If I’m being entirely honest, there are certain things I don’t talk about much with the Golden Age mystery-reading side of my social sphere. Heck, I don’t even really talk the way with them the way I talk with anyone else I know. The problem is that I am painfully aware I am a 20 year old university student punching a bit above my belt by involving myself in a community whose youngest members are probably around twice my age at least. If past posts delving into my personal thoughts have proven anything, it’s that I have the world’s greatest inferiority complex, and the way I talk is usually colored by me trying to mask myself as an intellectual equal among people who nearly universally have more experience and education than myself. This also manifests in the form of me being pretty reserved with a lot of my other non-mystery hobbies that might be derided as “kiddish” or “immature” or outright “stupid”. Unfortunately, before delving into an upcoming long-running series/project I’ve undertaken, it’s going to require breaking the ice on some of that, and preparing a lot of you for it. So, what’s about to follow is somewhat of a biographical post, but I beg you to stay with me for a bit — this is a fun one, I promise.
I absolutely adore video games (yes, even the new ones you probably hate), cartoons (yes, even the new ones you probably hate), and sitcoms (yes, even the new ones you probably hate).
I’ve mentioned on this blog more than once that I do some of my own hobbyist writing of Golden Age-styled mysteries, but when I’m not writing I’m also probably drawing. My whole life, I’ve been deeply fascinated with animation and always wanted to become an artist, but my guardian wouldn’t let me, yelling at me that I’m “wasting my time on something I’ll obviously never be good at”. It wasn’t until just last year, in fact, now that I’m living in university housing, that I tried to foster my childhood dream of becoming an cartoon character artist, though all of that is really beside the point.
The point is why this matters. Well, as luck would have it, it was my fascination with cartoons that ended up turning me into a devotee of Golden Age mystery fiction. When I was young, one of my favorite cartoons was the Alvin and the Chipmunks show — the one that came out before the live-action/CGI movies. A favorite, yes, in spite of the fact that I only owned one DVD with four episodes from what many consider the worst season of the show. It was the show’s last season, which was comprised of about a dozen and a half pop culture/movie parodies. The episode I watched the most often was “Elementary, My Dear Simon”.
No points if you’ve guessed it, but this episode is a parody of Sherlock Holmes in which the lead character Alvin takes on the role of Sherlock Holmes, and his younger brother Simon takes on the role of Dr. John Watson. The two, together, traverse Victorian London, investigating a series of mysterious thefts in which every item stolen is trifling, worth nearly nothing. Now, this is an interesting set-up, but any mystery fans reading this… don’t bother watching the episode, it is not good, and the ending will frustrate you. But that did not matter to six year old me. I was a lonely kid who loved puzzles and riddles, and all that mattered was that feeling of seeing something like a puzzle play out in the form of a story. I had no sense of whether or not it was a good puzzle, just that it existing and was there.
Well, after falling in love with this show, I went on to other forms of mystery media geared towards kids. I owned every DVD of every movie and series of Scooby-Doo that existed when I was still into it. I watched them dozens of times each, some of them more than that.
I was hooked, but at the time I had no real awareness of the fact that this sort of thing I loved really, you know, existed in genre form. When I watched “grown-up” mysteries on television, they were always legal dramas like Law & Order, or true crime like Investigation Discovery, and none of them really appealed to me in the same slow-burn puzzle-piecing way that “Elementary, My Dear Watson” or Scooby-Doo had.
Well, fortunately for me, I didn’t just enjoy western cartoons, I also loved video games and Japanese anime.
When I was about 12 years old, my friends roped me into playing this silly-looking anime-styled game series called Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. At first, I really didn’t want to play it — it’s a lawyer game, so it had to be boring, like Law & Order. But my friends are
annoying persistent, and convinced me to give the game a shot. Immediately, I fell in love with the series. It is a dramatic, engaging tale of detection and logic in which, through very simple button prompts, the game invites you to make Ellery Queen-esque series of deductions to protect the lives of innocent people falsely accused of complex murders. You collect evidence, listen to witness testimony, expose lies through clues, and then through a series of question prompts you will solve the mystery by explaining why every lie was told and every mistake made. It was only after playing the game series through to the end that I immediately made a realization — these sorts of stories I want exist, en masse, and I can just go out and read them. It was Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney that inspired me to go out and buy my first detective novels, A Study in Scarlet, And Then There Were None, and The Mysterious Affair of Styles. And all of these stories were exactly like the mysteries in Ace Attorney! Finally, I said, I’m home.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney‘s first entry is actually reviewed on my blog already, only for nobody to actually read it, dashing any intentions I had to review the others in this 10+ game series. That post’s lack of attention is, in fact, why I’m writing this post now. After all, some of you might’ve spotted a troubling detail: “Isaac, if you played this game nearly 9 years ago, why did you suddenly review it so recently?”. The answer, of course, being that I adore this franchise, and to this day the third game in the franchise (among others) boasts a few cases that I still consider some of the best mystery-writing and mystery-plotting in the whole genre. I was actually hoping that by writing a review, I could get the 600-odd people WordPress says visits my blog monthly to try this mystery series I love so much out.
The post has been read 33 times in the 12 months since I’ve written it.
Compare On 50 Locked Room Solutions of Our Own, which, despite its lack of comments, gets on average 150 views every single month, or my clearly-labelled April Fools post (which isn’t even that funny) which has gotten 350 views, over 1000% the Ace Attorney post’s yearly reads, in a week.
The point of this post isn’t to bitterly whine about that post not getting a lot of attention, though, so don’t worry about all of that. More, I want to air my thoughts a bit on why it didn’t.
In the “Golden Age Detection” Facebook group, I’ve seen a few pop culture mystery series that’ll presently remain unnamed get brought up. And people were angry. People had never even read these stories and they were angry, because people would dare compare Golden Age greats to this modern usurper, for no better reason than the modern work was animated. To quote nobody in particular, they said “I don’t need to read it to know there’s no way a cartoon could ever compare to the original”. Another time, when asked to name some of my aesthetically favorite surreal mysteries, I named a surreal case from a mystery game series that I really enjoyed, only to be met with “Laugh” reacts and mild derision for posting a video game. These are just two of a number of instances that I will not direct anyone to in the interest of not seeming like I’m trying to flame some stranger on the internet who has no bearing on me or my life.
Now, I for one have always believed that making rash judgments on things you’ve never experienced (within reason) is a fault. I’m sure many of you in theory agree with me, but might in practice still have this kneejerk, conservative aversion to the “less respectable” mediums. I believe the lack of attention video-game related posts and these attitudes I’ve seen openly expressed in the group are evidence enough to speculate on.
My theory has been that I will post about a mystery video game, earnestly enjoying it, and trying to spread the word and people might see that it is, in fact, a video game, and assume that it probably isn’t worth playing — they may even assume I didn’t like it — and merely pass the post by. Well, I’m beginning a bit of a large project soon, and in the interests of that going well, I felt it was important to make this post and the following shocking declaration:
Some of the most brilliant and emotionally-touching classically-/Golden Age-styled mystery plots ever conceived exist within the confines of video games and Japanese comic books (manga), and I believe turning your nose up at them will be doing yourself a disservice as a mystery-reader.
And I want to talk you into it. We’ve all probably read some shin-honkaku novels, right? Those modern, brilliant detective novels from Japan that beautifully represent Japan’s fascination with the form? To name a few, The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji, or The Moai Island Puzzle by Alice Arisugawa or Death Among the Undead by Masahiro Imamura. This shin-honkaku movement was majorly observed from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, and if you’ve loved any of those books from Locked Room International then I have some good news for you: many, many detective video games, cartoons, and comic book series from Japan are specifically inspired by or part of this very same shin-honkaku movement, as many of the biggest names in video game mysteries and comic mysteries popped up around the 90s and early 2000s.
This was so major, in fact, that some famous shin-honkaku writers in Japan openly credit these video games as direct inspirations. Westerners probably haven’t heard of him, but in Japan Takekuni Kitayama is not a small name. He is, in fact, a respected author of locked-room mysteries and impossible crimes, famous for his highly technical, mechanical trickery. One of his earliest novels, The “Clock Castle” Murder Case, was an award winner in Japan, earning the 24th Mephisto Prize. Kitayama has openly declared his fascination for another Japanese Golden Age-inspired video game series called Danganronpa.
Danganronpa is a series entirely about 15 talented high-school students who are trapped in Hope’s Peak Academy and instructed that in order to escape, one student must murder a classmate and successfully evade detection in the ensuing “Class Trial”. In spite of the teeny-bop dialogue, crass juvenile humor, and the jazz-punk aesthetic, every single one of the 18 murder mysteries written throughout the series’ three-game run are plotted wholly, entirely, and authentically like Golden Age/Honkaku classics, and similarly to Ace Attorney, the game has players solving the murders by collecting evidence, exposing lies, and then explaining lies through a varieties of quizzes/prompts. Kitayama was so enamored with the series, in fact, that he approached the developers and asked them if he would be allowed to write novels taking place inside of the Danganronpa fictional universe. What spawned from this agreement was a seven-novel-long prequel series following a major character from the first game named Kyoko Kirigiri, solving locked-room mysteries as part of a Detective Competition. So successful were these novels that when the third game in the series, Danganronpa V3, was developed, the creators commissioned novelist Kitayama as a co-writer who was majorly responsible for the game’s mystery plots.
The worlds of shin-honkaku mystery novel writing and video game/manga mystery writing were so inextricably bound that respected novelists were writing for video game series.
There are many more examples I could get into to make this point, such as the cross-contamination of ideas to and from popular Japanese mysteries series and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, or the fact that one of the most famous mystery novelists ever, Soji Shimada, author of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, sued comic series Kindaichi Case Files for wholesale plagiarizing his novel for one of their mysteries, forcing them to put a spoiler warning for his novel in all Japanese publications of the chapters where this plagiarism occurred. To get into all of the gems and warts of the shared world of video games and novels in Japanese detective fiction, however, would simply be diluting the point: this overlap exists, period, and that’s what matters.
Even in the most kiddish-seeming of Japanese mysteries series in video game and comic book form, writers share the same level of complexity, brilliance, and ingenuity as their novel counterparts for the very simply reason that they are cut from the same cloth. I believe that if you’ve read shin-honkaku novels, and you are clamoring for more translations while simultaneously turning your head away from any mention of video game mysteries or comic mysteries, I can’t find much sympathy for your desire to read more while you turn your nose up at the cornucopia of brilliant mysteries that are quite literally everything you’re asking for, and all for no better reason than you think their packaging is “too childish”.
Yes, a cartoon can compare to the original.
This whole post was not merely an idle exercise in writing a minor dissertation on the brilliance of Japanese mystery writing, though I will say that if I’ve at least convinced those among you to be a little more lax I can refer you to some fantastic Japanese mystery video games and manga and even help you get into them if you’d like. What’s more important is that cartoon I mentioned before. The one that earned ire from people who’ve never watched it.
Detective Conan is the quintessential Japanese detective comic series. I can’t speak from first-hand experience, but I feel comfortable saying that there probably isn’t a single mystery story produced in Japan since 1994 that doesn’t owe a little bit to Detective Conan‘s existence, as it is simply massive and the archetype of all things Golden Age mystery plotting.
Conceived by Gosho Aoyama, Detective Conan is a fantastical story about a teenager detective named Jimmy (Shinichi) Kudo who gets shrunken down into the body of an elementary schooler by an experimental chemical manufactured by a mysterious gang known simply as “The Organization”. On the protracted hunt for the group in order to return to his adult size, Jimmy is forced to adopt the alias of Conan Edogawa (taken from writers Arthur Conan Doyle and Edogawa Ranpo), and struggle to get his theories heard in hundreds of murder cases that he solves in spite of his small stature.
The silly premise is a byproduct of a bygone age during which Gosho Aoyama wanted to write child’s fiction, a period which can probably be singularly blamed for many “serious-minded” mystery readings passing the series up. It was at the behest of his editor (by the way, Japan has editors who specialize in classical mystery plotting) that Gosho Aoyama shift gears towards producing more mature, complex, adult-sized mystery stories (only, of course, still solved by a first grader…). And, naturally, nearly every case is some manner of plotting familiar to the Golden Age of Detection, both the English and Japanese ones.
And, I won’t pussyfoot around this. For what begins feeling like the world’s corniest kidtective story ever, Detective Conan goes on to produce dozens of what I can confidently say are the most devilishly clever mystery plots ever conceived in the entire history of the genre from any continent. Dozens of hidden classics of alibi problems, locked-room mysteries, and inverted mysteries are buried within the covers of this children’s series, and you’re not reading them!
The series is massive. Not just culturally, but I mean it is a quantifiably massive franchise in terms of just how much of it exists. Detective Conan spans comic book series, a Japanese animated television show, musicals, stage dramas, movies, novels, video games — probably ancient cave-writing, if you look hard enough. In the manga/comic alone, there are over 300 unique mystery stories. The anime television series has adapted nearly all of these, and produced over 300 more unique stories not present in the comic. Without even scratching the surface of this series you have nearly 700 mystery short stories already.
Now, if I’ve interested you with all of my comparisons to shin-honkaku novels, and then immediately scared you off again by throwing triple-digit figures at you… don’t worry! Editors and English professors beware, for after exactly 2834 words (by the end of this sentence) we’ve finally arrived at my thesis statement!
I am, for your benefit, re-reading/re-watching every single mystery story in the Detective Conan canon. All 700 and change. In the course of reading these, I will be keeping notes, and producing a comprehensive ranking of all of the stories read, that way you can know, based on my opinion, roughly how good each of the 700 mysteries are from the very worst one all the way to the very best one. I will also be, for convenience, telling you exactly which book in the series you need to hunt down to read any one of the stories you want. And, furthermore, if that weren’t enough for you, I will be reviewing all 90 volumes of the manga on this blog, one volume at a time, as I’m reading them. As it’s been years since I’ve touched the series, I will be writing all of the posts from the perspective of someone who is going in blind, for people going in blind, assuming that your understanding of the series evolves with mine as we going along. It will be an exhaustive, chronological resource on Detective Conan.
This tiny little project of mine, I imagine, will take anywhere from four to six months. This isn’t quite the same as me slamming out a single review of a single game in a few hours. I am dedicating a not-negligible chunk of my life and time to doing this. Hence, this post. This is not for my health. I genuinely believe that everyone in our group from 18 to 80 can find something to love in the mysteries of Japanese animation, video games, and comic books, and my end-goal is to convince a not-small portion of you to read at least 10 chapters of a Japanese mystery manga by the time I die.
Cartoons and video games have been a huge part of my life and my mystery-reading career. It’s thanks to them that this blog even exists, in fact. As “childish” as many of you might see them, they are a credible part of the Golden Age mystery experience. I was lucky enough to be Christened from a young age, and I hope I can be lucky enough to help a few of you find the same enjoyment I have in these brilliant “children’s” mysteries.
With that being said, my posts on the the first four volumes of Detective Conan can be expected soon. I’ve also not neglected my literature — look out for Jim Noy’s Red Death Murders, which I will also be reading and reviewing… at some point. If a review for a novel comes out, it’ll be this one, I guarantee it. I look forward to making converts of you all. Arrividerci, and happy reading.