yukito’s Weird House series. Alex Corby is also a charmingly self-effacing protagonist, and her role as “the mundane, self-conscious dork among geniuses” was a trope used in the post-modern mystery series Zaregoto, which also inspired Danganronpa, in which Makoto Naegi, similar to Alex Corby, is at a school for geniuses merely because of the luck of a student-selecting lottery… I enjoyed Alex Corby’s role as an outsider, which is used well in The Author is Dead, especially with her being self-reportedly out of her depths.
(*Note, although this is the fifteenth in this series of reviews, I only encourage you to read my review of the first volume to get a summary of the series and my preamble about the reviews. It is not necessary to read any other entry in the series besides the first)
When I initially set out to review and rank every single mystery in the vast multimedia Detective Conan franchise (of which there are nearly, or more than, 1000), I declared it’d only take me a few months. That was eight months ago. I repeat, there are around 1000 individual mystery stories in the Detective Conan franchise, and in eight months I’ve only managed to cover, starting with this post, a little over 40 of them. Initially, the project was blowing by at a breakneck pace, and I released ten of these posts in a single night, but somehow (I couldn’t imagine how) I’ve already started to burn-out on the series a little.
If I were only reading the stories, I could probably have completed the whole franchise by now. But I have to read the stories, manage my spreadsheet, do two write-ups on each series, compare my feelings on the stories to every other story in the franchise (an increasingly impossible task as I have to keep my opinions on 40, 50, 60, 100, 200, 500, 1000 different, individual stories sorted at all times), and then write these reviews! Somehow I thought that ranking 1000 stories would be an easy and relatively quick task…
But then I also have the curse of having my reactions to stories laid out before me, neatly enumerated and color-coded, and it makes me worry… For those of you who aren’t familiar with the rest of the review series, I rank every Detective Conan story (with the intent of giving new-comers a guided to-read list for the good mysteries) and sort them into categories “Great”, “Good”, “Average”, “Mediocre”, and “Bad”. I’ve noticed that a lot of stories have gone into Average and Good lately, but a lot less are going into Great than previously. Were my early reviews biased by the surrounding stories not being very good? Or are my new reviews biased by me tiring on the franchise? Is the series getting worse or is my ability to enjoy the stories whittling away? At some point, in a project like this, it’s hard to separate where my issues begin and the series’ issues end.
…I’m not sure what my point in all this is, but that all being said, I do want to clarify that I do enjoy the series and I want for people to be able to start reading it in the western mystery community. This project to create the World’s First and Most Comprehensive Detective Conan Reading Guide for Lovers of Mysteries will persist, as I do enjoy having it as a recurring feature of my blog. I hope that the few of you who keep up with my adventures in Detective Conan enjoy this as well, and I hope I can help some people get into this franchise and other Japanese mystery series as well.
Onto the volume!
Casebook 40 – TWO-MIX Kidnapping Case (Chapters 4-6) sees the Junior Detective League at a concert for the famous musical duo TWO-MIX. Though honored to meet half of the duo they love so much, the team being kidnapped ruins the festivities. The kidnappers hold TWO-MIX for a very bizarre ransom: if they don’t get a cassette tape, they will murder the musicians!
Though the question of “why would kidnappers bother holding a musical duo to ransom a cassette tape” is really interesting, at a certain point in the story the implications of the cassette tape and a song’s lyrics become fairly obvious. In a lot of ways, this resembles a typical Junior Detective League code-cracker, but it’s pretty simple and not too obtuse while still being fairly clever. Also the best of the kidnapping stories we’ve gotten so far, not at all a bad story to open with.
In Casebook 41 – The Loan Shark Murder Case (Chapters 7-9), Richard invites a loan shark for a game of mahjong, but when he doesn’t arrive for thirty minutes the group gets concerned! They soon walk to his office building to bring him over to the game, but upon investigating his offices, the group finds the loan shark poisoned to death! Worse yet, he’s inside of his personal office room, with his doors and windows locked from the inside and no clear way for the poison to get into the room! Once they find that the victim momentarily left the locked-room, they investigate the rest of the building but could still find no possible way for the poison to have gotten on his hands, making this an entirely impossible crime…
TomCat over at Beneath the Stains of Time called this one of his favorite Detective Conan impossible crimes. For me, it certainly had that potential, but the story does one little thing that ruins the impact of the solution and renders it only about half of what I think it could’ve been. Immediately expanding the scope of the impossible crime to “the victim touched something in the WHOLE OFFICE BUILDING to get poisoned, but how?” ends up reducing the solution to nothing more than “what predictable trait can the killer exploit to transfer poison to the victim’s hand” in a way that closely resembles an earlier impossible poisoning with a similar set-up and solution. In my opinion, the fact that the killer left the central locked-room is something that should’ve been saved for the denouement — it’s too clever an inversion of the problem of a locked-room murder to be squandered on being the set-up, instead of the trick. The mechanics of this one are good enough, but to call it an out-and-out locked-room mystery classic? I’m not so sure…
The volume rounds out with the feature-length story, Casebook 42 – Bonds of Fire Murder Case (Volumes 15-16, Chapters 10-3), in which Dosan Nagato, head of a financial consulting company, invites the Moore and Hartwell detective families to his home under the pretenses of requesting that they search for and discover his elementary school sweetheart. Among the family is Hideomi, the bandaged son of Dosan who is engaged to a young woman named Miyuki — Miyuki reveals that Hideomi was burned long ago, and the two of them are connected by “a destiny made of fire…”, as Hideomi saved her from the very same fire!
A celebration is held! Afterwards, as the gang is getting ready to retire for the night, Dosan’s other son Mitsuaki calls his father’s room, screaming that Hideomi is going to stab him and that he’s now walking towards the balcony! The party all run to the balcony to see the bandaged Hideomi covered in blood and holding a knife in his mouth.
This shocking sight spurs the family — except for Miyuiki, staying behind to protect her sleeping father — into action! By the time they were able to burst into the locked room, however, Hideomi had already climbed down from the balcony by a hook-rope… and Mitsuaki was pushed from the balcony, impaled on the spike-topped fence below.
More evidence lines up clearly implicating Hideomi in the murder. However, not entirely convinced, Harley and Conan start to investigate together. Finally, Harley reveals to Conan that the real reason Harley was summoned to the house that night was to investigate the sounds of running footsteps and thuds that Dosan had been hearing every night for quite some time. This leads the two to realize that this murder was premeditated, as the killer was clearly rehearsing his crime!
During further investigation, Miyuki gets into a fight with Nobuko, the eldest child and daughter of the Nagato fight. Nobuko slaps Miyuki, causing her to drop her pen into the fountain, which leads to the discover of the corpse of Hideomi, with rocks in his pockets along with a suicide note…
While initially the suspects reject the possibility of Hideomi committing suicide, his time of death is discovered to have been shortly after the murder of Mitsuaki… when every single character’s location was perfectly accounted for… Furthermore, the suicide note in Hideomi’s pocket was clearly written by his own hand, and there was no time to force him to write a fake! The only reasonable assumption with all of this evidence is that, after committing the murder of Mitsuaki, Hideomi took to the fountain whereupon he drowned himself…
This is a great story! While certain parts of the scheme are a tad obvious, the eventual resolution still makes this one of the best-hidden killers of Detective Conan so far! This story is loaded with lots of neat misdirection, and very smart clues. An aspect of Detective Conan — and, broadly, Japanese detective fiction — that is unique to itself is the killer rehearsing their own murder plot, thereby turning the rehearsal itself into a meaningful clues within the story. Not only does it make the unlikeliness of the killer’s plan working out easier to digest, it also creates new, novel types of clues that are unique to a story where the killer had to practice their crime.
The killer’s motive and the backstory of the case is also one of the better-foreshadowed in the franchise, being touching and melodramatic. The ending references one of the most well-regarded classic cases of Detective Conan as a source of trauma for Conan, who considers himself worse than a murderer for using his deductions to bully a culprit into committing suicide, making this a moving as well as neat piece of continuity and character development…
If this story is just a little less brilliant or inspired than some other stories, it makes up for it with a genuinely surprising and well-handled killer and a beautiful ending…
I gave some thought to my earlier dilemma I laid out at the beginning of the post. Where do my issues end and Detective Conan‘s begin? I wondered if maybe there weren’t any issues at all… I only paid attention to how infrequently stories ended up being “great” compared to a little earlier in the franchise, but something I neglected to pay attention to was how infrequently stories also ended up in “bad” compared to earlier in the franchise as well. As the stories go on, it’s more common for the cases to end up in “mediocre”, “average”, or “good”. It isn’t that the series has unilaterally gotten worse, it’s just that I’m seeing a statistical inevitability — the average story will be closer to average quality, and it is by necessity that there will be less extremes in quality going both ways.
Another great volume on the heels of a few less-than-great-ones made me realize that to expect across-the-board consistently good stories, even in a series I like, when there’s simply so much content, is unreasonable — there will be fluctuations, but also there will always be a home for Detective Conan in my heart as we return to these positive experiences. The inconsistency is the very point of this series — there will be occasional dips, rises, plateaus, stutters, nosedives, and up-shoots in quality. I’m putting up with the nightmare of the unpredictability of hundreds of stories so you don’t have to. I’m happy to say I’ve found my spark to keep working on the project again after a minor dilemma forced a hiatus.
Enough of the melodrama, though, onwards and upwards, and on to the updated ranking!
For 43 years, the vicious and gruesome massacre of the Umezawa family has puzzled Japan… Through multiple other mass killings, and a World War, the bizarre and incomprehensible horrors of this mysterious crime had arrested the attention of amateur sleuths all the nation over. Sensational books have been written about the crimes (dubbed “The Tokyo Zodiac Murders”), theories have been published in newspapers and preached on television. And yet, for 43 years, the truth has eluded even the most brilliant, attentive, and dedicated of would-be Sherlocks…
Heikichi Umezawa was an astrologer, alchemist, and artist who, in his last moments of sanity, sought to create “Azoth”, the ultimate and perfect beauty , a Goddess of a human, based on his understanding of astrology. Every person’s birth sign correlated with a part of their body — their head, chest, abdomen, hips, thighs, and legs — and therefore that part of their body was granted strength by their ruling planet. To his immense pleasure, thanks to his massive extended family and his multiple romantic partners, Heikichi has seven daughters, step-daughters, and nieces who, between them, all represent six different birth signs which themselves also have domain over each of the six different body parts. Therefore, before killing himself, Heikcihi intended to murder six of his daughters and nieces, take their “ruling” body part, bury their corpses in astrologically and alchemically significant parts of Japan (correlating to minerals, for example), and then, in “the very center of Japan”, he would bring the collected body parts to construct Azoth. Details of his plans are contained within his last and will testament. Six perfect body parts assembled to create the singular perfect woman…
However, before he could conduct this plan to construct his Goddess-on-Earth, Heikichi was murdered in his locked-and-sealed studio. It was only after his death that, shocking everyone, some unknown force had begun to enact the Azoth murders according to his specifications. Nobody could understand how — or why — Heikcihi’s plan leaked to the public, or why this mysterious new party would begin to commit these disgusting murders…
One day, the six daughters, step-daughters, and nieces of the Umezawa household simply vanished… And over the course of nine months, each of the six girls’ corpses was discovered, each missing the body part mentioned in the late Heikichi’s notes, each buried near a mine with a significant mineral deposit corresponding to their ruling element, and each buried at a different depth.
Six corpses, of six girls, buried in six different locations…
In modern-day Japan, a young woman going by the name of Iida has come forward with an unusual declaration: her father had played a very central role in the Umezawa murder case… involving another, seemingly unrelated case dealing with the killing and subsequent rape of the seventh Umezawa child, situated nicely between Heikichi’s death and the Azoth killings. Desperate to have her father’s reputation cleared, she commissions astrologer Kiyoko Mitarai (who receives details of the case from his closest friend) to finally solve this decades-old murder once and for all, and find the real mastermind..! And thus, Kiyoko does as he promises, playing armchair sleuth, attempting to succeed where the police and millions other have failed…
…and there we have the framework for The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, the landmark impossible crime debut of Sōji Shimada. The novel was written at a time in the genre’s history when the “social” school of plotting dominated — no more were the tedious honkaku puzzles of old! Usher in a new age of socially intelligent plots concerned with psychology and human interests! Naturally, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders represented a rejection of this genre-wide shift away from tricky murder plots, and therefore did incredibly poorly when it was first published. However, in reality, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders was an inspiration for many younger crime writers who also thirsted for the orthodox crime puzzles to return. It may have been Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders that finally allowed the crime genre to sprout into the shin-honkaku movement of neo-puzzle plots, but it was The Tokyo Zodiac Murders that planted the seed and Shimada’s own subsequent efforts in bringing up prospective shin-honkaku writers that nurtured it. It is for this reason that The Tokyo Zodiac Murders has become regarded as not only a landmark novel in the development of the genre, but also the reason why shin-honkaku even exists at all in its current form, making it possibly the single most important modern Japanese crime novel ever written, bar none.
The Tokyo Zodiac Murders has actually already received a mention on this blog, on my zeroth revision of my Top 15 Impossible Crimes list. However, it only appeared in a passing mention under Shimada’s actual full entry, his sophomore novel, Murder in the Crooked House. This is not because I consider The Tokyo Zodiac Murders an inferior mystery, but it’s a very complicated sort of comparison Shimada has created for us here.
To begin with, as a novel on its own? The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is not great. As the crimes take place over 40 years before the events of the novel, the entire tale is told thrice-removed from the perspective of anyone actually concerned with the murders. Therefore, instead of being a novel about the story of a murder, it instead becomes a novel about the story of a guy listening to a story about a story of a murder. On top of depriving the novel of any human interest, it makes the storytelling and prose bone-dry.
The first third of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is incredibly dense, with the story wasting not a single word on anything that isn’t telling you every single thing you need to know about the three disparate murder cases. You get every floorplan for every conceivable floor, the blood-types, astrological signs, and birth dates of every named character in the story, full details of decades of investigation, including every possible theory and counter-theory and counter-counter-theory for every last clue, red herring, and event to occur within this telling. A full detective novel’s worth of plot, and then some, is dumped into your lap in one of the most purely cerebral murder mystery narratives ever written.
What then follows is another significant portion of the book, concerned entirely with Kiyoko’s investigation in the modern day. If the first third of the novel is the single densest piece of crime plotting ever penned to paper, the subsequent portion is one of the thinnest, most irrelevant, and positively nothing pieces of writing in the genre. Protracted history lessons, discussions on literature, and arguments about the failures of Sherlock Holmes eat up so much of the novel during this section and lead positively nowhere, but the book’s worst sin is that a full six chapters are dedicated to the narrator attempting to have a single conversation, which itself only creates a weak red herring that, on top of being discredited immediately, was by the book’s own admission a perfect waste of time. (By the book’s own admission through the first of its two Challenges to the Reader, the mystery can be solved very early into the narrative, with much of the ensuing story being included pretty much arbitrarily).
The issue isn’t really so much the amount of padding — all detective novels have a lot of it, frankly — but rather the fact that the novel frontloaded the entire, extremely dense plot in the first third and had nowhere else to go, meandering along for no better reason than the story was too long to be a novella but too short to be a good novel. It then unloaded a typical novel’s worth of filler into your lap, instead of dispersing it evenly throughout the story. This makes it an extremely engaging (even if purely cerebral) read for the first third, and then a very mindless slog for the second third. To go from every word contributing something meaningful to six chapters being dedicated to an empty deadend is, frankly, the kind of pacing whiplash I’ve never seen before.
Worse yet, the locked-room murder itself is incredibly pedestrian (hence why it didn’t appear on the favorite impossible crimes list), and the implications of the murder/rape are pretty obvious.
Keeping all of this in mind, do I think The Tokyo Zodiac Murders deserves its monumental reputation?
It may sound insane to say so, but during the long denouement, the novel had done an exceptional job at making me forget every gripe or quibble I had with its storytelling or structure. Because the Azoth murders — the actual titular Tokyo Zodiac Murders serial killing — presents what is one of the most, if not the single most brilliant piece of trickery in the entire crime fiction genre, and I wish I was exaggerating. In my mind, no novel could be so boring, could be so dry, could be so poorly-paced as to ruin the impact of the book’s denouement. For what was 100-odd pages of info-dumping followed by 100-odd pages of Shimada pretending to plot, the final 30 pages of this tale offer a bloody, twisted, macabre stunner of an explanation for the serial killings that bursts forth from the pages like fireworks with ingenuity, creativity, and deviousness unparalleled by, to my mind, almost anything else the genre has to offer. Not only are the mechanics of the crime incredibly unique — something that has never been written before, nor anything even similar to it before this novel — it’s also uniquely Japanese, having all of the thumbprints of shin-honkaku in a way that no English mystery from the early 1900s would ever have managed, making it not only is a tour de force of ingenuity, but also one that perfectly showcases another culture’s unique approach to the genre we all know and love. Even after re-reading the novel, I know that every time I look back on The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, I will not be thinking about the wastes of time in the modern day’s investigation — I will only be able to look back on the jaw-dropping sucker-punch the novel delivers that stunned me into shocked frustrated reverence.
The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is a landmark impossible crime, but that reputation is a bit unfair to it — the impossible crime is minor, and uninspired in the extreme. It’s also a very poorly constructed, unpleasantly-written novel. But for all that, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders contains what has to be one of the most baffling and brilliantly-conceived serial killings in all of mystery-writing fiction (if you think you can name me one better, I dare you to try…), and one of the most deviously-hidden culprits of all time. I’ll never be able to look back on this novel negatively — it’ll be a hard read for those who favor their mysteries on the literary side, but for those like me who appreciate the mystery story as a vehicle for a puzzle I’ll only be able to remember it as one of Japan’s plotting tours de force…
With all of its flaws as a novel, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders ends on a triumph — it’ll never be a favorite novel of anybody’s, but I’m perfectly comfortable calling it one of my favorite mysteries ever plotted.
(*Note, although this is the second in this series of reviews, I only encourage you to read the first review to get the preamble of the review series, all subsequent parts can be read individually.)
Furuhata Ninzaburou is a Japanese television drama clearly inspired by Columbo with its focus on a disarmingly quirky detective and how he solves crimes the solutions to which we already know, but as we established in the first review of this series the series more than an idle copycat. Elements of Japanese culture play heavily into the series, with Furuhata developing a love for children’s romance manga, murders by kabuki, and crimes committed at shogi tournaments. Furuhata Ninzaburou, both television show and character, have the DNA of Columbo, show and character, but Kōki Mitani’s skillful scriptwriting bleeds through with tons of charm, clever clues, and memorable killers to create a show that stands on its own two feet…
The first six episodes of the series’ first season were split down the middle between three great episodes, and three less-than-great episodes, but the average quality was quite high, with even the worst of episodes being functional and having their charms. We will now round out the first season of this show with six more episodes, starting with…
Episode 7 – The Rehearsal Murder has samurai actor Jushiro at a crossroads, as the wealthy benefactor and owner of the movie studio has decided to sell the property for the construction of a shopping mall. Even after collecting the signature of every single person who works at the studio, Jushiro was unable to convince his supervisor to cancel the deal. Desperate, Jushiro concocts a devious plot to tamper with the choreography of a swordfight scene in which his boss guest stars as the villain, so that when he uses a real sword to cut his boss’s throat open, it looks like nothing more than a prop-and-choreography accident during the rehearsal, with dozens of witnesses swearing up and down that the crime was an accident. Now, Furuhata is posed with a new problem: not with proving who committed the murder, but instead with proving that the murder was deliberate and premeditated.
If Episode 6 ended off the first part of the first season on one of the worse episodes so far, Episode 7 opens up the second part with the best episode in the show so far. The specialized question of “how to prove the murder was intentional” is well-utilized here with a killer who does a good job at deflecting all of Furuhata’s suspicions by accepting half-guilt for everything he throws at him. One of the best scenes in the show is in this episode, in which Furuhata nearly dies after thinking he’s baited the actor into revealing he can tell a real sword from a fake one.
Throughout the episode, The Rehearsal Murder teases you with the inscrutable clue of a moving moon prop on the set, and the explanation for how it establishes the killer’s intentions to commit murder is utterly brilliant, if not totally believable. The denouement makes incredible use of the movie studio setting, with footage from an old black and white samurai film being used. This is the best episode of the show I’ve seen so far, and an utterly gobstopping inverted mystery. If you ever choose one Furuhata Ninzaburou episode to watch, let it be this one!
It certainly doesn’t help that I am a fan of old samurai films, so the stylings of this episode appeal to me personally…
Episode 8 – The Limited Express Murder takes place on a train, where Dr. Nakagawa meets with a private inspector who has proof of his infidelity. When the inspector threatens to release the photos to his wife, Dr. Nakagawa murders him with lethal injection and steals the jacket containing the photos. Unfortunately for Dr. Nakagawa, a detective inspector is on the train and refuses to leave him be…
Like the last one, this episode has a scene where Furuhata lays a trap that initially appears to go off without a hitch, but actually backfires in his face, only this time played for comedic effect rather than dramatic. Besides that, the episode is just pretty good, with lots of natural little contradictions building up an image of the culprit’s guilt, and the interplay between Nakagawa and Furuhata is good (as it always is in this series). The trap is a fairly standard variation on the typical inverted mystery trap of “killer reveals information they shouldn’t know”, but since it relies on baiting it out of the killer at the last minute it isn’t fair for the viewer, and isn’t very interesting. Not a bad episode, but overwhelmingly average in every respect and a bad follow-up to the exceptional Rehearsal Murder.
Episode 9 – The Psychic Murder has Furuhata at the set of Kuroda, a famous psychic television personality who is being visited by an engineer from a local university in an attempt to disprove all of his psychic tricks as mumbo-jumbo and jiggery-pokery, such as proving that he can move water with static electricity or showing how mind-reading is just asking leading questions with obvious answers. When Kuroda claims to have found the scarf of a missing woman, the engineer accuses him of planting the scarf there, and proves it by showing that the scarf was actually a fabrication he and the police concocted together to trick him. In disbelief, Kuroda has a public panic attack and, desperately trying to prove his abilities, suddenly “discovers” a corpse in the same location as the scarf, shocking everyone… except Furuhata who suspects the truth that Kuroda killed the victim!
In concept, the idea of a psychic pretending to discover his own murder victim sounds interesting, but in practice this paints the killer as colossally idiotic. The killer was only just accused of being at the scene of the crime, planting the scarf so he can pretend to discover it; the exact same (true) accusation can be made of him “discovering” the body, making this discovery not only unconvincing in proving his psychic abilities, but also entirely stupid in painting him as an obvious suspect in the murder. It’s such an idiotic maneuver on the part of the killer that it deflates all tension from the episode — the fact that Furuhata canonically plucks a confession from him in an in-universe half-hour is not surprising in the slightest.
The psychic show is incredibly fun, but unfortunately lasts for nearly 70% of the episode and doesn’t actually contribute to the mystery outside of one line that is dropped at the very end of the segment. The investigation at the end is very short, and the killer is caught on two very basic, generic clues. There is a brilliantidea at play, where Furuhata needs to prove that the killer saw something specifically with his eyes, as opposed to in a psychic image in his head, and the explanation for this is incredibly clever, but the question is underplayed to the point of having none of the impact it could’ve had, wasting what is ostensibly a very good idea for an inverted mystery trick. Also, like in The Kabuki Murder, episode 2 in part 1 of this review series, this episode heavily involves a second crime that goes entirely unresolved.
The killer’s personality is one of the most interesting of the show so far, but this is a story that would benefit from being told from their perspective. As it stands, this episode has a very promising beginning that ends up flopping around limply at the end with wasted potential and half-baked ideas. If nothing else, the psychic show being an extremely entertaining waste of time works in this episode’s favor, but this is the worst inverted mystery in the show so far, and it’s by a massive margin.
Episode 10 – The Politician Murder sees Sokomizo, the secretary to a prominent politician, on urgent clean-up duty after he accidentally knocks a young woman out who refuses to take his boss’s hush money. While trying to help the woman recover, Sokomizo is ordered by his boss to overdose the woman and make it appear like a suicide, much to horror. Naturally, interested in being selected as his boss’s successor, he does so reluctantly — while the politician, in the next room, orders a pizza to the crime scene and makes coffee with the victim’s coffee maker! Sokomizo is therefore horrified when his boss reveals, over the body of his murder victim, that he’ll be giving the position to his son, enraging Sokomizo. Now in so deep that another murder would be the least of his problems, he proceeds to strike his boss over the head in order to make it look like a failed affair that ended in a murder-suicide…
Only, Sokomizo is shocked when he is being badgered by a nosy police lieutenant, who mentions that the politician is not dead, but rather hospitalized with amnesia…
Like Limited Express, this is another one that’s technically sound, but I didn’t love so much. The psychological trick isn’t very interesting and, in my opinion, not properly set-up by the killer’s behavior throughout the story — it also recalls an episode of Columbo, which itself is also pretty middle-of-the-lane. Furuhata’s reasoning throughout the episode is good, though, and I enjoyed the scenes in the hospital with Imaizumi getting his hemorrhoids treated. Not a terrible episode, but not incredibly memorable.
In Episode 11 – Sayonara DJ, famous radio celebrity Otaka has been sending herself fake death threats in anticipation for the murder of her subordinate for stealing her boyfriend! She commits this murder during a very short break in her radio show, using a shortcut known only to staff, so that she could pretend to have been in her dressing room at the time… She dresses the victim up in her cardigan, making it look like the murderer who sent Otaka the death threats mistook the two women, and then returns to her dressing room using the same shortcut..! Only, to her colossal misfortune, Lieutenant Furuhata Ninzaburou was at the station at the time on her request, and he is not to be fooled!
This is a very good one, with an extremely well-utilized setting. The denouement, similarly to Rehearsal Murder, uses the radio station in very clever ways to accentuate Furuhata’s arguments. The trap that nails the killer’s guilt is another variation of “revealing unknowable information”, but not only is this one entirely fair to the audience, it does a good job at using innocuous information not clearly related to the murder to hide the trap (though the “Challenge to the Viewer” foreshadows it so heavy-handedly, I’d be shocked if anyone gets to the denouement without figuring it out…) as well as a fun pop culture reference. The killer is extremely charming and her banter with Furuhata is some of the best in the whole show — my favorite scene is when she forces him to answer listeners’ questions on the radio show as punishment for suspecting her. Not an out-and-out classic, as it isn’t extraordinarily inspired, but it’s clever and great fun.
A man is acquitted for the murder of legendary senior detective Kogure’s daughter. Enraged with the verdict, and knowing fully well the defendant is guilty, the police officer takes the law into his own hands, shooting the perp dead in the middle of the street! However, although Furuhata suspects the detective, he has a perfect alibi: he saw a man carrying an attache suitcase into a suspected drug deal at around the same time the murder was being committed, with multiple witnesses attesting to this and corroborating Kogure’s story. Worse yet, the witnesses all came despite Kogure asking them not to, proving that it was impossible for them to lie on his behalf. Furuhata must unravel this tricky alibi to establish the guilt of his superior in Episode 12 – The Stakeout Murder.
This one is very good, being the second semi-inverted mystery in the series with the first being Shogi Tournament Murder in part 1, since we don’t see the trick the killer uses to establish his alibi. However, it isn’t very hard to guess what kind of gimmick was utilized, there being maybe one or two different possibilities. The killer’s guilt is established by two clues, and while both are extraordinarily clever, only one is entirely fair to the audience, a mistake that flows organically from the killer’s murder plot and solidly establishes his guilt. The other clue is a huge coincidence and extraordinarily lucky for Furuhata, too, on top of being impossible to figure out until the last minute, but the way it ties around into establishing the killer’s guilt is novel.
However, I’m a bit disappointed that most of the investigation simply had Furuhata badgering Kogure about his stake-out. Maybe in a longer story, I would’ve loved to the relationship between Kogure and his daughter expanded upon more, since in this episode it’s just a data-point that serves to provide a motive. Otherwise, the killer’s only real charm is that we see him try fast food for the first time, and he treats it like it’s high cuisine. I also didn’t feel like the episode paid off on the inherent drama of Furuhata investigating a murder committed by his own superior officer — a renowned, respected man in his profession. This is the season 1 finale and has a naturally dramatic premise, so in a way it feels like a waste to have the episode be so… normal.
Nonetheless, still a very good, not extraordinary, episode that rounds season 1 out very nicely.
Furuhata Ninzaburou‘s first season’s last six episodes round out to being as consistently good as the first six.
What I’ve started to notice about Furuhata Ninzaburou, as opposed to Columbo, is that the former has a greater tendency for high-concept plots that go a long way to inspiring a strong variety of crimes, situations, and traps. Columbo‘s plots are more complicated, but nearly every episode of Columbo involves murders committed in the high-society, with business owners being a very frequent character to call on for murders, and the murders being, conceptually, the kind of murder you’d expect to see in the real world. Men bludgeoned to death in their offices, or shot in their bedrooms — all very conceptually sterile.
Furuhata Ninzaburou, on the other hand, feels a lot more comfortable running with stranger, less realistic premises. Murders committed on psychic television, and a samurai movie rehearsal being exploited to make the crime look like an accident, and an impossible crime involving cheating at a shogi tournament, and a detective author acting out a complexly-staged fake hostage situation all feel uniquely Furuhata Ninzaburou; the kind of thing Columbo would never touch.
Looking back, I began to realize that most the episodes I found the most underwhelming are the ones that felt too much like Columbo episodes and not enough like Furuhata Ninzaburou episodes, with a few exceptions. Limited Express Murder and Politician Murder both felt like the kinds of crimes I’d expect to see in Columbo, and in a way they also stood out to me as being distinctly unlike this particular series, too. Many of the episodes we’ll see in Season 2 will further show that Furuhata Ninzaburou had a firmer grasp on gimmick and premise than its ancestor Columbo.
I’ve started to feel like it’s actually a bit insufficient to call Furuhata Ninzaburou “the Japanese answer to Columbo“. It’s a phrase that diminishes how much work Furuhata Ninzaburou does to stand on its own two legs and be its own show with no regard for whatever may have inspired it.
Season 1 rounds out beautifully, and I cannot wait to review season 2. To end this review, a ranking of the twelve episodes of Season 1…
Rehearsal (Season 1, Episode 7)
Faxed Ransom (Season 1, Episode 4)
Shogi Tournament (Season 1, Episode 5)
Sayonara DJ (Season 1, Episode 11)
Shoujo Manga (Season 1, Episode 1)
Stakeout (Season 1, Episode 12)
Politician (Season 1, Episode 10)
Limited Express (Season 1, Episode 8)
Piano Lesson (Season 1, Episode 6)
Psychic (Season 1, Episode 9)
Kabuki (Season 1, Episode 2)
Psychological (Season 1, Episode 3)
This ranking is actually a bit misleading because I think it implies some episodes are worse than they really are. The Stakeout Murder, for example, is sitting in the middle of the list, which would imply that it’s roughly average/mediocre, but it’s actually very good. To qualify, I think 12, 11, and 10 are bad, 9, 8, 7 are underwhelming, and 6 upwards are a spectrum of very good to great. Let it go to show just how consistent the quality is in this show, then, if half of its episodes are at least significantly above average in quality.
Roger Ormerod’s retro-classical mystery novels have received repeated mention on this blog for their seamless splicing of the DNA of classical Golden Age-styled puzzle plots and the grit-and-grime of contemporary police thrillers. Time to Kill, Roger Ormerod’s debut featuring his first series sleuth private eye David Mallin, was an entry on my first list of my 15 favorite impossible crimes for its inspired spin on the “impossible alibi” problem, a post on which also earning a mention of the novel. A later novel in the same series, the more straightforwardly classical locked-room mystery More Dead Than Alive, was also fantastic. This novel, The Key to the Case is therefore the third novel of Ormerod’s to be covered — this one however, instead of David Mallin, features Roger Ormerod’s crime-solving husband-and-wife duo of retired police detective inspector Richard Patton and his wife Amelia, being the ninth book in the series about their exploits.
After solving “the affair of the clocks” (likely a reference to an earlier novel), Richard Patton finds himself spending most of his post-retirement life dealing with miscellaneous personal affairs like hunting for missing pets or handling property disputes. Following in this trend is Ronnie, an ex-convict and purportedly reformed petty burglar known to Richard, who claims to be innocent of an aggravated burglary that, unfortunately, the police want to pin on him. He begs Richard for an alibi, but he’s disinterested in the contract.
Unfortunately, later, a friend of Amelia’s introduces Richard to another purportedly reformed crook named Milo who also needs help from Richard. Milo’s son, Bryan, has just killed himself — or so the police claim. After all, Bryan was murdered inside of a locked-sealed-and-bolted house with all of the locks, seals, and bolts shot from the inside. Milo on the other hand believes that Bryan was murdered, and he needs Richard to figure out how. Although Richard claims to not be interested in this contract either, it slowly nags at him to investigate both problems.
In soon comes to Richard’s attention that Bryan had a lot of people out to get him — he is in actuality a serial rapist, responsible for the assaults of three women and having served and been released from prison. Only a month after his release, a fourth women is sexually assaulted and subsequently murdered in the same place he committed the other attacks, leading to a barrage of death threats. Knowing that his wife’s daughter from a previous relationship was murdered by a rapist, the revelation leads to complicated questions of whether it’s even worth finding Bryan’s murderer to begin with…
An element of Ormerod’s writing that has always appealed him to me is his ability to combine the contemporary police thriller with the classical puzzle plots. Ormerod is a smart creator and destroyer of alibis, and equally skilled at impossible crimes. Although his writing was always dense with personal and interpersonal dramas, at the end of it all he usually revealed how he had deftly laid clues in places you never would’ve thought to see. And, as with all of Ormerod’s writing, the story moves briskly and is defined by snappy, accessible, unfussy writing that makes for easy and quick reading. However, I think it’s possible that The Key to the Case might lean a little too heavily on the side of the contemporary crime story, to its detriment…
The Key to the Case is hurt majorly by its looseness and pacing with building-up the solution. Many plot points that, in a classical detective novel, would be reserved for the denouement, are either heavily suggested as possible or explicitly revealed during the course of the narrative. Strictly speaking, the full picture of the locked-room mystery and its solution is revealed in every part either by confession, implication, or explicit deduction by the middle-point of the novel (only being christened as the solution at the end) — adding to that, it isn’t a very compelling explanation. By the 70% point of the novel, essentially everything had been revealed except for the identity of the culprit in the rape-and-murder, and the Bryan murder cases. However, at this stage, I feel like the information is present that, rather than shocking, renders the solution merely perfectly natural and easily intuited. It’s particularly a shame, because there is a particularly brilliant clue a la Chesterton or “The Purloined Letter” that goes wasted because its intended meaning is easily inferred while bypassing Ormerod’s intended logic.
This is an element I’ve always associated with modern crime thrillers, where a clue leads to a conclusion leads to more investigation — conclusions are dolled out freely in order to maintain audience interest in the plot, rather than reserved for the sake of the puzzle. It’s something that I felt wasn’t present in the other Ormerods I’ve read, where Ormerod was much more tactful with handling little revelations throughout the narrative. Unfortunately, The Key to the Case spoils so much of the solution by the mid-late portion of the narrative that the eventual resolution is the most intuitive given the provided information. The motive, method, and all surrounding details are perfectly organic, all things considered, so that I’d be surprised if the novel has any surprises to spare the reader come the denouement.
The subject matter that defines the police thriller half of the novel’s identity is also troubling and uncomfortable. The matter of rape is by no means treated lightly; however, the resolution Ormerod eventually reaches on why Bryan’s death matters is at best tone-deaf and naive on the impacts of rape, and at worst deeply cynical towards women, suggesting that “the modern woman” is simply no longer impacted by rape because “morality is shifting”. He goes so far as to nearly suggest that Bryan’s rapes are permissible morally because they were “gentle”, depicting women as “grateful” to raise his progeny, and even having one of his victims offer to teach him how to perform sex better during the rape. Worse yet, Ormerod has all of his male characters standing around, being deeply upset about the matter, and has his rape-victim deuteragonist scold them, implying that their outrage at the sexual assaults are misplaced and irrational. It reaches a point where it feels like genuine, honest-to-God rape apologia that I don’t believe can be written off as “a product of its time”, and it’s the kind of thing I hadn’t seen in any other Ormerod novel. I firmly believe that if Ormerod had gotten a single female opinion on any part of this novel, The Key to the Case would be a very different novel than we’d got today.
Unfortunately, I cannot agree with TomCat’s review of The Key to the Case, in which he calls it “Ormerod’s best-plotted novel”. I found the plotting to be damaged by loosely-handled revelations that all but spoil the solution by nearly the halfway point, leaving the plot with nowhere to go but the obvious ending. While there’s one particularly clever clue, both scenario and resolution betray no trace of the imaginative, baroque plotting I saw in Time to Kill or More Dead than Alive. Worse yet, the story reveals a very dark, cynical perspective on rape that permeates throughout the entire novel that makes The Key to the Case obviously a product of having never spoken to a single woman during the course of writing it. As a mystery plot in a void, The Key to the Case is perfectly good on the level that all of the disparate pieces come together cleanly and neatly, but as a plot that harks back to the Golden Age it is flawed and uninspired in a way I’ve never seen from Ormerod.