The Innocence of Father Brown (1911) by G. K. Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton’s mystery writings featuring the crime-solving parish priest Father Brown stand today as some of the most influential in the entire history of genre. To refer to a plot-point as “Chestertonian” is a term so ubiquitous that even someone who has never read his works understands the paradox of hiding something without really hiding it at all — clues snuggled neatly in the boundary between information which isn’t explicitly made known and information which certainly must exist. With G. K. Chesterton’s writing inspiring crime writers all the world over, from slivers of Chestertonian plotting in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds to entire series inspired by Father Brown’s exploits in Japan’s A Aiichirou, he’s an author who almost needs no introduction.

As one of the founding members of the Detection Club, as well as its first president, G. K. Chesterton was one of the first authors whose stories started to show the seeds of the style of plotting the Golden Age of Crime Fiction came to be known for. Tricky plots and multi-layered misdirection started to replace basic criminal precaution, foreshadowing became more salient, and the “impossible crimes” began to mature past their pre-Golden Age crudeness — it is thanks to G. K. Chesterton that the purely naturalistic, rational mysteries of the 19th century would slowly become replaced with imaginative plotters and clever criminals.

However, though The Innocence of Father Brown can be seen flirting with a kind of plotting that would go on to dominate the puzzle plots of the 1920s to 40s, it cannot be said that the notion of “fairplay” has actually yet fully formed. Often times, Father Brown solves the crimes through information hitherto unbeknownst to the reader, thought processes that sometimes don’t even begin to approach rational or concrete (in one story, Brown argues that a man is innocent of a theft merely because he is a Socialist!), or simply divining the answer from mid-air. Nonetheless, the seeds for the Golden Age are clearly here, and it’s easy to see how Chesterton preempted (or even created) many of the elements of what would become the “fairplay” detective novel half a decade before its formal existence. Many famous Golden Age mysteries, such as Ronald Knox’s “Solved by Inspection”, Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, and John Dickson Carr’s The Four False Weapons have borrowed, adapted, reworked, inverted, subverted, reimagined, and reconstructed tricks from Chesterton’s tales, so much so that it can be said Chesterton invented many of the forms of misdirection for which the genre would go on to be known.

As a weaver of yarns of crime, Chesterton was forward-thinking. Many gimmicks appear in these stories which represent Chesterton and Chesterton alone and, in that way, create so many stories that even 110 years later can be seen as original. Occasionally, a story few of the stories may show their age in such ways as a unique concept clearly mimicked ad nauseum from Chesteron’s oeuvre.

The famous highlights of the stories, however, are not merely the tricky plots, but also the prose, which is defined by its whimsy, humor, and most prominently those “paradoxes” for which Chesterton is so famous. Sometimes these “paradoxes” are more like “dichotomies”, but regardless of how you classify them they stand out in Chesterton’s writing as the most straightforwardly evocative, often relying on contrast or irony to convey a lot of information in very little space. Lines like “bad clothes which were too good for them” are often quotable.

These paradoxes also inform the most unique aspect of Chesterton’s mystery plots: those “intuitive reasoning” stories where the exact form the mystery takes isn’t quite apparent until the denouement. These tales differ from most detective stories in that they don’t focus on a well-defined criminal problem, instead dealing with Father Brown’s investigation into apparent paradoxes of character, nature, or behavior, and offering a decidedly reasonable explanation from his intuition. Such examples include the pre-eminent “The Queer Feet”, in which Father Brown must figure out the mystery behind “feet which run in order to walk” and “walk in order to run”, and “The Honour of Israel Gow” , in which Father Brown is called upon to explain the bizarre behavior of a man who may or may not have lived and may or may not have died. These stories stand out as the most unequivocally “Chestertonian” in the Father Brown canon.

But the series is not perfect and without flaw. A major percentage of the charm in these stories can be found in their religious preoccupations. The stories concern themselves intimately with themes of religious proselytizing, with practically every murderous culprit being an atheist who simply needs to see the graces of God and Christianity, with humanity often explored through the lens of Roman Catholicism. Those who find this charming will be sure to enjoy the stories, but those who aren’t religious may find themselves forced to reckon with the fact that the author clearly thought that people like themselves were statistically guaranteed to be murderers. The series’ perspective on religion and humanity can be argued to occasionally be naïve in that uniquely religious way. For stories wherein the large portion of the appeal is in those musings, those who find themselves at the butt-end of Chesterton’s theocentric moralizing may feel somewhat alienated.

But, putting taste aside, I can’t help but respect Chesterton for his typical brilliance. The man was clearly imaginative in the extreme, and even the social commentary can be alienating, when I manage to look at the heart of his best tales I can see why Chesterton’s name has lived on in respect to detective fiction, and not just for his theology…

The Blue Cross” has “The Greatest Detective in the World”, Frenchman Aristide Valentin on the trail of the world’s greatest thief Flambeau. Flambeau is a man who, although notably over six feet tall, was a master of disguise and a thief of great (and often humorous) exploits, such as picking up two policeman and running down the street with them under his arms. Detective Valentin has tracked Flambeau to London, and suddenly starts to find various bizarre occurrences like a priest throwing soup at a wall, smashing a window and then immediately paying for the damages, swapping the signs for the nuts and the oranges in a storefront and the containers for the salt and sugar in a restaurant… all of which he suspects will lead him to Flambeau.

Originally published as “Valentin Follows a Curious Trail”, this clearly relies on the subversion of you believing that this is a Valentin story, with Valentin standing in as “the Great Detective” like Auguste Dupin or Sherlock Holmes, when it is in fact a Father Brown story… a pretty open secret in a collection of short stories with “Father Brown” plastered all over the cover.

This is the first story with the very Chestertonian problem of “mysteries with an unclear form that don’t make sense until the end”, though the solution doesn’t work as well with the foreknowledge that this is a Father Brown story. A good introduction to the principle cast of Father Brown, but as a mystery story it only functions as intended if you read it when published and absolutely no later. Still, there is quite a bit of cleverness here establishing Chesterton’s fondness for paradox in the mechanics of the crime.

“The Secret Garden”, then, is the cleaning up of “The Blue Cross”‘s subversion to make room for Father Brown to formally take over the series as feature sleuth. The Great Detective Aristide Valentin is hosting a dinner party where the guest of honor is Julius K. Brayne, a man who seems to belong to all religions, an indecisive agnostic who donates moneys to all movements of all churches. However, the festivities are interrupted when a corpse is located in the garden by another dinner guest, decapitated with the head is nearby. The man is unrecognizable to everyone, which creates something of an impossible problem: the front door of the house was guarded by a servant, the garden is entirely enclosed and can only be accessed from within the house, therefore… how did this murder victim get into the garden without being seen by anyone? Julius K. Brayne goes on to vanish from the house under similarly impossible circumstances, conspicuously establishing his own guilt…

It’s a very atmospheric and Carrian decapitation plot, but when you boil it down to its central trick, the decapitation trick is basically the two classic decapitation tricks put together into one story, making it pretty predictable (I’d be shocked to hear that the seasoned reader was fooled by this story for even a second). However, to the story’s benefit, I’ve never seen these tricks be utilized to create an impossible problem in quite this way, so even today it still stands a pretty clever variation on the idea in principle, even if none the less obvious for it.

The killer is the subversive element of the story, though I found the religious motive to be pretty random for what role the character was supposed to be playing in this series… It’s also pretty ludicrous, based on the idea that atheists are as religious about their atheism as theists are in their faith. No real human would ever commit murder for the reason provided in this story…

Gripes aside, it really is an inspired idea for an impossible crime. The mechanics of the decapitation themselves are old hat and predictable, but to see it employed not just for identity obfuscation but to create a genuine impossible crime is a really smart idea on Chesterton’s part. Sits firmly in the “obvious but clever” category.

I wonder, actually, if this is the first appearance of this particular decapitation trick…

“The Queer Feet” has Father Brown at a hotel that is exclusive for the sake of being exclusive, taking the unknown confessions of an employee who has fallen ill… While locked into the room he’s been provided to do his writing, he’s harassed by the sounds of footsteps out in the hallway which seem “to run in order to walk” and “to walk in order to run”…

This is another of that uniquely Chestertonian problem of “the exact nature of the mystery isn’t quite clear until the end”, and the explanation really is brilliant. This is the first appearance of Chesterton’s favorite gimmick of “congruous invisibility”, and I think this one works better than other, more famous examples of this trick in the Father Brown canon. The congruity is explicitly established early in the story by the palpable social satire, and requires active effort on the culprit’s part to perform (as opposed to simply relying on an unreliable quirk of language).

If there’s a gripe to be had with this brilliantly clever story, Father Brown’s detection of the crime would’ve been more impactful had he revealed it before the crime was made known to the audience — having Father Brown solve a crime which we, the readers, didn’t even know had occurred until he explicitly explained his reasoning? Would have been something else entirely!

Still, great story with a perplexing riddle, and Father Brown’s final line is great…

The Flying Stars” sees Father Brown as a guest at a Boxing Day dinner where the family puts on a masquerade play to entertain themselves. Only, of course, crime follows, as The Flying Stars, jewels as well as the patriarch’s gift to his daughter, are stolen from a man’s pocket during the proceedings! Father Brown immediately divines the solution.

A pretty standard theft elevated by the thief’s clever use of the improvisational play makes this a fun comedy-cum-detective story. However, though the thief’s “trap” is brilliant, it’s also perfectly unnecessary and clearly done for no better reason than the thief wanted to do some kind of flashy trick. The narrative admits that he easily could’ve stolen the gems with equal efficacy and gotten away scot free while doing half as much work, and that the thief knew this, and was simply having fun with it. So much so that the impact it had on his plan continues to elude me entirely…

Well, the idea for the trap is nonetheless brilliant, so it gets a pass. Kind of an inversion of “congruous invisibility” — making an incongruous person perfectly congruous by sheer nature of all the incongruity surrounding him. Decent story.

“The Invisible Man” is G. K. Chesterton’s most famous story. A woman rejects two “ugly” “freaks”, telling them that if they wish to marry her they must make something of their lives on principle. While the first of these “freaks” — a borderline-dwarf — succeeds in making autonomous servants, the second seems to merely be stalking the woman, promising in threatening notes to murder the dwarf if she marries him… all while appearing to be invisible! Naturally, this comes to a head as the invisible man truly does commit the murder he promised to commit… in front of four witnesses who swear that nobody walked into the victim’s house, despite the fact footprints show otherwise.

As I’ve hinted at above, I simply do not enjoy this story or consider it even remotely possible — not merely implausible, but I believe this story would never work out the way as described in real life. It utilizes Chesterton’s well-worn trick, but in this case brought to the point of absurdity so to not even be conceivable. It ultimately relies on a false premise that Chesterton tries to explain away as a quirk of language, but all I know is that the way Father Brown claims people answer questions is not the way I answer questions, that’s for certain! The solution could’ve involved the killer paying off everyone in the city to lie on his behalf, and I’d find it more believable and more enjoyable than the solution Chesterton gives us here. Hokey and overrated.

“The Honour of Israel Gow” sees Father Brown at a Scottish castle, investigating the life of a man who may or may not have lived, and the death of the very same man who may or may not have died. Brown’s newly reformed friend, former thief and current genius amateur detective, is up the wall with oddities surrounding the life and death and person of the Earl of Glengyle. He left out snuff with no snuffbox, had candles with no candlesticks… and from just this, and a conversation with the late Earl’s groundskeeper Israel Gow, Father Brown can expound on the mysteries of the house of the Earl of Glengyle.

Another of those intuitive reasoning stories with no apparent criminal element, same as “The Blue Cross” and “The Queer Feet”, “The Honour of Israel Gow”‘s solution is perfectly natural given the provided information, so long as you can find the missing link; it is, perhaps a less inspired, but more credible deduction than the one seen in “The Queer Feet”! There is a long series of false solutions at the beginning which are very pleasantly clever.

Sometimes Chesterton likes to do soft style parodies, with “The Honour of Israel Gow” clearly and evidently having fun at the expense of the stories written and inspired by Wilkie Collins. The characters in the story themselves lampshade this by calling their conundrum a melodrama straight from the mind of Collins himself. Much to be enjoyed here; these intuitive reasoning stories tend to be highlights.

The Wrong Shape” has Flambeau and Father Brown appearing at the summons of a writer of oriental romantic poems. The odd artist has a fascination with all things Asian, with his furniture being a complex hodgepodge of various Asian crafts, and the man even having an odd Indian visitor in his home. And so, when he winds up dead in his locked and sealed atrium with a note nearby reading “I die by my own hand, yet I die murdered”, it’s wondered if maybe this odd Indian visitor used hypnotism to compel the author to kill himself…

I am going to choose my words tactfully, because this topic seems to cause questionable debates in certain circles where pointing out racism in classic mysteries gets you labeled a “revisionist woke liberal”. No, I do not think this story should be censored, yes I think this story deserves to exist (as all art does), no I do not think that it should be rewritten in any way. That being said, it is still flagrantly racist. “The Indian” is referred to in exactly those terms throughout the entire story; he is not given any other name, unless you want to count “n****r” as a name. The presentation of the impossibility relies on multiple people who are otherwise rational and supposedly kind-spirited (why is Father Brown calling people “n****rs”?) to not only be incredibly racist, but so cruelly mean-spirited it overwrites all of their rational human beliefs to even for a moment believe that Indian people have access to mind-warping voodoo powers. As someone who reads these stories for enjoyment, and does not enjoy racism, I think it’s fair to say that the racism impeded my ability to derive the maximum amount of enjoyment from this story. It is free to exist as it does, but I am also free to not enjoy that it does so. On this one point, I do not care if you disagree; do not tell me.

Anyway, as concerns the investigation; I didn’t like this story when I first read it, because the mechanisms of the impossible crime are ostensibly quite crude for someone as forward thinking as Chesterton. But on closer inspection, I realized that the misdirection deflecting away from the solution was actually quite crafty, with a typically Chestertonian “congruity” clue hiding it all the while. The presentation of a paradox to mull over was a smart red herring and distraction, the sort I don’t think I’ve seen very often; I almost feel like this clue would’ve functioned even better in a visual medium, like a television show or a comic. As an impossible crime story, this is fairly well-told and quite good, but not a favorite.

In “The Sins of Prince Saradine”, Flambeau is summoned by an Italian prince for a meeting on the condition that Flambeau is only allowed to come once he is fully reformed. In this dreamy, fairyland-like islet, nothing is quite as it appears to be as Father Brown is assaulted by senses of foreboding and impending Doom…

The fourth intuitive reasoning story in the collection, this one is solid but only just. Despite being an intuitive reasoning story, the explanation relies on principles often seen before in criminal mystery stories, dulling the charm of these stories, which comes from the very fact that the explanation is so brilliantly far-removed from typical mystery fare. They’re ideas that already weren’t very new when this story was written either, making it a little more predictable and less knee-slappingly brilliant than its kin.

In fact, this repurposing of a criminal trick in an intuitive reasoning story was very much the point, as a trick utilized earlier in a criminal Father Brown story was explicitly the inspiration for the culprit in this case, a really smart clue that is established early on. Overall, this story is charmingly well-written and somewhat clever, but aside from its beautifully magical imagery unremarkable in this collection of generally much more inspired stories.

In “The Hammer of God”, after declaring his intentions to go and sleep with the wife of the local blacksmith, Norman Bohun is soon found dead under puzzling circumstances. His skull was destroyed with a massive blow, but next to him was a murder weapon: a tiny hammer… No woman could’ve delivered such a blow with such a weapon, and no man would ever consciously choose to use such a weapon, creating a seemingly inexplicable crime…

The explanations for why the paradox is a problem to begin with aren’t entirely convincing, and the solution is one of those solutions where it’s only a problem if you uncritically accept conditions laid out for you by the story without challenging them. An ounce of common sense without any extraneous mystery reading nonsense should allow any reader to easily pick out the killer and the murder method without much suspense or difficulty; neither are particularly clever. Perhaps the most well-known Father Brown this side of “The Invisible Man”, but certainly overrated.

One of the few instances in which the Father Brown culprit isn’t an atheist.

A typewriter saleswoman named Pauline falls to her death in an empty elevator shaft in “The Eye of Apollo”. However, her death is decidedly impossible. Her sister Joan, towards whom the victim Pauline was abusive, was in another office at the time of death; and Kalon, the patron of a sun-worshiping religion, was proselytizing from his balcony at the time Pauline fell. With suicide additionally off the table, Father Brown must solve the seemingly impossible circumstances of Pauline’s murder…

A phenomenally clever little story and the second best in the collection so far. While it isn’t so hard to figure out, relying on a principle people are likely familiar with, the specific application of the principle, combined with the neatly laid religious elements, make this a pretty smartly realized alibi problem. This is apparently the predecessor to Knox’s “Solved by Inspection”, but by all accounts I think this is the superior variation.

“The Sign of the Broken Sword” sees Father Brown and Flambeau haunting the tombs of famous English general St. Clair, searching for clues into his mysterious historical death. General St. Clair led a small force of his soldiers against a much larger Brazilian battalion, whereupon St. Clair was taken prisoner by Brazilian general Olivier and subsequently hung, with his broken sword dangling from his neck… However, Father Brown disagrees that this version of events is true; St. Clair was too clever to wage this suicide mission for no reason, and Olivier was too altruistic to hang a prisoner… so surely there must be a more profound spirit of evil running under this bizarre moment in English history…

I was spoiled on this short story’s connection to a certain Agatha Christie novel by one of my fellow bloggers, and I’m very sad for that because it let me clue into the true solution much sooner than I would’ve liked. This is actually a spectacular “historical cold case” story. The explanation behind St. Clair’s bizarre behavior is a brilliant way to take advantage of a wartime setting for classical misdirection in a murder mystery, and the explanation behind St. Clair’s subsequent death is genuinely creepy, both taking advantage of the large scale of war for their impact. Brilliant story, this, new second best in the collection.

“The Three Tools of Death” see Father Brown investigate a bizarre crime, in which a man died by being thrown out of the window onto the bank of a traintrack below, and yet there still seem to be three weapons responsible for his death: a rope tied around his legs; a gun fired in his bedroom; and, a knife with fresh blood on it!

The set-up doesn’t super intuitively make sense because there isn’t any ambiguity surrounding the nature or cause of his death (that being defenestration). The idea of three false weapons being present at the crime scene is one John Dickson Carr would revisit in his own The Four False Weapons, and it’s a worthwhile prospect but it isn’t a premise G. K. Chesterton established very well, and this bizarre half-set-up does dull the story’s impact. The anti-solution has all of Father Brown’s characteristic cleverness, but part of me wonders if maybe this story was written on a tight deadline with its rather short length (~30% shorter than the average Father Brown story) and messy set-up.

The Innocence of Father Brown might not be the beacon of perfection it’s often heralded as, but what can be said about it is that it’s a fascination and illuminating look into what the genre would become. The clever, imaginative, tricky plots of the Golden Age essentially owe their existence to G. K. Chesterton and Father Brown, a purifying force that elevated detective stories from their crude and rational forms into something a little more artistic and crafty. Quite a few classics of the genre make their appearance here, and while I don’t think I’ve walked away thinking of Chesterton himself as a favorite author, I can say that some highlights like “The Queer Feet” will stick with me as some some of my favorite individual mystery short stories of all time!

I will absolutely return to this formative author’s mystery stories in the near future, as it is interesting to see the DNA of so many beloved novels and stories first form in these pages… As it is, The Innocence of Father Brown is a solid collection from one of the most important detective fiction authors of all time!

As is standard, I’ll wrap this all up with a ranking of the Father Brown stories…

  1. “The Queer Feet”
  2. “The Sign of the Broken Sword”
  3. “The Eye of Apollo”
  4. “The Secret Garden”
  5. “The Honour of Israel Gow”
  6. The Wrong Shape”
  7. “The Three Tools of Death”
  8. “The Blue Cross”
  9. “The Flying Stars”
  10. “The Sins of Prince Saradine”
  11. “The Hammer of God”
  12. “The Invisible Man”

Detective Conan Volumes 16 to 29 — 14-Volume Review Lightning Round

(*Note, although this is the sixteenth 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)

You may or may not have noticed that I haven’t updated my Detective Conan reviews in a while. The last update was a review of volume 15, nearly a third of a year ago… This is NOT because I haven’t been reading it, but quite the opposite: I’ve been reading it between classes, while bed-ridden with sciatica, at the hospital waiting to be diagnosed with sciatica, during mental health burnouts, over lunch… It’s such a breezy and easy to read series that it’s become a go-to comfort read for me when I feel like I haven’t touched enough mysteries lately.

I’m actually at book 30 in Detective Conan now, and reviewing these somewhat weekly means I’ll never catch up and never have room to discuss any other non-literature mysteries! So I kept putting off writing new Detective Conan reviews, but then continued reading the series until one day I realized… oh no… I’ve only reviewed half of what I’ve read!

Suffice it to say, this was unideal. Anxiety set in (as it always does when I’m facing the most insignificant problems a person has ever faced) and I had no idea how I was ever going to catch up with myself reviewing them one measly book at a time!

…So why review them one book at a time? Why not write one massive catch-up review post, covering all 14 volumes I’ve read since I last updated the series, and continue from there? Does this seem inefficient and inelegant? Probably.

But I’m still doing it. It makes me feel better.

Detective Conan is one of if not simply the largest “classical-styled” mystery series in the entire world, boasting exactly 700 disparate mystery stories across 1109 chapters of 104 books, and 1067 episodes of 31 seasons of television (only counting the stories original to the television adaptation), and that’s before taking into account video games, novels, movies, audio plays, and other random, obscure micro-entries… and the franchise isn’t even done yet, as it’s slated to continue in full force later this year! Suffice it to say that when I set out to consume nearly 2200 micro-units of media for review on this blog, I was making a huge commitment of time, energy, and effort, not to mention sacrificing my integrity in the eyes of more conservative mystery readership…

Naturally the project sometimes gets away from me, as I’ve read 15 whole books in the series since I last reviewed it. If it were one or two books I was behind, that’d be one thing, but 15…!? That’s not reasonable at all. I was simply not on top of the project. In order to get myself back on track, I’ve decided to carry out the worst plan in the history of plans and cram 14 reviews into one by going through a lightning round review of all 41(!) stories I’ve read but have yet to cover on the blog…


I don’t want to waste too much time on this preamble for a rushed and slapdash review, so without much further ado, let’s start with…

Volume 16 (1997)

Volume 16 only fully starts on Chapter 4 with Casebook 043 – Elementary School Mystery Case (Chapters 4-5), a Junior Detective League case borrowing from Japanese schoolkid mythology of every school having “seven mysteries”. The Junior Detective League investigates running skeletons and moving statues, but the solution is intentionally silly and not entirely interesting, even if the “motive” is really cute.

Casebook 044 – KAITO KID and the Black Star Case is a landmark case for the series, as it is the first crossover between Detective Conan and Gosho Aoyama’s other series Magic Kaito. Magic Kaito is a heist series about a magician-turned-supercriminal who seeks to steal every gem in the world until he can find the magical jewel that is responsible for his father’s death..! The protagonist, KAITO KID, often crosses over with Conan in heists told from the detective’s perspective, and this blend of heist fiction and classical detection results in an exceptionally fun and outstandingly unique story in this franchise. A+!

Casebook 045 – Famous Potter Murder Case (Chapters 10-2) involves a famous potter and his proteges excitedly showing the famous Detective Richard Moore their work when the potter’s daughter-in-law accidentally breaks his magnum opus… She’s naturally torn-up with grief, so when she dies by hanging in the shed the very next day, when everyone was together in the living room of the house with an alibi, it’s determined that her death must’ve been a suicide…

My biggest gripe with Conan alibi tricks is that the cases tend to get lazy by giving everyone a perfect alibi, highlighting the very existence of an alibi trick and making the tricks less functional and more obvious as a consequence. What’s here is a decent idea for a trick, but the cracks on the foundation become more apparent when your set-up shouts “hey, everybody look! Alibi here! There’s an alibi trick here!”. Some later Conan stories handle this better. Middle of the line story.

Volume 16 is fairly unremarkable if not for the exceptional KAITO KID case. It’s hard to recommend the volume on the weight of one story alone, but it is a landmark, so I’d suggest checking out the anime adaptation of this story to get context for future KAITO KID crossovers (of which there will be many)

Volume 17 (1997)

Volume 17 opens with Casebook 046 – Scuba Divers Attempted Murder Case (Chapters 3-5), in which a bride-to-be almost drowns after being bitten by a rare, poisonous sea-snake! But a chance observation by Conan, as well as Richard’s ex-wife Eri, leads to the realization that this seeming “accident” way well be murder.

The motive for this one requires a little tolerance for what is and isn’t taboo in other cultures, but it’s actually a really good plot with a smart visual clue. It recalls the last Attempted Murder case in Casebook 21 – Poisoned Bride Attempted Murder Case (Volume 8, Chapters 8-10) in that it involves a tragic misunderstanding that is resolved by the end of the case. I think the resolution works better in this case than that one, but this isn’t as good a mystery. Still, a really solid one!

Casebook 047 – Hospitalized Robber Case (Chapter 6) isn’t very interesting. It’s Die Hard but condensed into a single chapter of Detective Conan. My least favorite story in the series. Next.

Casebook 048 – Mysterious Clocks Mystery Case (Chapters 7-9) is a Junior Detective League code-cracker, only instead of the Junior Detective League it’s Conan and the Moores… Even if the JDL are absent, the case about a mysterious house where all of the clocks go off at once isn’t interesting or fair, giving it the same standard of plotting as those JDL stories… Also underwhelming.

Casebook 049 – Historical Actor Case (Chapters 10-2) sees Richard Moore summoned by an actor well-known for period pieces to act as reference for an upcoming detective film, but when they all witness the murder of his wife in the next-door apartment, Conan has to find a wrinkle in the open-and-shut case against the tenant… The case isn’t entirely original, as it recalls a particular Ellery Queen story, but it’s still a decently fun case that I enjoy well enough, with a pretty solid spatial trick.

Volume 17 seems split evenly between the good and the bad, but the bad stories are actually quite short. If you’re willing to pick up Volume 18 to finish Historical Actor Case, Volume 17 is a worthwhile addition for signed-on fans of the franchise!

Volume 18 (1997)

After finishing Historical Actor Murder Case, Volume 18 opens with Case 050 – Jimmy’s First Love Attempted Murder Case (Chapters 3-5), in which a fire starts from the inside of a house with a young woman inside, even though all of her friends were out at the time, singing karaoke miles away and in full view of each other…

Another “all of the suspects have an alibi” one, but the trick here is actually a really unique method of lighting a fire with an alibi, so it stands out from other, similarly-structured cases! A pretty cute and novel short form case, and one of the better stories from the series!

Case 051 – Lady in Black Kidnapping Case (Chapters 7-8) is another “thriller with logic” case involving the Junior Detective League involving the kidnapping of one of their classmates’ brother… It introduces Anita, an important character, but the case is otherwise not interesting at all and teases plot developments that don’t pan out.

Case 052 – University Professor Murder Case (Chapters 9-1) is a locked-room mystery in which Anita and Conan visit a university professor to retrieve Black Organization contraband, only to find the professor murdered in his locked-and-sealed office…

This is a unique take on the locked-room mystery because the case all but tells you from the get-go that the solution is a specific kind of string trick, and what the string trick was. However, the solution leaves another problem: how did the string escape from the room? I didn’t like the case at first because the string trick is rather silly, but once I realized the point was more the mystery of the disappearing string I lightened on it a lot. It’s actually a pretty novel locked-room mystery that I enjoy! Easy recommendation.

Volume 18 is a pretty solid entry into the series that’s worth checking out if you’re a signed-on fan. Not only does it contribute important plot development (something I don’t care about because it’s the most glacial narrative in the history of writing, but…), but it also has two pretty good cases bookending it. It isn’t one of the all-time great volumes, but a pretty good one worth checking out.

Volume 19 (1997)

After giving us the conclusion chapter to University Professor Murder Case, Volume 19 starts with Casebook 053 – Mystery Writer Kidnapping Case (Chapters 2-4), in which a mystery author appears to be leaving clues to his kidnapping in his serialized manuscript. Another boring code-cracker, which involves knowledge of three(!) languages to solve, and is just as tenuous and unbelievable as always.

Casebook 054 – Stabbed Wallets Murder Case (Chapters 5-8) has Conan visit Harley’s home of Osaka, where a serial killer with a bizarre M.O. is on the loose: first, he strangles his victims, and then he stabs their wallets…

Not a very interesting case for the first proper “serial killer” story, involving a tenuous “missing link” that makes no sense and reveals a pretty nonsensical motive for the killers. There’s one solid trick in the mix, but it’s a pretty unremarkable story, silly and unambitious.

Casebook 055 – Stadium Indiscriminate Threatening Case (Chapters 9-1) is a Junior Detective League story, but is more of a “thriller with logic” case as a man holds a stadium of over 26,000 soccer fans hostage with a bomb threat in exchange for millions of yen! Despite being a “thriller with logic” case, which are rarely fair, this one is pretty solid for being surprisingly fairplay with its solution and having some neat, clever developments. Not my kind of story personally, but pretty solid for what it is.

Volume 19 is one of the weaker volumes of the series so far, and it’s not even close. Despite the fairly decent Stadium Indiscriminate Threatening Case, nothing here stands out as worth going out of your way to read, nor is it important to read for context into the overarching narrative. Wholly skippable.

Volume 20 (1998)

Casebook 056 – KAITO KID and the Magic Lovers Murder Case (Chapters 2-6) is a fan-favorite of many Detective Conan fans, including TomCat of Beneath the Stains of Time, but I wasn’t as enamored with it. This no-footprints-in-the-snow mystery involving a murder at a meeting of an online magician fangroup has an overly technical, machine-based solution that doesn’t really do it for me. The solution represents a type of trick most people immediately think of when thinking about murders committed in snow without leaving footprints, too…

Also, KAITO KID hardly figures into the story. Don’t get excited, all 1 of you Magic Kaito fans…

Case 057 – Sealed Bathroom Murder Case (Chapters 7-9) has Richard Moore and Conan on the scene when a woman breaks into her taped-shut bathroom to find that her sister has committed suicide within….!

The solution and set-up are lifted entirely from Clayton Rawson’s landmark locked-room mystery story “From Another World”. There’s a neat touch with how Conan identifies the killer, a brilliant fatal visual clue that’d function well in an inverted mystery, but the locked-room mystery’s shameless pilfering knocks this story down a lot.

Case 058 – Blue Castle Murder Case (Chapters 10-3) is a four-chapter long JDL code-cracking case with a lot of padding and failed attempts at horror and suspense. The code is fair for English-speakers for once, but it still makes for an unremarkable story. We’ve been getting too many of these code-crackers…

Volume 20 is another pretty underwhelming and not very good volume in the series that isn’t worth seeking out to read in my opinion. Unremarkable all the way down.

Volume 21 (1998)

Casebook 059 – Jimmy’s First Murder Case (Chapters 4-7) has Rachel falling asleep on an airplane, reminiscing on the first murder case Jimmy (Conan) ever solved, also on an airplane… a case in which an unsavory tabloid photographer is murdered in a bathroom after boasting about the compromising photos he’s gotten of a prominent American politician!

The case offers some cute lore for Conan as a character, and is all-around a pretty well-written, well-plotted detective story with a fun alibi trick at its heart. The disappearing weapon element isn’t very interesting, and recalls an earlier story in the series, but the rest of the case is pure, good, un-gimmicky mystery plotting. Good stuff!

Casebook 060 – Treadmill Murder Case (Chapters 8-10) is the first in a series of stories called “Police Love Story” about the will-they-won’t-they romance between police detectives Wataru Takagi and Miwako Sato.

A semi-inverted mystery about Conan suspecting a man of murdering his wife, even though the man was at the police station when the crime occurred, the technical trick here isn’t very interesting, and a variation of a classification of trick the series is obsessed with… It’s a somewhat okay-ish variation on the concept, since it relies on environmental elements of which you are aware, but it’s not a favorite.

Casebook 061 – Wedding Day Murder Case (Chapters 11-3) is a pretty underwhelming and bogstandard locked-room mystery about a butler being murdered in a locked-room. There’s a decent double-bluff at the end with a string trick being proffered as a false solution, but the true solution is still an old dodge. However, I enjoyed the way the killer misdirected away from the trick, making this an unremarkable locked-room mystery but a decently smartly-done whodunit.

Volume 21 is better than the previous two volumes, with a higher average of quality, but is still not quite good enough to unambiguously recommend. If you’re a signed-on fan, I can say this is a decent volume worth your time, but people only looking for the highlights should just look for the anime adaptation of Jimmy’s First Murder Case.

Volume 22 (1998)

Casebook 062 – North Star Murder Case (Chapters 4-7) focuses on a professional robber who, after bungling a jewelry store robbery, murders the owner of the store on a train before impossible vanishing from a guarded compartment… All of which reminds Conan of an unpublished mystery manuscript written by his father!

The solution to this impossible disappearance isn’t very interesting, as it’s obvious and the clues are rather crude. I appreciate the framing device of excerpts from the father’s manuscript highlighting pivotal moments in the case, but the manuscript’s connection to the case is boring and hand-waved away. Not a very good one at all.

Case 063 – Serena Attempted Murder Case (Chapters 8-10) sees Serena, Rachel’s long-time best friend, the target of a serial killer who murders young blondes! If you can’t see the conclusion to this cheap dime-store thriller-esque narrative coming from a mile away, I don’t know what to tell you. Corny and not interesting.

Volume 22 contains no full stories worth reading, and doesn’t finish a very good story either. Not worth reading at all, and one of the worst volumes we’ve seen in a long time.

Volume 23 (1998)

Casebook 064 – Movie Theater Murder Case (Chapters 1-3) sees rotten real estate agent murdered inside of a failing movie theater after boasting about shutting the place down! His dead body is hung in front of the projection’s booth in the middle of the movie theater’s swansong marathon of every Gomera movie, in the attendance of which was none other than Conan and the Junior Detective League…

This is my second favorite Detective Conan case of all time so far, as it’s brilliant from top-to-bottom. The movie theater setting is exploited to produce a truly brilliant and unique alibi-trick, with some of the series’ best visual clues to top it all off. The Junior Detective League are restrained and quite helpful in this case too, allowing the story to side-step a lot of the typical pitfalls of JDL-centric plots.

Fantastic little setting-oriented mystery story, unambiguous recommendation!

Casebook 065 – Cruise Ship Murder Case (Chapters 4-9) is the first proper long-form case we’ve seen in a while, focusing on a cruise ship where the vengeful, once-thought-dead former head of a crime group is thought to soon resurface… And, naturally, in his wake he leaves many corpses!

This isn’t my favorite long-form Conan, as the trick at the heart of this one is a crude artifice I’ve seen and gotten bored of elsewhere, but despite the unambitious trick this is still a smartly-plotted, well-written detective story with tight reasoning that is plenty worth reading! Really good stuff!

Casebook 066 – Innocent Suspect Case (Chapters 10-2) is another entry into the Police Love Story series, in which Miwako Sato is handcuffed to the escaped suspect in a murder case in a bathroom! Despite the fact the man was alone in his locked-and-sealed apartment with the victim, he insists he’s innocent, and the two police officers decide to do a little more inquiring into the case with the Junior Detective League…

Surprisingly, another pretty good Junior Detective League murder case. The core trick at the heart of this Judas Window-esque locked-room mystery is silly in a very natural and believable way, and I actually kind of found myself being amused at not seeing the solution ahead of time. I wonder if I’d like this one as much returning to it, but as it stands I thought this was an amusing and comical take on the problem even if the melodrama of Sato being handcuffed to a toilet in a building that’s soon to be demolished unnecessary.

Volume 23 is one of the best volumes in the series so far! This is the first volume containing three stories in which I think all three stories are truly good and worth reading, and it contains my second favorite story in the whole franchise! Absolutely check this one out, it’s good stuffs, this!

Volume 24 (1998)

Casebook 067 – Blackout Murder Case (Chapters 3-6) is an unfortunately unremarkable story on the heels of Volume 23. As Richard is consulting a client, a man winds up electrocuted to death in a bathtub after a blackout! But who could’ve committed the murder, and how!

The murder method is one I’ve seen repeated in a few other stories, and the alibi “trick” shows Conan‘s age, as the tool required to make it work is much more well-known to us in the modern world and something we’d think of immediately. Not great.

Casebook 068 – Hotel Party Case (Chapters 7-11) sees Anita and Conan tailing a member of the Black Organization to a hotel party, whereupon they’re chased down by grunts from the group following a seemingly-impossible murder committed in the dark!

This is a plot relevant case, so naturally is of interest to those who care about that sort of thing, but as an independent murder murder is quite thin and unmemorable. Not worth reading unless you’re invested in the overarching story of Detective Conan.

Sadly another short and unpleasant volume not worth going out of your way to read unless you’re a signed-on fan of the overarching narrative of the series. Supposedly, Gosho Aoyama starts to shift his focus away from disconnected murder plots to more connected stories, so I wonder if that’ll cause my interest in the individual cases to dwindle going forward…

Volume 25 (1999)

Casebook 069 – Skating Rink Murder Case (Chapters 1-3) sees a woman shot to death in the bathroom of a skating rink during a fireworks show. Sure enough, she has a dying message in her hands implicating a friend of hers, but when the friend is revealed to be entirely innocent Conan is forced to figure out who would want to commit this murder and frame the friend…

The dying message repurposes a trick used earlier in the series, but the dodge here is equally effective as there is really smart psychological trick played here to give the killer a false alibi! As I’ve never used the tool used to produce the alibi, I think it’s probably a little unconvincing, but the forced association trick at the heart of this one is really neat in concept. Love it a lot, fantastic little case!

Case 070 – Tottori Spider Mansion Murder Case (Chapters 4-8) sees Harley and Conan investigating a series of suicides instigated by the Spider Mistress’s Curse, which have just recently been bookended by the impossible murder of a doll-maker in his locked-and-sealed shed, with his entire body strung up in a spiderweb-like arrangement of string…

The core murder method recalls a Father Brown tale, and it’s a murder method repurposed in a certain famous Kindaichi Case Files story… but an extra twist is put on the knot with a really smart piece of misdirection involving the state of the body and the spider imagery that disguises a pretty brilliant piece of alibi trickery which elevates the story beyond the fact it (obviously, from the set-up) turns on a variation of string trickery. Throw into the mix a haunting aesthetic and tragic motive, and you’ve got yourself a pretty great Detective Conan locked-room mystery!

Case 071 – Cave Murder Case (9-1) is another Junior Detective League code-cracking in which the kids need to solve a riddle to escape from a cave before they’re murdered by a group of thugs whose murder they’ve just witnessed. Putting Conan out of commission to force the JDL to reason for themselves was a smart idea, but they end up guessing instead of reasoning, making the set-up feel wasted and their victory unearned. Not very interesting or good.

Another fantastic volume with two all-time great cases! Although Cave Murder Case is disappointing, Skating Rink and Tottori Spider Mansion are two fantastic mystery plots that both begin and end within this volume. Unambiguous recommendation for this volume for those two exceptional stories!

Volume 26 (1999)

Casebook 072 – School Play Murder Case has an attendee of the high school play be poisoned by his drink… This is a really well-clued and well-written detective story, a fact sorely undercut by the fact the solution turns on a trick that has passed from cliche on to riddle on to punchline since its conception. It’s a shame, too, because some smart reasoning shows up in the denouement of this one…

Casebook 073 – Restaurant Elevator Murder Case is another inverted mystery from Detective Conan, in which a man murders his soon-to-be father-in-law in an elevator while using his wife as an alibi.

This is actually a really solid inverted mystery, with the killer being caught on a brilliant Furuhata Ninzaburou-styled slip of the tongue trap, but the fact the case has to share room with Conan (Jimmy) and Rachel’s romance plot does mean the investigation is a little thinner than I prefer, making the killer come off as a bit of a trivial pushover. Still, really good one, even if it falls behind the franchise’s better inverted mysteries.

Casebook 074 – Music Box Mystery Case (Chapters 8-10) sees a young woman attempting to figure out the secrets behind an apparently valuable music box her dead pen pal left her, despite the fact the antique shop says it’s worthless…

The story that follows ends up just being Scooby-Doo but played 100% seriously and with none of the humor of whimsy. Unremarkable.

Volume 26 does mark a sudden shift to more plot-relevant cases, as the first two cases each try to move along Jimmy and Rachel’s romance, and in both cases it does seem to come at the expense of the story. While the first two cases are decent and solid respectively, I can’t recommend wholeheartedly you go out of your way to read this volume unless you’re a dedicated fan of the series as-is. If you are a Detective Conan fan, though, this isn’t a terrible volume that could be worth picking up to fill some holes in your reading.

Volume 27 (1999)

Casebook 075 – Suspect Richard Moore Murder Case (Chapters 1-3) has Richard Moore become the prime suspect in a murder after the woman he drunkenly hooked up with was murdered in her locked and sealed hotel room! His separated wife and lawyer, Eri, sees to the investigation to prove him innocent…

The trick at the heart of this one is a pretty unremarkable variation of the kind of gimmick we’ve seen a few times within and without this series, so it wasn’t a very interesting case. The way the killer was caught is fun, but didn’t elevate the case any at all.

Casebook 076 – Sato’s Father Murder Case (Chapters 4-6) is another Police Love Story case, as well as a Junior Detective League case focusing on arson! Unfortunately, the code-cracking is, as always, unfair, tenuous, and unfun. The “parallel plots” reveal at the end is kind of amusing, but minor.

Casebook 077 – Arcade Murder Case (Chapters 7-9) sees a brutish bully murdered at an arcade in the middle of a career-defining match in a virtual reality fighting game! Only, of course, with everyone’s eyes on the game, there are no witnesses as to who may or may not have murdered the gamer…

This is actually another exceptionally good case. Although it might be somewhat easy to see through the core deception, the trick at the heart of this is novel, unique, and informed brilliantly by the video game setting. It is a much more clever utilization of video games than the disappointing Mantendo Bombing Case from Volume 12. Despite the ease with which some people will see through the alibi trick, Arcade Murder Case is easily my new third favorite case, with a unique plot informed by a unique setting.

Casebook 078 – Bear Hunter Murder Case (Chapters 10-2) is a Junior Detective League case in which Mitch and Anita flee from a murderer whose crime they’ve witnessed! Unable to come out into the open without being shot, Anita is forced to come up with a message to communicate with Conan so he can save their lives…

The misunderstanding behind the motive makes this a surprisingly sweet story, but the clues and plot are otherwise rather unremarkable. Decent motive misdirection, but not impressive in any other way.

Volume 27, sadly, wasn’t a great volume. Arcade Murder Case is an exceptionally novel murder mystery, but the other three stories don’t make the volume worth recommending for one case alone. I recommend everyone go check out the anime version of Arcade Murder Case as soon as possible, as it’s truly a wonderful case!

Volume 28 (1999-2000)

Casebook 079 – Old Photograph Murder Case (Chapters 3-5) has Richard commissioned by an old lady who seems to lie about insignificant things to find an old friend of hers to recover a photograph he accidentally took from her. When the friend is located, however, he is found murdered inside of his apartment after having eaten breakfast…

The alibi trick at the heart of this one recalls my favorite episode of Alibi-Cracking, At Your Service, and can be seen as a forebear to that exceptional episode. While it’s still a very clever idea in Detective Conan, I found this variation of the trick less impressive or convincing. Not that it’s a bad case by any means, I think it’s a pretty fun short-form murder mystery. It’s just somewhat inferior to another, similar story.

Casebook 080 – Mermaid’s Curse Murder Case (Chapters 6-10) has Harley and Conan investigating a letter from a woman who claims to be cursed to die by mermaids after she lost a talisman purported to grant eternal life… In investigating the woman’s disappearance, they explore an island with bizarre mermaid-worshipping religious practices and an annual celebration that results in three more murders…

There really isn’t much of a meaningful misdirection to speak of outside of a fairly clever double-bluff about the identity of one of the victims. This case revolves around a trick that I’ve always found to be somewhat corny and uninteresting, and it’s a rather unambitious variation of it too. It’s also a somewhat inferior long-form case as regards the plotting and cluing. Sadly not much better than decent despite its good reputation.

Casebook 081 – Girl Clubbing Murder Case (Chapters 11-2) is a serial killing case about a man killing ganguro (dark make-up) girls in a department store. The motivation is absurd, and the only noteworthy part of the story is one piece of misdirection about the killer’s body type and the attempt to give Inspector Meguire some development. A fairly mediocre case.

Another middle of the line Volume with a couple of decent moments but nothing unambiguously worth going out of your way to read. I don’t recommend this to any but the most dedicated of hardcore Conan fans looking to fill in some gaps in their reading.

Volume 29 (2000)

Casebook 082 – Bus Hijacking Case (Chapters 3-5) is a somewhat interesting “which-of-the-three” case in which Conan realizes that one of three people sitting in the back seat of a bus are communicating to a group of bus hijackers, but it’s impossible to tell how they’re communicating.

Unfortunately, what follows is more of a “thriller with logic” case, with pretty thin investigation/cluing into the culprit’s identity and not very memorable in resolution. Mediocre.

Casebook 083 – Dog Lover Kidnapping Case (Chapters 6-8) has a rare purebred dog kidnapped from a house of dog-lovers, and Conan on the case to discover who the culprit is.

There’s one somewhat neat clue surrounding the whereabouts of the dog, but the motive and method leave this story feeling plain and uninspired.

Casebook 048 – 3 K’s of Osaka Murder Case (Chapters 9-11) sees three western celebrities visiting Osaka for an event, when a murder is committed inside of a hotel in which the three men were alone! However, all three men have alibis proven by the fact they were turning lights on and off in front of hundreds of witnesses, making this crime impossible…!

The set-up is a really neat lead-in to an impossible alibi situation, but the resolution is underwhelming and flat-out unbelievable. This is a fan favorite case for the way it develops Conan’s character, but as a mystery it’s mediocre and middle of the line.

We finish off this long 14-part review with one final unremarkable volume, with not a good story worth going out of your way to read or watch in any form…

Overall, this batch of 14 is far from being the most consistent in the series. A lot of mediocre and underwhelming stories interspersed with a fair bit of good and truly fantastic cases leave this section of cases feeling balanced (or, perhaps, mixed…).

Special notice to Volume 23, which is truly exceptional and contains my second favorite case in the series, and Volume 25 which contains two great stories well-worth reading, including a terrific impossible crime! Add to the mix my third favorite case in Arcade Murder Case, and we still see plenty of truly good cases coming out of this series well worth seeking out for fans of classical detection!

To wrap up this long post, my ranking of all 84 stories we’ve read so far… My 5-point system has been expanded to a 10-point system in order to better account for more nuance between similarly-enjoyed stories.

*Newly reviewed cases are italicized and bookended with asterisks*

{10/10 — Favorites}

1.) Moonlight Sonata Murder Case (Case 018, V. 7 Ch. 2-6)
*2.) Movie Theater Murder Case (Case 064, V. 23 Ch. 1-3)*
*3.) Arcade Murder Case (Case 077, V. 27 Ch. 7-9)
4.) Tengu Murder Case (Case 030, V. 11 Ch. 8-10)
5.) The Art Collector Murder Case (Case 015, V. 6 Ch. 2-5)
6.) Tenkaichi Fire Festival Murder Case (Case 017, V. 6 Ch. 9-10 V.7 Ch. 1)
7.) TV Station Murder Case (Case 028, V. 11 Ch. 2-4)

{9/10 — Great}

8.) Bandaged Man Murder Case (Case 012, V. 5 Ch. 1-5)
9.) Wealthy Daughter Murder Case (Case 024, V. 9 Ch. 7-10, V. 10 Ch. 1)
*10.) Skating Rink Murder Case (Case 069, V. 25 Ch. 1-3)*
11.) KAITO KID and the Black Star Case (Case 044, V. 16 Ch. 6-9)
12.) The Night Baron Murder Case (Case 020, V. 8, Ch. 2-7)

{8/10 — Very Good}

13.) Bonds of Fire Murder Case (Case 042, V. 15 Ch. 10, V.16 Ch. 1-3)
*14.) Tottori Spider Mansion Murder Case (Case 070, V. 25 Ch. 4-8)*
15.) Poisoned Bride Attempted Murder Case (Case 021, V. 8, Ch. 8-10)
16.) Art Museum Owner Murder Case (Case 009, V. 4 Ch. 1-3)
*17.) Jimmy’s First Love Attempted Murder Case (Case 050, V 18 Ch.3-5)*
*18.) Jimmy’s First Murder Case (Case 059 V. 21 Ch. 4-7)*
19.) Elementary School Teacher Murder Case (Case 039, V 14 Ch. 9-10, V.15 Ch. 1-3)
20.) Scuba Divers Attempted Murder Case (Case 046, V. 17 Ch 3-5)

{7/10 — Good}

21.) Gomera Murder Case (Case 036, V.13 Ch. 8-10)
*22.) University Professor Murder Case (Case 052, V.18 Ch. 9-10, V.19 Ch. 1)*
*23.) Cruise Ship Murder Case (Case 065, V. 23 Ch. 4-9)*
*24.) Restaurant Elevator Murder Case (Case 073, V. 26 Ch. 5-7)*
25.) TWO-MIX Kidnapping Case (Case 040, V. 15 Ch. 4-6)
26.) Library Employee Murder Case (Case 026, V. 10 Ch. 6-7)
*27.) Old Photograph Murder Case (Case 079, V. 28, Ch. 3-5)*
*28.) Innocent Suspect Case (Case 066, V. 23 Ch. 10, V. 24 Ch. 1-2)*
*29.) Historical Actor Murder Case (Case 049, V. 17 Ch. 10 V. 18 Ch. 1-2)*
*30.) Stadium Indiscriminate Threatening Case (Case 055, V. 19 Ch. 9-10 V. 20 Ch.1)*

{6/10 — Decent}

31.) Richard’s Reunion Murder Case (Case 023, V. 9 Ch. 4-6)
32.) Mysterious Shadow Murder Case (Case 004, V. 2 Ch. 1-3)
*33.) Bear Hunter Murder Case (Case 078, V. 27 Ch. 10 V. 28 Ch. 1-2)*
34.) Loan Shark Murder Case (Case 041, V. 15 Ch. 7-9)
35.) Lex Band Vocalist Murder Case (Case 013 V. 5 Ch. 6-9)
*36.) Sealed Bathroom Murder Case (Case 057, V.20 Ch. 7-9)*
*37.) Wedding Day Murder Case (Case 061, V. 21 Ch. 11, V. 22 Ch. 1-3)*
38.) Diplomat Murder Case (Case 025, V. 10 Ch. 2-6)
39.) Suspicious Uncle Murder Case (Case 038, V. 14 Ch. 4-8)
*40.) School Play Murder Case (Case 072, V. 26 Ch.2-4)*
*41.) Famous Potter Murder Case (Case 045, V. 16 Ch. 10, V. 17 Ch.1-2)*
*42.) Mermaid’s Curse Murder Case (Case 080, V. 28 Ch. 6-10)*

{5/10 — Average}

*43.) Treadmill Murder Case (Case 060, V. 21, Ch. 8-10)*
44.) Holmes Enthusiasts Murder Case (Case 033, V. 12, Ch. 7-10, V. 13 Ch. 1)
*45.) Bus Hijacking Case (Case 082, V. 29 Ch. 3-5)*
*46.) Hotel Party Murder Case (Case 068, V. 24 Ch. 7-11)*
*47.) 3 K’s of Osaka urder Case (Case 084, V. 29, Ch. 9-11)*
*48.) Suspect Richard Moore Murder Case (Case 075, V. 27, C. 1-3)*
49.) Illustrator’s Assistant Murder Case (Case 035, V. 13, Ch. 5-7)
50.) Mantendo Bombing Murder Case (Case 032, V. 12, Ch. 4-6)
51.) Hatamoto Family Murder Case (Case 007, V. 3 Ch. 1-6)

{4/10 — Mediocre}

*52.) Sato’s Father Murder Case (Case o76, V. 27, Ch. 4-6)*
*53.) Stabbed Wallets Murder Case (Case 054, V. 19 Ch. 5-8)*
*54.) Music Box Mystery Case (Case 074, V. 26, Ch. 8-10)*
*55.) Blackout Murder Case (Case 067, V. 24, Ch. 3-6)*
56.) Triplets Father Murder Case (Case 034, V. 13 Ch. 2-4)
*57.) KAITO KID and the Magic Lovers Case (Case 056, V. 2 Ch. 2-6)*
*58.) Girl Clubbing Murder Case (Case 081 V. 28 Ch 11, V.29 Ch. 1-2)*

{3/10 — Bad}

59.) Shinkansen Bombing Case (Case 010, V. 4, Ch. 4-6)
60.) Conan Edogawa Kidnapping Case (Case 014 V. 5, Ch. 10-11, V.6 Ch. 1)
*61.) Dog Lover Kidnapping Case (Case 083, V.29 Ch. 6-8)
*62.) Blue Castle Murder Case (Case 058, V.20 Ch. 10, V. 21 Ch. 1-3)*
*63.) Lady in Black Kidnapping Case (Case 051, V. 18, Ch. 7-8)*
*64.) Mystery Writer Kidnapping Case (Case 053, v. 19 Ch. 2-4)*
*65.) North Star Murder Case (Case 062, V. 22, Ch. 4-7)*

{2/10 — Very Bad}

*66.) Elementary School Mystery Case (Case 043, V. 16, Ch. 4-5)*
67.) Medical Professors Murder Case (Case 027, V. 10 Ch. 9-1, V. 11 Ch. 1)
68.) Haunted Mansion Case (Case 006, V. 2 Ch. 8-10)
69.) Idol Locked-Room Murder Case (Case 003, V. 1, Ch. 6-9)
70.) Roller-Coaster Murder Case (Case 001, V. 1, Ch. 1)
71.) Magician’s Suicide Case (Case 037, V. 14 Ch. 1-3)

{1/10 — Least Favorites}

72.) Moon, Star, Sun Code Case (Case 031, V. 12, Ch. 1-3)
73.) Soccer Player’s Brother Kidnapping Case (Case 019, V. 7, Ch. 8-10, V. 8. Ch. 1)
74.) The Monthly Presents Case (Case 008, V. 3, Ch. 7-10)
*75.) Mysterious Clocks Mystery Case (Case 048, V. 17, Ch. 7-9)*
76.) Twin Brothers Case (Case 016, V. 6, Ch. 6-8)
77.) Kidnapped Daughter Case (Case 002, V. 1, Ch. 2-5)
78.) 1 Billion Yen Robbery Case (Case 005, V. 2 Ch. 4-7)
79.) Coffee Shop Murder Case (Case 029, V. 11 Ch. 5-7)
*80.) Serena Attempted Murder Case (Case 063, V. 22, Ch. 8-10)*
*81.) Cave Murder Case (Case 071, V. 25, Ch. 9-11, V. 26 Ch. 1)*
82.) ORO Treasure Map Case (Case 011, V. 4, Ch. 7-9)
83.) Amy Kidnapping Case (Case 022, V. 9, Ch. 1-3)
*84.) Hospitalized Robber Case (Case 047, V. 17, Ch. 6)*

Up Adey’s Shorts – A Selection of Random or Obscure Locked-Room Short Stories #1

The locked-room mystery has teased the minds of the mystery-reading public for a century, and then another half. Those cases of crimes committed in impossibly locked-and-sealed rooms, or murders in the middle of a patch of snow where the killer left no footprint, represent one of the prevailing sub-genres of the detective story. And for those readers who love the impossible crimes and undoable deeds, names like John Dickson Carr, Clayton Rawson, Edward D. Hoch, and Paul Halter immediately come to mind as beloved practitioners of the form. Today, however, we’re not talking about these maestros of murder.

We’re talking about the bottom of the barrel.

Not, necessarily, the worst stories, but those locked-room mysteries hidden far in the depths of obscurity, known only to Robert Adey himself and few dedicated readers. In this review series we’ll be taking a look at all of the hard-to-find, out-of-print, unanthologized, uncollected, rare, obscure, unpopular, forgotten, or just straight-up random locked-room mystery short story we can get access to that’s been covered in Robert Adey and Brian Skupin’s Locked Room Murders bibliographies, two books which aim to chronicle every locked-room mystery short story in existence. For this project, we’ll be seeing what’s hiding far up Adey’s shorts.

In this review series, every post will focus on five qualifying stories that I’ve selected from Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders. To rein in the scope of this review, I’ve laid out a few rules for what qualifies to be covered in one of these posts.

Firstly, anything from one of the most popular authors need not apply unless it’s some forgotten, unearthed, or just hard-to-find story from their oeuvre, which we can be reasonably sure I won’t accomplish often. Authors like Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, Paul Halter, are not only widely accessible and have well-collected short stories, but they’re also very popular, and obviously don’t qualify as “random” or “obscure”.

Any short story collected in the following need not apply:

  • Whodunit? Houdini – Thirteen Tales of Magic, Murder, Mystery
  • Sleight of Crime – Fifteen Classic Tales of Magic, Mayhem, and Murder
  • The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries
  • The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries
  • The Mammoth Book of Locked-Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes
  • Art of the Impossible / Murder Impossible
  • Miraculous Mysteries
  • Realm of the Impossible
  • All But Impossible! An Anthology of Locked Room & Impossible Crime Stories by Members of the Mystery Writers of America
  • The Book of Extraordinary Impossible Crimes and Puzzling Deaths
  • Locked Room Puzzles
  • The Locked Room Reader and its two descendant anthologies
  • Passport to Crime, Locked-Room Style: The Complete Stories of Locked-Room International in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
  • Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries
  • Ye Olde Book of Locked-Room Conundrums
  • Foreign Bodies
  • Locked Rooms and Open Spaces
  • any easily-accessible non-locked-room-oriented anthology which happens to contain a locked-room mystery

Basically, nothing contained in any immediately accessible anthologies need apply, for the simple reason that they are readily-accessible and do not qualify as random, obscure, or hard-to-find.

Furthermore, stories collected in authorial short story collections may only apply if it’s true both that the author is sufficiently “random”, and that the locked-room mystery is not the specialization of the author. If the locked-room mystery is a specialty of the author or series, I’d rather review the whole book on its own than randomly isolate stories.

But, ultimately, the final decision comes down to me and if I personally feel like the story qualifies. I may include something that doesn’t seem like it should qualify, and I’m fine with that, as I hope you would be too. While it seems like I threw down a lot of restrictive rules, the goal is still ultimately to have fun and (hopefully) find some hidden gems in the rough.

With all of this out of the way, let’s see what’s up Adey’s shorts first!

We start our adventure up Adey’s shorts with D. L. Champion’s “The Day Nobody Died”, which can be found in the February 1944 issue of Dime Detective February. The story features Champion’s feature bloodhound Inspector Allhof, a persnickety man bitter at life thanks to losing his legs in the line of duty. Due to an ordinance preventing the occupation of police officers without legs, Allhof was fired, but is still paid a salary and privately consulted on murder cases, because the chief of police is damned if he’s going to lose his best man! However, despite this, Allhof is still bitter at his assistant, whom he frequently abuses for what Allhof perceives as him being responsible for him losing his legs.

In “The Day Nobody Died”, a beautiful but crass young woman who is addicted to pills visits Allhof. She tells him that she knows where a murder was committed, who was killed, who committed the crime, why he did it, and how the crime was carried out, but she can’t trust this information to a conventional police officer. She knows the culprit of that murder will soon be after her, so she offers this information to Allhof in exchange for the promise that he’ll protect her life.

However, after only providing him with the address of the crime scene, she dies. She was poisoned by cyanide hidden in one of her pills!

Now forced to investigate without this helpful lead, Allhof sends his two assistants to the crime scene. There they find the door unlocked but barred shut from the inside with a wooden bar that runs the width of the door, and once they manage to break in they find a room hot from the fireplace, a floor covered in candle wax from the hundreds of candles the victim kept, with every other entry locked from the inside, and “a midget”, shot through the head, lying on the ground… Naturally, this is a locked-room murder, so who committed the murder, how, and why?

This is the very first story I read, chosen entirely at random, and I was actually quite shocked to find that I really did enjoy this one. No, it’s not some unearthed gem of the locked-room mystery, but it’s definitely only just a step or two beneath that distinction.

This is a very cerebral mystery story, the sort of tale that crossed-wires between the contemporary pulp thriller and the fairly-clued Golden Age puzzle plot, the sort often successfully done by Roger Ormerod and Bill Pronzini, and it’s surprisingly multi-faceted, containing not only a locked-room murder, but also a killer with an airtight alibi.

The locked-room mystery itself has a mechanical solution that functionally resembles a very old trick to lock a door from the outside, but the dressing-up of this trick is actually incredibly novel, and informs new kind of clues to resolve this old mechanism. The alibi is less novel, but the clues hinting towards it, while obvious, are conceptually really cute. But the highlight of the story is the clue of a letter purported to have been written by George Washington himself, which Allhof enigmatically says was written on “the day nobody died…”. This aspect of the story is incredibly unfair, but the explanation for how Allhof deduces what he does about the letter is extremely smart and satisfying.

For all that, “The Day Nobody Died” isn’t a perfectly inspired locked-room mystery by any means, but it’s a surprisingly competent and fairly novel one, and a pretty decent start to this review series. It’s one I’m surprised hasn’t been anthologized (but for that, I’m sure we can blame the endlessly aggravating character of Allhof…).

I found around 200 qualifying short stories for this project, so from here on out, I like to play a fun little word-association game to decide the next story to read. This story involves a piece of Washingtonia, so what’s more natural than…

“George Washington, Detective” by Steven Peters, which was published in the August 1967 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It is Christmas Eve of 1776, and the English soldiers are badly beating the Revolutionary soldiers of America. The American forces allowed a spy, committed to the gallows, to escape. The American troops were all but ready to sacrifice their dream of a free America, but General George Washington is soon to host a council-of-war at the home of General Greene to decide the next move against the British: the day after Christmas, while the British are recovering from holiday merriment, the American forces will march on Trenton and surprise their unprepared forces.

During the preparation for the council-of-war, a very snowy December night, a man claiming to be a booktaker arrives at Greene’s home and says he stabled his horses, and begs Washington for food and a bed. In exchange, he has sensitive information on the British he is willing to share, and naturally is accepted into the home.

This council of war, attended by Lieutenant Caldwell and Major Anderson, however, is interrupted, as Lieutenant Caldwell hears the booktaker spying at the door of the dining room. Caldwell chases the spy upstairs, and into the guestroom, where he is shot nonfatally in the shoulder. When Anderson and Washington arrive at the room, the door is locked shut from the inside and needs to be broken in. Upon doing so, the delirious Caldwell tells them the spy vanished from the room. And, lo and behold, the spy’s horses have vanished, ridden off back to the British, ruining the American army’s chances of a surprise onslaught…

As the title suggests, “George Washington, Detective” features George Washington… in the capacity of a detective. In addition to a locked-room mystery, it is also a historical mystery story focusing on a murder amidst spies and war during America’s Revolutionary War.

From the title alone, I was prepared to dislike this story. The idea of George Washington acting as a “detective” (a term that didn’t exist yet in 1776) felt like it could’ve easily devolved into corny nonsense, a caricature of a wigged president speaking in exaggerated Revolutionary English while solving an anachronistic crime. Surprisingly, though, the murder mystery fits snugly into its historical, wartime context, and George Washington’s role as a “detective” is incredibly natural in the story.

The detection (and, by extension, the clues) is actually incredibly thin. This is a short story, a little under 8 pages, and most of the crime is delegated to the backmost 4 pages. There really are no clues to speak of, as George Washington, in his role as General, merely makes decisions from common sense and “what has to be true”. As a consequence, it can be understood that the method by which this impossible vanishing was conducted isn’t very inspired or difficult to figure out, and you won’t be be bowled over by the reasoning.

But what makes “George Washington, Detective” work so surprisingly well is the historically-informed motive. The reason this crime was committed at all makes for a genuinely brilliant piece of historical plotting, and is a little more clever than the implied crime would let on. No, this isn’t some great, hidden impossible crime story, but the motive elevates “George Washington, Detective” to a surprisingly decent historical mystery, especially for being the author’s first story (published alongside his also-first story in the same issue…) This well-written wartime murder mystery is recommended to anyone with an interest in the Revolutionary period of American history!

And since this murder takes place on the cusp of Christmas Day, of course the next story we’ll be reading is none other than…

“The Santa Claus Killer” by Mel D. Ames, collected in the December 1981 issue of Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine. “The Santa Claus Killer” is one of Mel D. Ames’s many holiday-themed mysteries, starring his strong and womanly Detective-Lieutenant Cathy Carruthers. It is, yet again, Christmas Eve, but this is not a time for merriment, as Carruthers’s subordinate, Detective-Sergeant Mark Swanson, bursts through her door with a shocking declaration: “Lieutenant, someone just killed Santa Claus!”

…Or, it’s more accurate to say, someone killed the paraplegic Nathan P. Martindew, the manager of the famous Martindew’s department store where the annual Christmas tradition was “of legendary acclaim”. Nathan Martin was dressed-up as Santa in his arc-spinning wheel-chair, waving to dozens of people from the window of the empty section of the store labeled “Santa’s Workshop”, when he was strangled to death. Worse yet, although the crime was committed in front of countless witnesses, none of them can claim to have seen the killer! A murder seemingly committed by an invisible perpetrator on Christmas Eve..?

This is a very poorly-written story, one that feels too much like an author who knows nothing about pulp trying to capture the genre’s hard-boiled atmosphere without really understanding what makes it work. Every character’s dialogue reads like the same archetypical “uber-tough, posturing, self-important cop” plastered onto different names, with supposed “witty comebacks” that are so wordy anyone in the real world would be bored before they were offended. They actually read like a teenager who found his writer dad’s Thesaurus trying to put you into your place on (no, not in a good way). If you need to practice for the eye-rolling olympics, this might be a story for you.

There also just isn’t a lot of Christmas in this story. It’s obvious that the Santa’s Workshop setting was here to facilitate the murder method, and Mel D. Ames had no real interest (or ability) to write a spirited seasonal mystery. I was really disappointed to not read a story that actually involved the murder of the honest-to-God Santa, or just anything approaching a meaningful application of the Christmas set-piece outside of a cynical “well, I needed [redacted], and a Santa’s Workshop in a story would have [redacted], so let’s write a Christmas story”. It’s just dry. And I’m usually happy to read a dry mystery, but not when the dry story is also poorly-written and littered with exhausting characters, and not when the dry mystery uses as a set-piece a holiday that, frankly, deserved better.

As for the impossible murder itself… I mean, it’s not bad. I’ve seen variations on the concept before, and I think given the context of the murder anyone should be able to figure it out very easily, but as obvious as it is it’s not one of the age-old cheap-outs we all know and love to hate, and it shows some mild creativity as far as plotting is concerned. The murder method is mechanical, but it’s a mechanism organically informed by the environment of the crime scene as opposed to the killer building a “self-destroying commit-the-crime machine” from pieces they carted to the murder site, which earns the solution some points in my estimation. It’s not great or inspired, but it’s a natural, reasonable, and solid explanation for the impossibility, and I thought it worked well enough. Shame that the story isn’t great to read, though…

This story features a womanly sleuth, so for our next story I think it’s only natural we read…

“A Lesson for a Lady”, one of the many anonymously-written stories featuring Dixon Hawke, published in Dixon Hawke’s Casebook No. 20.

While attending a lecture on cinema’s place in modern culture at the Wellingtree Arts Club, a high-culture society interested in encouraging the enduring production and enjoyment of art in its many forms, Dixon Hawke bares witness to an audacious crime!

Lady Diana Dayton, who married the Lord Dayton for his money, loves to show off her exquisite jewelry she got as a wedding gift, despite her husband’s warnings that the frivolous presentation of her diamonds will only serve make her a target for unsavory thugs. She refused to relent, but soon learns what the Lord meant when, during the cinema lecture, the lights suddenly turn off, and the jewelry is snatched right off her neck! Fortunately, renowned private detective Dixon Hawke is on the scene to set right to wrongs.

…This one’s bad, and only debatably an impossible crime, regardless of what Adey says. The impression I get from the story is that the impossibility is supposed to be the disappearance of gems from a well-guarded room, and the Locked Room Murders bibliography confirms this, but the impossibility is never officially established. Dixon Hawke solves the crime just as the official police officer is about to conduct a search of everyone’s person (so before it can be confirmed nobody is hiding it in their pockets). The detective also openly admits to having no way to ascertain whether or not someone left the room before the doors were guarded, and that he’ll just “work under that assumption” because… he wants to. It’s not really an impossible crime, but more “a crime which contains a solution which just so happens to resemble what could’ve been a solution to an impossible crime that may have been made out of the set-up of this story”…

Speaking of the solution, it is disappointing, almost inevitably. I’d go so far as to call it insultingly banal. There are two clues total established in this very short tale, neither of which stand-up as conclusive, interesting, or creative, and neither of which are actually given to the audience, making this a pure pulp detective story with none of the pleasures of puzzle-solving.

Worse yet, the title of the story — “A Lesson for a Lady” — made me chuckle, because there was a very obvious motive for the crime that I considered as a possibility, and I had thought the title unceremoniously spoiled this part of the mystery’s solution. …Instead, once you reach the denouement, you learn that not only is that implied solution not true, but the title is actually incredibly silly and makes no sense contextualized to the resolution. Not even a little bit.

Anyway, “A Lesson for a Lady” is the worst one of these stories, and it’s not even close.

The crime involved the theft of jewelry, Lady Diana Dayton’s favorite accessory, so of course our final story for today is…

“Accessory After the Fact” by Samuel Hopkins Adams, published in the October 1949 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

A man and his uncle feud every time he visits his uncle’s apartment, so it’s to nobody’s surprise when the man one day gives up the peace and stabs his uncle to death in his living room. The stairs to the apartment complex were guarded by the narrator’s wife, who was selling stickers to coming-and-goers, so nobody else could’ve committed the murder, leaving the nephew as the natural suspect. However, although he’s the sole person capable of committing this crime, there’s one hang-up stopping anyone from making an arrest: the murder weapon is gone, and a search around the grounds of the apartment complex find nowhere it could’ve been hidden, stashed, or thrown… So, of course, either someone else somehow impossibly committed the crime, or the knife was impossibly disposed of by the known guilty party, but either way you cut it, the crime is an enigma.

This is the shortest of the five stories we’ve read, coming in at under four pages long, so there really isn’t much to say about it.

I had low expectations for the story, purely from the fact that less-than-four pages isn’t enough to allow a decent locked-room mystery puzzle to marinate, but this story was surprisingly solid. A very cute solution to the impossible disappearance of the knife is established by an impressively efficient set of clues. It isn’t groundbreaking or majorly innovative in any way, mind you, but it’s a cute and novel variation I’ve never seen before on this particular trick, making this a short-but-sweet locked-room mystery short story.

In all honesty, when I started this little series, I expected that, on average, I would be reading a lot of bad, and that the great, good, or even decent stories would be few and far between. Pleasantly, though, I’m really enjoying the stories so far. So far, only one or two of the stories have yet relied on the basic, cheap, cop-out solutions we’ve come to expect from the worst of the genre, and aside from “A Lesson for a Lady” I walked away from each of these tales finding at least a small kernel of goodness and creativity. I really should give our lesser-known authors more credit in the future!

Inversely, though, I didn’t find anything I’d consider a “hidden gem”. Nothing here represents the kind of ingenuity we expect from the genre, instead mostly being comfortable in the realms of mildly amusing variations on typical concepts we’re all familiar with, and I wouldn’t recommend any of these stories unambiguously to anyone as yet not initiated into impossible crimes. What I can say, though, is that if I were to edit a locked-room mystery anthology, compiling only stories I’ve read in my “Up Adey’s Shorts” reviews, so far I would seriously consider “An Accessory After The Fact”, “The Day Nobody Died”, and “George Washington, Detective” potential and likely candidates!

If you think of any qualifying stories you’d like for me to read, let me know below and I’ll certainly try to check them out as soon as possible. With nearly 200 stories to select from, it’s hard to decide where to start! Keep my above rules in mind, and perhaps try to keep stories restricted to those published in magazines rather than authorial collections.

Anyway, without further stalling, I’ll now cover my organized ranking of the covered stories. I look forward to seeing what ghastly murders and impossible crimes come our way in the future. Happy reading, and happy sleuthing!

  1. “The Day Nobody Died” by D. L. Champion
  2. “Accessory After the Fact” by Samuel Hopkins Adams
  3. “George Washington, Detective” by Steven Peters
  4. “The Santa Klaus Killer” by Mel D. Ames
  5. “A Lesson for a Lady” by Anonymous (Dixon Hawke)

Alibi Cracking, At Your Service – Season 1 (2020) by Yoshihiro Izumi (based on stories by Ōyama Seīchiro)

That “the alibi is the locked-room in time, where the locked-room is the alibi of space” is a philosophy typified by such authors as Roger Ormerod and Tetsuya Ayukawa. To their mind, the two are merely opposite sides of the same coin, a dichotomy of impossibilities dictated by physical inaccess and those defined by chronal inconsistency. That the two are merely parallels of each other also raises an interesting question: for any passionate disciple of the locked-room mystery, the BBC drama Johnathan Creek, a show about a magician’s assistant who uses his knowledge of illusion to solve seemingly impossible crimes, exists… but what about those interested in a classically-plotted show focusing on the impossible alibi problem, its direct counterpart?

In 2018, detective fiction author Ōyama Seīchiro, known for his themed short story collections, published アリバイ崩し承ります (Aribai Kuzushiuketamawarimasu, or Alibi Cracking, At Your Service). Alibi Cracking, At Your Service was a collection of short stories focusing on Tokino Mitani, the granddaughter of a clockmaker who took over his shop following his death. However, the store offers a bizarre service in addition to clock-selling, -cleaning, and -repairing: because her grandfather said that “anything to do with time is the business of a clockmaker”, her shop also deals in the secret service of cracking a guilty person’s seemingly airtight alibi. This is a service often employed by a prideful member of the police force, who has come to secretly rely on her talents when he’s certain he’s found the guilty party in a murder but can’t seem to place them at the scene of the crime.

In 2020, the Alibi Cracking, At Your Service collection was adapted into a Japanese mystery drama of the same name, covering seven of the original stories. As I can’t yet read Japanese, I cannot speak for Ōyama’s bonafides as an author, and I can’t comment on the television series as an adaptation of an existing work. Because of that unfortunate limitation, although I herein refer to Ōyama’s plotting, assume that I am speaking purely on the adaptations as stories that exist in a void.

As both the title and premise indicate, all of the stories in this series revolve around the theme of “alibis” as a matter of course, and it manages to wring a surprising level of variety from such a specific theme. Most of these stories take the form of semi-inverted/impossible alibi problems, in which we know the killer’s identity but not how they committed the crime while managing to manufacture a seemingly airtight alibi, leaving the question of “howdunnit” hanging in the air. A few other episodes, though, do deal with other variations on the concept, such as the stories adapted into episodes “The Alibi of the Mountain Villa” and “The Alibi of the Beautiful Sister”, which deal with the inverse problem of “providing an alibi to an innocent character”. But even when the series is indulging in its more conventional alibi plots, the versatility in how alibis are established (and cracked) is salient, as in episodes like “The Alibi of the Dead”, where a dying man confesses to murder but is given an alibi based on the time and place in which he died, or “The Alibi of the Download”, in which the killer was with his friend at the time of the murder, a fact proven by the friend remembering that the killer downloaded a promotional song that was only available until midnight that night, and still yet in “The Alibi of the Murder Weapon” in which the time of death is established by the time the murder weapon was deposited into the mailbox, and for every moment this could’ve happened the killer naturally had an alibi!

The average quality of the stories is also quite high for what essentially amounts to an authorial collection, which will be made abundantly clear during the individual story breakdowns. While I think few of the stories are truly brilliantly ground-breaking, equally few are overtly derivative, obvious, and underwhelming. While there is one episode which stands out as particularly original and clever, and even made it onto my list of my 30 favorite mystery stories ever written, the typical episode of Alibi Cracking, At Your Service features tricks that, in their most basic form, are immediately recognizable to any detective fiction aficionado, but Ōyama still manages to get a lot of mileage out of time-worn concepts, twisting them into new forms where it’s nothing short of impressive he could do that much with that idea. Even when he falls back on concepts so old-fashioned that, if I were to spoil them in this blog post, you’d roll your eyes at the basicness and banality of the idea, the way the unique qualities of the alibi’s set-up inform new and genuinely inspired variations of these solutions showcase Ōyama’s skills as a detective plotter. He isn’t just mindlessly copying things he’s read before, he’s building on them.

But while the plotting is genuinely skillful mystery-threading, the acting and direction of the show is worth further scrutiny.

Tokino Mitani (depicted by Minami Hamabe), despite her adultlike talents at cracking alibis, is bubbly and childish, down to every episode’s pivotal moment taking place during (tasteful) scenes of her eating a smorgasbord of sweets and confections in the bathtub while she mulls over the case, or is pouting that she got yelled at for overstepping personal or professional boundaries that she didn’t recognize were boundaries. The lead police officer of the show, Saji Yoshiyuki (Yasuda Ken) is deeply prideful and professional, hating his reliance on a teenage girl to solve his mysteries for him. Mitani, however, relishes in the work, often trying to get him to consult her on mysteries he doesn’t even need help with. He’s in a fierce rivalry with one of the policemen working under him, Detective Tokai Yuma (Narita Ryo), otherwise known as “Junior”, the young son of a high-ranking politician and who is also fiercely in love with Tokino Mitani. Since Saji needs to be seen as a superior in the force, and is embarrassed, he keeps his consultations with Tokino strictly confidential.

There’s a lot of over-acting and exaggerated melodrama, and it’s frequently very cheesy, just enough to be charming, not too much where the characters begin to feel unrealistic, but enough that those who don’t typically consume Japanese comedy mysteries could easily find it saccharine and annoying. None of the characters are particularly deep, though, and all of them can be accused of being bidimensional cut-outs. Of course, their dynamics are solid and the characters are charming enough to behold, but only enough to carry the individual plotlines — you won’t walk away from the show remembering the depths of the characters of Tokino Mitani or Saji Yoshiyuki, at least. None of the actors do a bad job, but the tone of the show they’re working with, combined with the thinness of their characters, makes this saccharine corniness a directorial quirk of the show.

It’s also a tone the show is often quite bad at carrying. A lot of comedy typical of the worst of Japanese comedy screenwriting is present in this show, and few of the jokes land. There’s only so many shows that can be written where an adult man is wrongfully accused of having a romantic attachment with a teenager until, I hope, screenwriters realize it wasn’t a very funny joke the first.

Ultimately, though, character depth is not a prerequisite for a good mystery, or even a good story, and riotous laughs aren’t necessary for a tonally silly show. Tokino Mitani, while not a particularly impressive character, is one of the most adorable super-detectives in the mystery fiction genre, and she’s an endearing, precious presence to follow through crime scenes, and her charm helps carry a lot of the quirkiness of Alibi Cracking, At Your Service. Better yet, Alibi Cracking, At Your Service offers a variety of competently-constructed alibi plots perfectly balancing spatial and chronical misdirection that should please fans of tricky, classically-plotted mystery stories. For its faults I still can’t deny having enjoyed the show on those strengths alone, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in a drama that deals with alibis as a rule.

Episode 1 – “The Alibi of the Dead” sees Tokino Mitani and Saji Yoshiyuki meeting for the first time at a store that sells Tokino’s favorite snack. Neither gets the opportunity to enjoy a meal, though, as a disoriented man shambling down the street ignores their shouts of warning and is struck dead by an incoming car. In his last moments, the man confesses to the murder of his girlfriend at her apartment…

…only, however, this is simply impossible!

Even with the most liberal estimates of time, Saji realizes, based on the distance from the crime scene to the site of the crash that killed the man, it would be impossible for him to commit the murder at her established time of death, and then walk to the storefront street in time to be run over by that car. The distances are too great, and no matter how much you stretch the logical limits of when the woman could have been killed it’s impossible for any man to cross the city in the allotted amount of time.

And so, Saji is stuck with an unusual alibi: the time the killer died doesn’t permit for him to have committed the crime! And if he can’t crack this alibi, it means that someone else must have committed the crime..! If his confession is true, how could this crime have been committed by this dead man?

“The Alibi of the Dead” serves both as a lovely introduction to our core characters, with Saji desperately trying to prove himself a competent detective and refusing to relent to the nosy Tokino’s requests to allow her to investigate, and as solid snapshot of this show’s competency and creativity with the alibi plot. The set-up quickly establishes a fairly clever variation on the “impossible alibi” problem, with a known killer’s time of death seemingly acquitting them for the crime, and the solution is very neat indeed!

The resolution to “The Alibi of the Dead” turns on a pretty corny but certainly unique trick that not only permits for the dead man to show up to his death on time, but also kind of turns the “semi-inverted alibi problem” plotline on its head — using the dead man’s alibi trick to reveal how this episode had nothing to do with alibis at all and how, in retrospect, this episode doesn’t even qualify as an “alibi plot”! If it relies on no less than three glaring conveniences and coincidences for the plot to even work out, that is something of a smudge on what I still consider to be a fairly neat and clever ending to a promising pilot episode of this show!

Note, though, that the version of the show that exists online has incorrectly translated subtitles. One line of dialogue is translated incorrectly in such a minor but also such a fundamental way that the plot of the episode becomes utterly incomprehensible if you don’t know Japanese and are incapable of realizing the mistake the translator made. I was able to recognize the mistake, but to explain the mistake also inadvertently points you in the direction of the solution. I will be able to supply a version of the show with corrected subtitles in the future, and if you’re interested in seeing this version of the show leave a comment below and let me know so I can sign you up to be able to view it!

In Episode 2 – “The Alibi of the Stalker”, Dr. Hamazawa Kyoko, a professor of pathology, is interrupted in her university laboratory by her ex-husband and current stalker barging in, yelling at her, and demanding her students leave so that two can talk in private. It’s therefore only natural that when Dr. Hamazawa winds up stabbed to death inside of her apartment that very same night, the police immediately hone in on this man as the obvious suspect. Only, of course, he has an airtight alibi: at the time of the murder, he says, he was at a bar and his location can be verified by many reliable witnesses.

With the victim’s stalker’s alibi verified, they begin to close in on the victim’s brother, who receives a mighty fine life insurance payout that is, conveniently, the perfect amount needed to pay off all of his outstanding debts. But Saji isn’t convinced of his subordinate’s deductions: because, after all, if the stalkerish ex-husband was truly innocent, how did he know the precise moment Dr. Hamazawa died in order to insist upon his own alibi, when none of the police ever told him the cause of death..?

To save a man soon to be falsely accused of murder, Saji is yet again on the case to find out how a man can commit murder when he appeared to be at another place at the time the crime took place!

This episode deservedly takes its place on my list of my 30 favorite mystery stories ever written. It might be easy to walk away from this review and, retrospectively, think that the set-up to this is the most unappealingly generic of the bunch, but Alibi Cracking, At Your Service contrives an almost certainly entirely unique piece of alibi trickery to this premise. It’s a method that feels so natural I am frankly stunned that I can’t think of another mystery of any sub-genre that uses this kind of mechanism in its solution. It’s a type of ingenuity that feels less like the story is pushing the genre into new territory, and more like the story is retroactively covering ground that the genre has no excuse to have left untouched — writers will be kicking themselves as much as readers at the conclusion of this very clever episode.

There’s also a very sweet motive at the heart of this story which, while not as unique as the alibi trick, is really touching, and serves as a natural and solid explanation for why this plan was contrived. All around, “The Alibi of the Stalker” is a fantastic episode, and with its cleverly unique alibi trick, heartwarming motive, and neat clues, it’s easy to recommend. If you only watch a single episode of this show, let it be this one!

Episode 3 – “The Alibi of the Beautiful Sister” is a departure for Tokino’s career as a watchmaker detective: rather than destroying an alibi, Tokino must create an alibi for a young woman who claims to have murdered her sister. She tells Commissioner Saji that she is stricken with the habit of sleepwalking, and after a bizarre 12-hour-long night of sleep she woke up in her bed, covered in her sister’s blood, evidently from having killed her in her sleep… Saji refuses to believe that such a kind and gentle woman would commit a murder, in her sleep or otherwise, and so brings the case to Tokino to have her use her talents, not to crack a guilty person’s alibi, but to create an innocent person’s…

I don’t really care for this one, sadly. After the very imaginative and unique first two episodes, this one was a massive disappointment with its obvious, silly, and hoary resolution, which anyone should be able to see coming rather quickly.

It’s equally disappointing that the episode doesn’t particularly pay off on the premise of “creating an alibi”, which has the potential to be a brilliant inversion of the alibi plot, instead falling back on being a fairly typical whodunit with a killer who just so happens to use an alibi trick which, conveniently, creates a gap in the alibi of the innocent sister. It’s even sillier because in retrospect, the killer’s plan would’ve had a greater chance of succeeding if he hadn’t bothered framing the sister for murder… Ironically, I think “The Alibi of the Dead” serves as a better “create an alibi” plot than this dedicated episode, which says a lot…

Easily the worst episode of the show, and it’s sad to have this immediately after the superb “The Alibi of the Stalker”. However, it’s notable for being the moment Saji begins regularly and willingly bringing his cases to Tokino for assistance.

In Episode 4 – “The Alibi of the Mountain Cottage”, Saji attends a vacation at a remote mountain villa where he befriends a young man who deeply admires policework and hopes to one day become a police officer just like Saji. So, of course Saji is deeply troubled when a murder is committed and the only person in the whole villa who could have committed it is this upstanding young man!

Two sets of footprints lead to the clocktower off of the property villa, and only one comes back, so of course when this is investigated a dead body is found inside of the clocktower! At the time the murder was committed, every person staying at the villa was together in the bar, drinking and talking together… Every person, that is, except the young man and the murder victim! Saji yet again asks Tokino Mitani to help prove the young aspiring police officer innocent by finding the real killer.

Similarly to “The Alibi of the Beautiful Sister”, this episode doesn’t do a lot by setting up that there’s an innocent person who needs to be defended, and the story is otherwise a pretty typical alibi plot in the “every suspect was together in one room when the murder was committed” mold. The fact someone has been wrongly framed is incidental to the plot.

There’s an interesting idea at the heart of this to use footprints as a mechanism to confuse the timeline of the crime, combined with a very smart visual clue, but it’s such a simple application of the default, assumed footprint trick that it’s trivial to see through even by bypassing the intended logic. For a show as frequently creative with the alibi plot as Alibi Cracking, At Your Service it’s sad these occasionally very uninspired episodes. Marginally better than “The Alibi of the Beautiful Sister”, but still the second worst episode of the season.

Episode 5 – The Alibi of the Download sees a young man in university for game development be accused of a murder committed months earlier, but to his great fortune he actually has an alibi! For the entire day of the crime, November 20th, he and his best friend were hanging out in his apartment playing a video game that he actually created himself. When pressed that his friend might have been incorrect about the day or time, the young man remembers that on November 20th he actually downloaded a promotional song from his favorite artist! The song was only available on that day, and he showed the song to his friend once he downloaded it, so if his friends corroborates this story then, naturally, he has an alibi for the whole day of November 20th!

The friend is interviewed and naturally corroborates his friend’s story. Saji and Tokino quickly consider and then reject the possibility of him lying, but as long as this friend truthfully remembers the killer downloading that song, only available on the day of November 20th, his alibi is in tact…

If you take away everything surrounding it, the trick at the heart of “The Alibi of the Download” is one many detective fiction readers will know well as one of the most recognizable, age-old, and eyeroll-inducing methods of time manipulation in the genre, but Ōyama Seīchiro really does great work twisting this trick into a form where it seems inconceivable that it could even work. The trick is applied in such an astonishingly creative way that, if I were to spoil what the solution to this mystery is in the barest terms possible, you’d likely be at a total loss as to how it could even apply to this particular problem as I’ve described it. That’s worth a bit of awe in and of itself, I say!

For its stunning ability to turn seconds into days, “The Alibi of the Download” is an impressive and worthwhile piece of work from Alibi Cracking, At Your Service.

Episode 6 – “The Alibi of the Murder Weapon” sees a gun discovered inside of a mailbox by the deliveryman! The gun shows evidence of having been fired recently, a worrying fact especially with the ongoing gang war in the area! The bad omen of the gun is soon validated when a pharmaceutical representative is found shot to death in the basement of his home by bullets matching those in the gun..!

The victim had no connection to organized crime, but suspicion soon falls onto his boss at his company when it’s learned that he does! But, there’s one issue… the boss was having a dinner at the time the murder was committed and the time the gun was thrown into the mail box. With this double-barreled alibi, the boss is seemingly cleared of the crime, but his connections to the gangs keep Tokino and Saji investigating his potential guilt…

This clever set-up lends itself to an equally clever and very tricky resolution that somewhat reminds me of the exceptional alibi trick in “Whose Body?”, collected in Tetsuya Ayukawa’s The Red Locked-Room. The solution here is one of the more complex and unique of the series, but I do think it’s easy to roughly figure out what must have happened if you stop and think reasonably about the set-up.

The plot here is, conceptually, wonderful, but a common issue with alibi-centric mysteries is when they don’t really need to be alibi plots at all… Oftentimes, by highlighting the existence of an alibi-related trick (by either placing all of your suspects together in one room, or having a known killer) you tend to underscore the weaknesses in the killer’s plan and make the tricks less solid as a consequence. This is one of those stories where I think being forewarned of the presence of an alibi trick somewhat dents the foundation of the killer’s scheme. “Alibi of the Murder Weapon” is still a brilliant idea, mind you, just one that for my money would have benefited from being put into a normal whodunit without naming the culprit. I still wholeheartedly recommend it as a stand-out episode from the show!

Episode 7 – “The Alibi of Too Many Witnesses” sees the body count already at two, following the discovery of a corpse on the riverside, a man soon revealed to be the secretary to a member of the House of Representatives. He disappeared from the Representative’s fundraiser the night before, and when it’s discovered that the victim was blackmailing his boss the politician is quickly labeled the prime suspect. But of course, as we’ve come to expect, this politician has a perfect alibi, and one that’s more than a little difficult to contest: he was at the fundraiser, speaking to well over 300 people at the time the murder was committed!

While Saji is trying to deal with how he could commit the murder with nobody seeing him, he learns that this isn’t quite true… it seems as if one person noticed how the politician could commit murder, because another victim, also an attendee of the fundraiser, is found murdered in his apartment! It seems as if the killer is willing to murder witnesses, and with this revelation Saji is uncomfortable involving the extremely insistent and nosy Tokino in the case, for fear he might be responsible for a young girl being murdered…

This season finale, in a lot of ways, reminds me of the finale to season 1 of Furuhata Ninzaburō, involving a dramatic confrontation with a high-ranking member of the government known to our protagonists, but I think Alibi Cracking, At Your Service‘s finale handles it better. Where Furuhata Ninzaburō doesn’t meaningfully lean into the inherent drama of the killer being a legendary detective, “The Alibi of Too Many Witnesses” charmingly plays it up by making it clear Tokino’s life may very well be in danger, showing meaningful character development for our secondary protagonists (like Junior confronting the killer, his own father, to protect Tokino), hinting at the possibility of Tokino and Saji’s secret being discovered, and even introducing a friend of Tokino’s grandpa to help in the last minute. It’s a solid bit of drama befitting the finale of the first season of this show.

That being said, this is certainly the most conflicted I’ve felt about an episode of Alibi Cracking, At Your Service. The double-murder involves an interweaved alibi plot that kind of recalls the double-faceted locked-room murders of John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man; or, The Three Coffins in a pretty clever way. Not only that, but there is a fantastic piece of misdirection surrounding motive at the heart of this as well, but a lot of the mechanics of this plot feel like it’s revisiting concepts the show has already used before…

The actual mechanism used to establish the alibi is not incredibly dissimilar to “The Alibi of the Stalker”‘s trick, and there’s an “inversion” of what it means to destroy a suspect’s alibi in a similar fashion to “The Alibi of the Dead”. While neither are just redressings of old concepts, the fact the plot majorly recalls earlier episodes of the show does dampen the impact of what’s otherwise a pretty smart and tightly-plotted alibi story…

And that was Alibi Cracking, At Your Service! It can be said it’s a frequently unfunny show, despite its best efforts, but if the jokes are duds it doesn’t take away from the charm of the hammy melodramatic over-acting. Better yet, it’s a mystery show with what are on average pretty good mystery plots, oriented around a theme often neglected in the television sphere! For all of its occasional faults, I can still wholeheartedly recommend Alibi Cracking, At Your Service to anyone looking for a show imaginative with respect to how to create and destroy alibis!

As we wind down this review to make way for the episode rankings, happy reading and happy sleuthing!

  1. “The Alibi of the Stalker” (Episode 2)
  2. “The Alibi of the Download” (Episode 5)
  3. “The Alibi of the Murder Weapon” (Episode 6)
  4. “The Alibi of the Dead” (Episode 1)
  5. “The Alibi of Too Many Witnesses” (Episode 7)
  6. “The Alibi of the Mountain Cottage” (Episode 4)
  7. “The Alibi of the Beautiful Sister” (Episode 3)

On the Increasingly Essential Frontier of Hybrid Mysteries — Fantasy, Science-Fiction, and Murder (Part 1/2 – Whydunit?)

The “hybrid mystery” is my greatest fascination within the classically-styled “puzzle plot” mystery story. I like to call it detective fiction’s next frontier, for, if you were to ask me, I’d say that it is essential that at least some of the living writers of “neo-classical” mysteries embrace this style of plotting. Instead of restricting itself to the here and now (or the yesterday, in the cases of most mystery novels) of our real world, the “hybrid mystery” embraces greater levels of fantasy to enhance and inform new kinds of murder plots. By calling upon or setting themselves within such things as fantasy, science-fiction, or horror, the “hybrid mystery” is capable of utilizing these genres’ unique plots, settings, and tropes to construct mystery stories that couldn’t exist within more purely realistic mystery writing.

In the English-speaking world, examples of “hybrid mysteries” are few. On one side of the SFF spectrum, you have Randall Garrett, who wrote the Tolkein-esque fantasy locked-room mystery Too Many Magicians. On the other side, you have respected science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, among whose hybrids of sci-fi and mystery The Caves of Steel is the highest esteemed. Besides these two, however, English and American authors rare embraced the fantasy-infused puzzle mystery novel.

However, all the way on the other side of the world, the “hybrid mystery” has enjoyed ample popularity in Japan’s shin-honkaku movement, their version of the “neo-classical” Golden Age-inspired mystery. Of these, there are only two immediately available in English: Masahiro Imamura’s Death Among the Dead; and, Yamaguchi Masaya’s Death of the Living Dead, both of which involve locked-room murders committed amidst a zombie apocalypse, and were exceptionally well-received by English readers of classical mysteries. And furthermore, while Garrett’s locked-room mysteries were criticized for having rather traditional mysteries not well-informed by their fantasy premises, these two zombie-infected murder mysteries really bite into their settings, presenting new kinds of impossible crimes and solutions that could never exist outside of the contexts of these stories. And, as it happens, these two are only the tip of a surprisingly deep iceberg of similarly plotted supernatural mysteries to come from the great mystery-writing minds of the east.

Konno Tenryū perhaps makes a good representative of the Japanese fatnasy-“hybrid mystery”, writing such novels as Renkinjutsushi no Misshitsu (The Locked-Room of the Alchemist), the first in a series of impossible crime stories set in a fantasy world in which magic follows precise laws of give-and-take, turning “magic” into a science. Tenryū also wrote Cinderella-jō no Satsujin (The Cinderella Castle Murder), a legal drama in which the Cinderella fairytale is twisted into a murder mystery and Cinderella, accused of murdering the prince at his ball, has to defend herself in a fantasy courtroom with her sharp wit and fast-talking nature, à la Perry Mason. In both novels, fantasy magic exists and factor into the murders. However, despite the inclusion of magic, these mysteries are entirely fairplay, providing the audience with all of the clues needed to solve the mystery. This is accomplished by offering precise and exact understanding of the ways in which magic can and cannot be operated in the novels’ settings. By doing this, this knowledge became clues towards the solution the same way obtuse scientific knowledge world in the novels of R. Austin Freeman or John Rhode, and, by extension, the novel continues to be a classical, fairly-clued puzzle plot the sort many readers of this blog. Magic exists as like science.

On the other end of the spectrum of speculative fiction, science-fiction has not been neglected by Japan’s mystery writers. Hōjō Kie is well-known for her series of intricate puzzle plots involving themes like time travel in Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei (The Hourglass of the Time-Traveler) and virtual reality in Meitantei ni Kanbi naru Shi wo (Sweet Deaths for the Great Detectives). Just like their fantastical counterparts, Hōjō Kie’s future-faring plots utilize elements nonexistent in the familiar world, and just like those magical murders of Konno Tenryū, Kie makes them function by providing the reader with specific and actionable knowledge about how the science-fiction in her worlds operate. They are still fairplay murder mysteries.

These are merely two examples from an increasingly popular school of anti-realistic puzzle-heavy mystery authors in the Japanese speaking world. As my personal journey in studying the Japanese language continues, and I slowly become more acquainted with these baroque, twisty, and fantastical tales of murder and detection, I’ve also become more enamored with this style of mystery plotting and, subsequently, disappointed that among modern authors of English-language Golden Age-inspired mystery stories it has remained largely neglected — only at a stretch does Jim Noy’s recent The Red Death Murders come close to qualifying.

I believe there are a few reasons why western writers should embrace this style of plotting, even if just for a few novels or stories at a time. Naturally, while I simply want to read more of these “hybrid mysteries”, my reasons for encouraging authors to write magical murders and science-fiction felons go much deeper than that. I believe there are real benefits to writers and readers for western authors of fairly-clued mystery stories offered by this niche sub-sub-sub-genre, which we will explore through Japanese detective fiction.

Firstly, they offer wider creative freedom and variety that allow writers to explore this genre in new ways.

As I’ve been saying from the beginning, the freedom offered by “hybrid mysteries” is vast. The Golden Age mystery novel originally went into hibernation because the genre was seen as stagnant in style and plot. Insanity is to continue to try to do the same thing and expecting different results; merely trying to recreate the Golden Age mystery, the same as it left off, will lead the genre to the same fate it already suffered. Creating a brand new world in which you set your mysteries is the easiest way to shake things up and avoid repetition. It allows you to experiment with form, scenarios, characters, and tricks that nobody’s ever seen before for them being “impossible” to produce in traditional mysteries.

Consider, if you will, the works of Aoyagi Aito, which include the Mukashi Mukashi Aru Tokoro ni, Shita ga Arimashita (Once Upon a Time, There Was a Corpse) series. This series of his is famous for transforming classical Japanese folktales into (fairplay) mystery stories. The very first story in the first collection of the series is “Issunboushi no Fuzaishoumei” (“The Alibi of Issunboushi”), which is inspired by the legend of Issunboushi, a one-inch-tall soldier who has the bravery of a hundred normal-sized men and serves as a soldier to protect the princess. In the line of duty, Issunboushi is eaten by an Ogre and, defying death, kills the Ogre from inside of its stomach with his small sword. His reward for defeating the Ogre is a magical hammer that turns him into a 1.80 meter tall man.

While the story ended there in the original legend, in “Issunboushi no Fuzaishoumei” a character suspects Issunboushi of committing a murder. But this “detective” is shocked to find out that Issunboushi has an airtight, albeit unusual, alibi: at the time of the murder, Issunboushi was seen being eaten by the Ogre, an event witnessed by the princess herself and nine other members of her personal group of royal retainers! How could Issunboushi commit this murder when ten of the most trustworthy people in the entire country testify that he was inside of the stomach of a monster at the same time he must’ve been committing the murder? Thus, the original fable of Issunboushi is transformed into an alibi problem!

In the very same collection is “Misshitsu Ryuuguujou” (“The Dragon’s Locked Palace”), a twisting of the legend of Urashima Tarou, a fisherman who is brought to the underwater Dragon Palace after saving a helpless turtle. There, he becomes an honored guest of Otohime, a princess of a magical race of fish people who can take on human form at will to dance and frolic! Naturally, of course, as this is a detective story, the fable deviates here as a murder is committed within a locked room inside of the palace, further complicated by the coral covering the windows. The fish people believe that with his vast human intelligence, Urashima Tarou can solve the mystery, and thus is recruited to solve this murder on their behalf, creating a locked-room murder within the original legend!

Take note of a few elements of these stories that stand out to you, and I’m sure you can produce no similar mystery story with the same elements! The existence of a one-inch-tall man, for instance, or a magical hammer capable of making people and objects larger, or fantasy creatures like Ogres! Or fish that can talk and think like humans and even take on humanoid forms, or locked-rooms sealed by coral, or the fact the entire story takes place exclusively underwater… These plot points, among others, are part of what define these stories, and consequently inform their murder plots. These stories feature not only scenarios, but also tricks, clues, and misdirection which can only exist within these stories; the form has changed, but the heart of the detective story is here with renewed life. No less proper detective stories, the freedom offered allowed Aoyogi Aito to create stories which will forever stand out not only in the minds of those who read them, but also in the history of the genre among the millions of stories which take place in old country mansions…

Secondly, it makes mystery stories more accessible to fans of other genres and stories.

Those used to the modern form mystery fiction has taken in the English-speaking world might not understand what really makes classical detection and puzzle mysteries so enjoyable. It’s very possible — nay, inevitable — that a prospective fan of the genre of Golden Age mysteries has been turned away by psychological thrillers and repetitive cop dramas. While some may worry that the “hybrid mystery” is inaccessible to traditional detective story fans, the opposite is true for convertees and other newcomers to the genre. They may very well be more likely to pick up a novel with familiar elements, and from enjoying that “hybrid mystery” a new fan of more traditional Golden Age detection is born!

Nothing is more emblematic of this, in my opinion, than Arisu Goroshi (The Murder of Alice). In this novel, the first of the Märchen Girls series by Kobayashi Yasumi, a young girl named Ari dreams of a world called “Wonderland” in which she is known as “Alice”. In this Wonderland dreamscape she meets such fantastical creatures as the dim-witted Bill the Lizard and a vicious Queen of Hearts… However, the dreams suddenly turn into nightmares when, one night, Humpty Dumpty falls off of a wall and cracks right open! And Alice is accused of this heinous crime!

In real life, Ari is shocked when a very similar death occurs at her school. A classmate is killed by falling off of the top of a school building… and just like in her dream, she becomes the prime suspect! It’s at this moment she learns that Wonderland isn’t only a dream, and it’s not something only she sees. In fact, all of her classmates go to Wonderland every night when they go to sleep, and more bizarrely they’ve all met each other during this shared dream! All of the “fantasy creatures” Ari has met when she was Alice have, in reality, been the Wonderland counterparts of her classmates! The dim-witted Bill the Lizard, for instance, was the form taken on her very smart classmate Inori. Armed with this knowledge that the real world and “Wonderland” interact with one another, Ari and Alice teams up with Inori and Bill the Lizard to clear her name in both realities!

The novel, clearly, takes heavy inspiration from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. The Disney animated adaptation is one of the most famous pieces of media in Japan, ever! There are entire restaurants dedicated to the film, and it is consistently referenced in their pop culture in every form. Action movies, horror stories, romance and “adult” comic books, and even video games often carry some kind of reference to Alice in Wonderland, from things as small as character names and locations to elements as grand the entire premise of the story being clear homage! A murder mystery take on Alice in Wonderland was only inevitable, especially given that Alice being falsely accused of murder is the very premise of the original story itself, and it’s not unthinkable that this sort of story will carry the same appeal as those other homages.

Take this alongside the earlier-mentioned Cinderella Castle Murder. Not only are both stories dense and traditional mystery novels, but both are also littered with references, names, and iconography of famous classic stories in other genres. Everyone knows Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland, and as I said the latter is extremely popular in Japan. A young woman who desires to read everything Alice in Wonderland may very well pick this novel up. Elements familiar to fans of the original are present, including surreal fantasy creatures, word-play, playing-card symbolism, and gibberish — and, for mystery lovers, these elements continue to tie around into unique murder plots at that! This not only makes The Murder of Alice a mystery novel for mystery fans, boasting an entirely unique impossible crime plot exclusive to itself, but also a mystery novel for Alice in Wonderland fans! And with all crossover efforts like this, the possibility always exists that one becomes the other. By writing The Murder of Alice, Kobayashi Yasumi has created the possibility for an Alice in Wonderland fan to become the next big mystery fan.

This also isn’t exclusive to “hybrid mysteries” acting as pastiches to other established works. More broadly, an established fan of medieval fantasy may find Konno Tenryū’s fantasy murder mysteries appealing for their fantasy stylings, or a fan of high-faring science-fiction may read Hōjō Kie’s mysteries for their mysteries involving time-travel, virtual reality, and metaphysics. In these cases, although the authors aren’t calling upon known stories, it is still the case that a fantasy fan or a science-fiction will find something to enjoy in these novels without the context of knowing they’re mystery novels first and foremost — and from there, the transition to a fan of mysteries is a possibility.

And, finally, they allow detective stories to stay the same.

What? I hear you asking. Allow them to stay the same? Isn’t that the opposite of my very first point in defense of “hybrid mysteries”, to allow detective fiction to mutate?

The first argument is that it allows the detective fiction genre to evolve in unique ways, so “staying the same” might seem antithetical to that. But I think it becomes clear when we ask the question of “why does detective fiction not evolve?”. Why do all detective novels of the “puzzle plot” variety want to set themselves in the years of 1900 to 1940?

The answer isn’t purely that writers and readers of mystery novels are outrageously nostalgic, or that they want to maintain a genre status quo. It’s more fair to say that the modern day is often seen by fans of classical detection as not conducive to mysterious murders. Forensics and surveillance have evolved to such a point that, nowadays, many people believe it’s impossible to have truly interesting and baffling murders that aren’t solved through purely forensic and procedural means. Even many mysteries that are set in the modern day deal with the problem by either setting the story in a location entirely separated from society so that the story could, for all we know, take place during any year, or by conveniently ignoring any science or technology that would be inconvenient to their narrative, neither of which being ideal. Some stories reject this notion, with the Detective Conan mystery manga series being famous for making use of elements of the modern world like video games, cell phones, and the internet for its mystery puzzles, and Dale C. Andrews’s Ellery Queen pastiche “The Book Case” exemplifying the fallibility of even modern forensics through its final twist involving the ambiguity of blood analysis, demonstrating the place for Great Detectives even in the contemporary world. Despite all this, however, there’s an argument to be made that the modern world is still restrictive so that many types of tricks and plots are simply so unviable that working around them ends up becoming counterintuitive to the point of setting the story in the modern world to begin with — what does it matter your story takes place in 2022 if it’s set in a faraway village with no modern technology? How is that different than the story merely taking place in 1922?

The “hybrid mystery” is a paradox in that it allows mysteries to evolve while also allowing them to stay the same. The author can be allowed to experiment with new settings and characters, while continuing to indulge in tricks and plot points that may be unviable in a mystery set in the modern world. In this way, it permits the detective story to change and to resist change in equal measure, in a way impossible if the genre merely evolved to utilize the world of today. By allowing the author to draw from any world they want, it allows the writer to ignore changes that would be forced upon them by creating a mystery plot within 2022, and to enact any change they want. In other words, the evolution (and opposition to evolution) of the genre is entirely within the writer’s own hands.

…and, really, the “hybrid mystery” genre is just very interesting! It being a favorite of mine, I can only hope that I’ve provided three cogent reasons for mystery lovers to write in the genre. I regret that all of my examples are purely Japanese, but that is the issue with a genre that has primarily evolved in another culture, and I can only hope further that my synopses allowed them to be understandable demonstrations of the virtues of the “hybrid mystery”.

If even one of you has read this and developed a newfound interest in writing “hybrid mysteries”, you might be thinking “that’s all well and good and all, but how exactly do I write a fair mystery in a fantasy story?”. You know whydunit, but now howdunit? Now that I’ve done the convincing, I’ll next be doing the instructing, with a post dedicated to everything that you need to keep in mind when writing your first breakout hybrid mystery novel.

Until then, happy sleuthing!

The Red Locked Room (2020) by Tetsuya Ayukawa, trans. Ho-Ling Wong

Tetsuya Ayukawa is a forefront author of Japan’s Golden Age, often called “the honkaku mystery”. Not unlike the British Freeman Wills Crofts, Ayukawa is purveyor of alibis, time tables, and train-bound mysteries. However, Ayukawa stands out from his English progenitor with a unique twist: Ayukawa was fond of crossing the boundaries between the alibi problem and the locked-room mystery. By using alibi tricks to create impossible crimes and, inversely, using tricks from impossible crimes to construct alibis, Ayukawa was skilled at breathing new life into his tricks by placing them into novel situations!

He is an author of many short stories and novels, but out of his massive oeuvre only seven short stories have been translated, all by Ho-Ling Won and collected in The Red Locked Room in 2020. These seven stories are nearly cut down the middle, with four focusing on Ryūzō Hoshikage’s investigations into impossible crimes (“The White Locked Room”, “The Blue Locked Room”, “The Clown in the Tunnel”, and “The Red Locked Room”) and three focusing on Chief Inspector Onitsura as he investigates cases of iron-clad alibis (“Whose Body?”, “Death in Early Spring”, “The Five Clocks”). While the Hoshikage stories to be more straightforwardly classical Golden Age-styled puzzlers, the Onitsuras were more like those modern blendings of puzzle plot and police procedural enjoyed by Roger Ormerod and Douglas Clark, with the collection intermittently jumping between series!

It can be said that very few authors can beat John Dickson Carr at his game, and equally true for Freeman Wills Crofts at his. Ayukawa was quite ambitious in aiming for both, but can you confident claim he comes out the victor..?

“The White Locked Room” is the first story in the collection, in which Professor Zama is found stabbed to death in his snow-bound house, even though the only footprints around the house are those of his friend, who discovered the body, and his student Kimoko Satō, who is also on the scene! Worse yet, the absence of the fatal knife precludes suicide, so how could the poor man have been stabbed? The conventional police are woefully incapable of figuring out this seemingly impossible murder and are forced to defer to the expertise of skillful amateur Ryūzō Hoshikage.

I’m going to show my biases here, but I don’t like “no footprint” impossible crimes very much. They seem to have less variations on less concepts than any other established sub-genre of impossible crimes, and this story doesn’t prove me wrong. The solution ultimately turns on a minor redressing of a very old hat with few interesting touches. There’s a nice cultural clue that I’m proud to have picked up on, but besides from that I was merely whelmed with this first story.

The next story in the collection, “Whose Body?”, concerns itself with a series of mysterious packages that have found their way to a seemingly random group of people: to one man, an empty bottle of corrosive acid; to another man, a cut length of rope; and, to a woman, a recently fired gun! The supposed sender, a local painter, denies sending anyone any packages. The three boxes are understandably suspicious in their own right, but the three recipients are shocked with the news that a man was found in the basement of a nearby building with his head cut-off. The man was tied up with a length of rope, had his fingers burnt off with acid, and was shot through the chest with a gun… Those three packages each contained the tools used in a recent murder! Naturally, Inspector Onitsura is on the case.

The lion share of this story masquerades as a dull and slow police procedural, but the heart of “Whose Body?” is pure Golden Age! If you force yourself to break the solution apart into separate pieces, you could argue this is just a Lego-tower of old ideas, but then that wouldn’t be doing it justice. The killer’s plan in this story is brilliantly devious, performing an impressive feat of time manipulation with an equally impressively simple maneuver. It didn’t quite make my 30 favorite mystery stories list, but I know if I made a list dedicated to short stories then “Whose Body?” is an absolute shoo-in! Truly great stuff, this!

In “The Blue Locked Room”, a police officer is forced to intervene when a member of an acting troupe attacks his womanizing boss because the actor’s fiance slept with the manager! However, although the police officer walked the man to his room and instructed him to keep the door closed, the man somehow winds up murdered in his locked and sealed bedroom! How this impossible crime could’ve come to be, is a question left for the pretentious super-amateur-sleuth Ryūzō Hoshikage.

The culprit is the most surprising of any story in the collection, but I’ll admit it’s a surprise that feels somewhat unearned by the story surrounding it. The locked-room trick itself is a decent patchwork of old ideas with some clever twists, but all-told it’s not a very inspired story. Definitely an unfortunate follow-up to the superb “Whose Body?”.

The titular “blue” of the locked room is in reference to the fact the room has blue lighting, and it doesn’t matter as concerns the mystery, sadly.

We return to Inspector Onitsura in “Death in Early Spring”! A young man named 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 who, in reality, was interested in neither man… Unfortunately for Inspector Onitsura, Fuda has a perfect alibi, and so the Inspector goes about recreating the two men’s afternoons in order to bring guilt home to the obvious perpetrator!

An example of the impossible alibi problem, a type of impossible crime in which we’re aware of the culprit’s guilt, but not the method by which they manage to commit the crime with an unassailable alibi, “Death in Early Spring” is also Ayukawa’s jab at the old-fashioned Croftsian time-table alibi plot! And it is fantastic; a better example of the “time-tabler” condensed into hardly 20 pages, I’ve never seen! The basic crux of the alibi plot is reliant upon a concept so time-worn that any seasoned mystery fan would think of it during the course of the story and pray to God it isn’t the solution, and yet with his final twist on the knot Ayukawa manages to push it entirely out of the realms of possibility, and then pull it back out of his hat in a way that miraculously elevates it to sheer greatness that elates the reader despite his initial protests. The fact that Ayukawa can take this frustratingly tired and played-out gimmick and put a genuinely lovely spin on it with the story’s central locked-room-esque gambit is, frankly, impressive, and it’s a gambit I’ve seen done once or twice in other alibi plots but still genuinely love.

This was the story that made me come to terms with the fact that I was probably to going to walk away thinking more highly of the Onitsura stories on average than the Hoshikage stories, and this story wound up on my 30 favorite mystery stories list! Well-deserved, at that!

“Clown in the Tunnel” is the third of the four Hoshikage stories. Ryūzō Hoshikage investigates a bizarre crime: a clown, after committing a murder at a jazz band’s lodgings and tying up a maid in the kitchen, appears to waltz through a tunnel and disappear… The problem? On the other side of the tunnel is a roadblock put up after a traffic incident! It’d be impossible for the clown to cross through the tunnel without being seen by police, and yet he perfectly does! How did this clown perform this impossible vanishing act?

This story is frustrating to me. Not because it’s bad, no, not by any means is it bad. It’s the best story in the collection. But it’s frustrating to me that I basically wrote this story three years ago. I have an unpublished manuscript sitting on my Google Docs right now for a novel involving two impossible crimes, one of which relies on nearly the same principle as the one Ayukawa invented in this story. It’s worse because I sent the idea around to friends, very knowledgeable friends and brutally honest at that, and they all gave me their unambiguous approval that the story was original and clever, but I didn’t trust them! I was embarrassed of the silliness of the concept and let the novel rot in the cloud, never to again see the light of day!

And then I read “Clown in the Tunnel”.

If nothing else, “Clown in the Tunnel” is cathartic for me because now I know that, sitting on the other side, the idea I thought of really is good! A unique element to “Clown in the Tunnel” is the fact that it truly is the epitomizing story of the author’s ability to cross wires between impossible crimes and alibi plots. Despite the Carrian or Paul Halterian impossible crime premise of a clown who can walk through walls, the story, not unlike “Death in Early Spring”, involves a time table! And the time table is central to figuring out the trick for the clown’s disappearance… In the end, an alibi trick is utilized to construct an impossible crime and I loved seeing it from the reader’s seat, even if I didn’t trust the idea when I wrote it myself. This story ended up on my 15 favorite impossible crimes list.

“The Five Clocks” sees Onitsura return as he investigates the murder of an accountant who was apparently about to give evidence of his involvement in embezzlement, but is soon murdered in his apartment. The police have an obvious suspect in mind, but Inspector Onitsura has other ideas. However, in order clear the innocent man’s name, Onitsura has to battle with the fact that the true killer has a scarily airtight alibi: the killer, the the assistant division chief in the victim’s company, has an alibi proven by five different clocks (the clock of a restaurant he ordered from, the clock from a radio station, a witness’s wristwatch, a clock on the wall in his study, and a clock at his tailor). How could the killer have committed this crime with an alibi affirmed so neatly?

Another impossible alibi problem. The premise sounds like it’d be ripe for impressive time manipulation, but the eventual solution is wildly inelegant and not very interesting. The story essentially ends up five (at a stretch) different alibi plots melted down and stuffed together into a twenty page story, and the answer to each “clock” (alibi) is the exact first solution the relatively astute mystery reader will probably think of for each one. There’s more to “The Five Clocks” than the other stories, but more uninspired plotting is, frankly, worse. Easily my least favorite story in the collection.

And, finally, the finale Hoshikage story and the last story in The Red Locked Room is the title story, “The Red Locked Room”. A young female medical student is murdered and found dismembered in the little red brick dissecting room at the edge of her university’s campus, sole door to which was secured from the outside by a combination lock the combination to which only one (innocent) person knows. How could this violent and egregious crime have come to be? Ryūzō Hoshikage brings the crime home to the rightful culprit…

Apparently, “The Red Locked Room” is supposed to be one of the quintessential Japanese locked room mystery stories, but the quality of the story doesn’t quite live up to its apparent historical significance. While it’s not quite easy to spot the culprit, the locked-room’s trick should immediately occur to most readers with even a passing awareness of impossible crimes. It isn’t that the solution is particularly cliched or over-used, because it isn’t, but it’s definitely the easy answer to the provided set-up. There’s an attempt to misdirect away from this solution, but the misdirection is so underplayed that, ironically, the reader will probably forget about it and end up skipping to the correct solution anyway. Unfortunately, while the idea isn’t particularly unoriginal, it’s still a trick lacking in inspiration or cleverness and ends up just being limp and obvious as a result.

The Red Locked Room is something of an interesting collection because there was almost no middle ground in quality. Either the story was painfully lacking, uninspired, and uninteresting, or it was the opposite extreme of wildly brilliant and imaginative. While the quality of this collection is fairly uneven, the stories skewing good were immensely good and, for my money, more than compensate for their worse counterparts (which were mediocre, rather than outright bad). The better three stories (“Clown in the Tunnel”, “Death in Early Spring”, and “Whose Body?”) inspire me in my Japanese language studies to read more of this author, while the worse four I’m content writing off as unfortunate flubs.

While I’m not entirely confident I can say that Ayukawa bests either John Dickson Carr or Freeman Will Crofts in the overall quality of the work displayed here, I am happy to say that where Ayukawa does his best work he at least matches them momentarily. Ayukawa’s propensity for crossing-wirings between alibi plots and locked-room mysteries is shown off best in “Clown in the Tunnel”, which itself feels like a marriage between the works of those two great authors he is compared to, but “Death in Early Spring” equally display his excellence in this field.

Even if I only truly enjoyed three of the seven tales in this collection, I believe they’re more than worth the price of entry for The Red Locked Room! Do check it out if you have the time!

  1. “Clown in the Tunnel” – 9.25/10
  2. “Death in Early Spring” – 8.75/10
  3. “Whose Body?” – 8.25/10
  4. “The Blue Locked Room” – 6.75/10
  5. “The Red Locked Room” – 6.25 / 10
  6. “The White Locked Room” – 6/10
  7. “The Five Clocks” – 5/10

Detective School Q – Case 3 “Class Begins at Detective School” and Case 4 “The Kamikakushi Village Murder Case” – Amagi Seimaru

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.

  1. The Kamikakushi Village Murder Case (Chapters 17-29)
  2. The Tragedy of Kirisaki Island (Chapters 4-13)
  3. Class Begins at Detective School (Chapters 14-16)
  4. Detective School Entrance Exam (Chapters 1-3)

On My Shin-Honkaku Bookshelf – 12 Japanese Mysteries I’d Kill To Be Able To Read

It’s an open secret that I am deeply fascinated with Japanese mystery fiction. My passion for mystery fiction was fostered from a young age by (still genuinely fantastic) mystery video games like the Ace Attorney franchise. I was weened on the style and standard of plotting of shin-honkaku mysteries before I even knew what the term meant!

For a few years strong now, I’ve actually been studying Japanese with the explicit intention of becoming a professional translator of shin-honkaku mysteries — or, failing that, at least being able to read them myself. Over time, as I’ve collected novels to attempt to force my way through, my fascination with shin-honkaku mysteries has slowly become defined less by the translated novels I’ve already read, and more by the untranslated novels I will one day soon be able to read.

For the past few weeks I’ve been working on a few big discussion posts for my blog, since I haven’t done any big genre-spanning posts since On a Defense of Impossible Alibis and “Doylist” Impossibilites. These projects include a defense of modern pastiches of classical detectives in response to the negative pre-release reception of the new Marple anthology, a discussion on the genre of hybrid mysteries and why they’re an essential sub-style of mysteries to embrace, and a post on video games and why they’re uniquely capable of capturing the spirit of Golden Age Detection better than GAD itself — when done well, that is. These posts are eating up a lot of my time, and between them and school and reading Japanese novels, I haven’t had a lot of material to throw up on the blog lately! So, I decided to channel my languages studies into my blog and make this top ten list of every shin-honkaku mystery I desperately want to read, not only to remind myself of why I’m learning the language but to perhaps coax some of you into studying the language yourselves.

I set out to make this list with the following guidelines for myself:

  • Entries may only be:
    • novels
    • short-story collections written by a single author or consistent group of authors
    • individual short-stories
    • I will not include anthologies written by multiple authors, but I may select individual stories from these anthologies — with one exception being if multiple authors contributed to a single holistic project, such as a round-robin novel in the style of The Floating Admiral.
      • However, I may only pick one story from any given anthology.
  • The intention of this post is to highlight the sheer creative variety of shin-honkaku mysteries. Therefore, stories with unconventional premises were prioritized over more well-known mysteries or mysteries by reputed authors. These may still appear, but I didn’t want to make a whole post just talking about untranslated works from famous authors already covered by Pushkin Vertigo or Locked-Room International.
    • Furthermore, there is no works-per-author limit, but in accordance with this guideline I will prioritize authors with novel premises. The more traditional an author, the less likely you’ll see multiple books from them represented on this list.
    • If a series is defined by a shared premise, only one book from that series may appear on the list.
  • These works may not have translations in any capacity — this includes even bad translations by first-year Japanese students posted to Reddit. If it has an official or unofficial translation at all, it isn’t applicable, as the intention is to create motivation to study Japanese.
  • Video games, television shows, comics, movies, radio shows, podcasts, musicals, plays, etc. are not applicable. There are many, many, many good mysteries in every medium, but I did not want to dilute this post. Video games are already getting their own post, anyway, as the medium deserves it.
    • However, novel spin-offs of multimedia franchises are applicable. They must be original stories, and may not be adaptations of existing plots in the series.
  • Synopses will be written from a combination of reviews and book descriptions. I may accidentally extrapolate incorrect details, but I will do my best to keep it to strictly what I know for a matter of fact.

And, one fair warning… I tried to find a lot of these on my own, but quite a few of these are inspired by my reading Ho-Ling no Jikenbo, the blog of Ho-Ling, preeminent translator of Japanese mysteries. Even the few I did manage to find on my own I later discovered were covered on Ho-Ling’s blog well before I got to them — the man’s got all of his bases covered! If any of these stories sound interesting you, or you want to read more about Japanese detection, absolutely do check out Ho-Ling’s fantastic and informative blog for reviews.

With that all out of the way, let’s get to the 12 shin-honkaku mysteries I’d kill to be able to read… And perhaps, so would you!

The Cinderella Castle Murder (シンデレラ城の殺人) by Konno Tenryū (紺野天龍)

First up is actually the novel I’m reading at this very moment, The Cinderella Castle Murder, a murder mystery reimagining of the ever-popular Cinderella fairytale. Reading Masahiro Imamura’s zombie apocalypse-infused locked-room mystery Death Among the Undead has awoken a deep fascination with Japan’s breadth of “hybrid mysteries” — mysteries that combine elements from non-mystery genres — so expect this to be a minor trend in this list.

The Cinderella fairytale is hijacked by a murder mystery! When Cinderella is locked-and-sealed inside of a room, whose sole entrance is guarded, with the Prince at his ball, there is no way he should’ve wound up dead… And yet, he does; murdered, in fact! Being the only person inside of a room that was locked in three difference ways means that Cinderella is immediately brought to court and tried for the murder…

With nobody to defend her, the fast-talking and sharp-tongued Cinderella is forced to represent herself as a defense attorney, picking apart contradictions in the seemingly airtight testimony of the array of quirky witnesses who all seem to know for a definitive fact that Cinderella is guilty! Worse yet, her magic will wear off at midnight, revealing her true identity, proving inconvenient not only for herself but also her evil stepmother and cruel step-sisters… So the race is on for Cinderella to prove herself innocent before midnight, not only for herself, but also for the people who don’t really deserve it…!

This novel’s structure of picking apart witness testimony in a fantastical court has earned comparisons to my pet mystery franchise Ace Attorney/Gyakuten Saiban, so that is immediately fascinating for me! Konno Tenryū is not a famous author in the slightest, but well-regarded by a few of my Japanese friends who have read their works as a writer of fantastic magic-infused mysteries — including Ho-Ling, whose blog brought my attention to this particular novel.

The Locked-Room of the Alchemist (錬金術師の密室) by Konno Tenryū (紺野天龍)

Another magic-infused hybrid locked-room mystery by Konno Tenryū!? It’s more likely than you think…

In a world where magic works as a science of give-and-take, spells instead functioning by transmuting physical matter, the renowned alchemist Ferdinand is murdered inside of his lab, which is locked behind three steel doors which themselves require the palm-prints of Ferdinand and key members of his organization to open. Not only is it almost unthinkable that a magical being like an alchemist, who can transform any matter within his grasp into a weapon, could be killed by someone un-magical… it’s further unthinkable that any random person could bypass all of these security precautions… Therefore, the blame is immediately placed on the shoulders of Theresa Paracelsus, the only remaining Alchemist in the organization and the only one capable of using her alchemy to commit this murder! Emilia, our protagonist, doesn’t believe Theresa could be the killer, and sets out to solve this murder that, if not committed by Theresa, is utterly impossible…

It’s must easier to see how magic plays into the plot of The Locked-Room of the Alchemist than The Cinderella Castle Murder, which instantly makes it sound so much more promising as a showcase of Japanese hybrid mysteries and the unique way in which fantasy can inform a brilliant murder plot… This is the first in a series of ongoing series, and the sequel sounds even more fascinating than this one!

Locked-Room Murder Game – The Fool’s Mate (密室殺人ゲーム王手飛車取り) by Utano Shōgo (歌野晶午)

A fringe community of online mystery fans have grown tired of their immense powers of deduction and intellect on fictional murders… and have turned to committing perfect crimes in the real world! Using masks and voice-changers, these real-world murder masterminds share details of their exploits, and challenge each other to solve their crimes in this locked-room mystery short story collection…

A community of murderers who challenge each other to solve their crimes sounds like a natural evolution of the format of the “armchair detective club” popularized in Miss Marple’s The Tuesday Club Murders. Using the internet as the medium for these stories is even more interesting. It’s unclear to me how much the internet really matters in these crimes, but given that I’ve heard the stories are semi-serialized, it’s possible that some cross-story misdirection could occur with these crimes and the internet overlapping…

This is the first of two-and-a-half novels in the series, and is deeply fascinating, if only daunting because its first story is the longest by a sizable amount…

The Adventures of Rintarō Norizuki (法月林太郎の冒険) by Rintarō Norizuki (法月林太郎)

Rintarō Norizuki is, as can be divined from his detective and himself sharing a name, a disciple of the Queenian school of mystery writing. The few Rintarō Norizuki short stories that have been published in English are utterly brilliant, so to see more of the Eastern Second Coming of Ellery Queen would be a dream!

Unfortunately, I know very little about the stories in this collection, but there’s some interesting titles including “The Cutting Monster”, “The Cannibal’s Puzzle”, and “The Death-Row Puzzle”. Fascinating stuff, and I’m only sad I can’t say more about this one!

There is a New Adventures of Rintarō Norizuki, which has much less evocative titles, but nonetheless I’d be interested in reading! It seems like Japanese mysteries favor locked-room mysteries and impossible crimes, so if nothing else I’d love to see more of Japan’s take on non-impossible puzzle mysteries!

The Murder of Alice (アリス殺し) by Kobayashi Yasumi (小林泰三)

Ari Kurisugawa is haunted by dreams of a surreal land ruled by a Queen of Hearts. She dreams of nothing but this Wonderland and going on adventures with White Rabbits and Mad Hatters. One day, though, she is shocked by a dream in which Humpty Dumpty has a great fall… only, it wasn’t an accident. This is greatly distressing, but it only gets worse when she awakes and discovers that a student in her school has similarly died by falling off of the roof of the faculty building!

Once the suspicion of murder arises and Ari becomes the prime suspect in both worlds, investigating the deaths reveal that Ari’s not the only one to dream of Wonderland. In fact, as it happens, these “dreams” are a very real, shared world in which her and multiple classmates have met each other in the form of avatars! When it’s discovered that not only do real people correspond to people in Wonderland, but so do the events of the murder, Ari/Alice teams up with intelligent Imori/dim-witted Bill the Lizard to solve this cross-worlds murder mystery and prove her innocence!

This is the third hybrid fantasy-mystery on this list in which a woman is falsely accused of murder and must prove herself innocent, but somehow in spite of the three stories having this basic similarity they all feel like three dramatically different tales when they’re all laid out. As you can tell, this mystery is a reimagining of the children’s story Alice in Wonderland and is the first in a series of novels that utilize the same premise with difference stories such as The Wizard of Oz or The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. A mystery involving the interplay between two parallel stories set in different worlds is deeply fascinating, and the possibilities send my brain running!

“Whodunit Reception” (フーダニット・リセプション) by Morikawa Tomoki (森川智喜)
collected in Honkaku King 2022 (本格王2022)

Honkaku King is an annual best-of short story anthology series of all of the best detective stories published in a given year, as decided by members of the Honkaku Mystery Writers of Japan club. Ho-Ling’s review of this volume contained many fascinating stories, but the one that stood out the most to me was “Whodunit Reception” by Morikawa Tomoki.

The narrator and their friend accidentally destroy the unpublished manuscript for the last and final chapter of a mystery-story that is being serialized right now. In order to avoid getting into serious trouble, the two have to try and repair the manuscript. Fortunately, they’re able to save almost all of it… except for the parts of the story where the detective explains whodunit! By using the context clues of the surrounding text, the two have to fill in 17 blank spots to complete the story (keeping in mind, of course, that the only context they have is the final chapter and none of the rest of the novel).

This sounds like a puzzle/riddle-lover’s dream! I myself make it a rule to complete at least 10 puzzles a day purely for fun, so this bizarre little story in which the solution to a mystery story is itself the mystery story sounds compelling! A novel little meta-mystery I’d absolutely love to sit down with one of these days, with a fun concept, even if it’s not as far-out as some of the fantasy mysteries we’ve looked at! Every single other story in this anthology sounds fantastic though…

The Locked-Room Collector (密室蒐集家) by Ōyama Seīchirō (大山誠一郎)

My interest in this one has Ho-Ling’s fingerprints all over it. I first discovered Ōyama Seīchirō’s works through アリバイ崩し承ります (Alibi Cracking, At Your Service), a television drama adaptation of one the author’s other mystery collections of the same name. Alibi Cracking, At Your Service deals predominantly with “impossible alibi problems“, but other variations on alibi plots also appear, and the average quality of the episodes and tricks is quite high. Ho-Ling’s review of Alibi Cracking, At Your Service ended up directing me to his review of The Locked-Room Collector by the same author, and he speaks very highly of this one! The main defining quality of The Locked-Room Collector is that unlike the lateral thinking puzzle that many locked-room mysteries tend to be, all of the mysteries in this one are impossible crimes solved through pure Queenian chains of deduction.

While on a conceptual level this collection doesn’t seem all too interesting, I am previously acquainted with Ōyama Seīchirō’s work and already think highly of him as a plotter and can attest to his abilities!

Ace Attorney: Turnabout Airport (逆転裁判-逆転空港) by Mie Takase (高瀬美恵)

The Ace Attorney, with all of its bumps and warts, is my favorite mystery series ever. It is partially nostalgia, as this video game franchise is the thing that got me invested in Golden Age/(shin-)honkaku mysteries to begin with. But even then, going back and revisiting the series, where it works Ace Attorney has some of the absolute best-plotted mysteries ever written. The series’ gameplay cycle of being given testimony, and using evidence to find contradictions, explaining the contradictions, and then moving onto more testimony gives the reasoning an air of Queenian deduction chains. As a game series based entirely around the logic of statements vs evidence, the quality of cluing is quite high, and Ace Attorney boasts some of the most unique, imaginative clues I’ve ever seen in the genre! But this series is something special in Golden Age detection in a way that’s impossible to summarize in a few paragraphs, and deserves a post all to itself…

Truth be told, this entry is kind of cheat. I don’t care about Turnabout Airport specifically. The novel I’m more interested in is its immediate prequel, Turnabout Idol, but a fan has already translated the novel and posted it online, disqualifying it from this list… Nonetheless, Turnabout Airport is a standard Ace Attorney case, featuring defense attorney Phoenix Wright as he defends his subordinary Apollo Justice, who is accused of murdering a politician at an international airport! As a fan of the series who has been thirsted for fresh (good) content for nearly a decade now, these two novels are an oasis!

Word to the wise, the novels seem allergic to creating any more new characters than they absolutely have to, as both Turnabout Airport and Turnabout Idol feature exclusively recurring characters as defendants and prosecuting attorneys, which means the novels probably assume you have prior connection to these characters for the stories to work, so… Take this as my obligatory recommendation to go play Ace Attorney.

The 46th Locked-Room (46番目の密室) by Arisugawa Arisu (有栖川有栖)

I promise it’s a coincidence that I’ve gone of a tour of all of the Queenian authors…

Arisugawa Arisu is another author in the “Ellery Queen”-school of mystery writing, but his series have a bit of an odd gimmick: there are two Alice series. The Student Alice series and the Writer Alice series. Both Student Alice and Writer Alice are different people, and each are detective novelists. Student Alice writes novels about Writer Alice, and Writer Alice writes novels about Student Alice, while the real world Arisu writes about both of these men writing about each other…

I’m not confused, you’re confused!

I don’t have any particular interest in specifically The 46th Locked-Room, but more broadly I am interested in all of the Writer Alice series. The Moai Island Puzzle, which was translated by Ho-Ling for Locked-Room International, is the second novel in the Student Alice series. The 46th Locked-Room is the first novel in the Writer Alice. My main interest with this novel is not in its plot, but merely to compare the two series side-to-side and hope to understand why there are two Alice franchises…

Makabe is a detective fiction author known as “The Japanese John Dickson Carr” due to his output of 45 locked-room mysteries. The 46th Locked-Room therefore refers to his final novel, as he has produced multiple mediocre mystery novels back-to-back and intends to soon expand beyond the confines of the detection genre. Only, of course, he winds up murdered in a locked room himself!

Admittedly, of all the stories on this list, this is the one I have the lowest expectations for. Every meta-mystery where detective novels are a plot point seem to have the same annoying quirk I complain about in my reviews of Death Invites You and The Honjin Murders: fake evidence is produced with no meaningful explanations just to muddy the waters for no better reason than it’s a mystery novel! We gotta! I’ve never liked this type of red herring, and it seems to be the territory of meta-mysteries like this… But, nonetheless, I go into it with an open mind!

“Amulet Hotel” (アミュレット・ホテル) by Hōjō Kie (方丈貴恵)
collected in Honkaku King 2021 (本格王2021)

We return to last year’s Honkaku King anthology, in which “Amulet Hotel” by Houjou Kie sounds the most promising, in no small part because of Ho-Ling’s review of the anthology… In fact, Ho-Ling’s summary of the story is brilliant, and knowing almost nothing of my story myself I couldn’t do better if I tried, so here’s an excerpt from his review:

When a guest of the Amulet Hotel’s annex complains that the door to his room can’t be opened and it turns out even the owner’s master key can’t open the door, they break the door down: the door had been blocked by a serving cart jammed beneath the door handle. Inside the room, they find a murdered man and an unconscious employee of the hotel. Normally, this is time to call the police, but not in the Amulet Hotel: the annex of the Amulet Hotel serves a very special kind of guest, the kind of guest who likes their privacy very much, who doesn’t like the police and who will make use of the special hotel services like having guns delivered to their rooms. Everyone is a criminal here, so whenever anything happens here, the Amulet Hotel will “clean up” themselves. But while the Amulet Hotel does cater to the criminals, there are still rules they expect their guests to obey to, and the most important one is that they should never ever inconvenience the hotel. Hotel detective Kiryuu is asked to figure out whether the unconscious employee in the hotel room killed the guest, or whether someone else did and if so, how the locked room was created and once they know what happened, they will deal with things properly.

Ho-Ling’s review is glowing and this mystery sounds utterly brilliant and conceptually novel! Every story sounds like quality goods, though!

RPG School (RPGスクール) by Hayasaka Yabusaka (早坂吝)

This is the first anything I ever tried to read in Japanese that wasn’t a news article or a social media post. I still haven’t actually committed to finishing it, so it’s on this list purely because I feel like it the first novel I’ve ever tried to read in Japanese means I should get around to finishing it sooner rather than later…

In a school where everything functions under the rules of fantasy role-playing video games like Dragon Quest, the Dark Lord has taken control of the school and filled it to the brim with monsters! Only, of course, with all of this chaos going on with needing to save the world from a great Godly evil, people have found the opportunity to commit impossible murders like the murder of a student in an un-tainted coat of snow.

This book is another hybrid mystery, and in this one the puzzle is informed by the fact the entire world operates under the rules of a video game! As someone who loves RPGs, seeing a murder mystery somehow be derived from the format is exciting and fascinating!

“When the Snow of Dried Leaves Melts” (かれ草の雪とけたれば) by Kaburagi Ren (鏑木連)
collected in New Orthodox Detective Special – Banquet of Impossible Crimes (新・本格推理 特別編―不可能犯罪の饗宴)

This is one I was really proud of discovering on my own, only to just now find out while trying to find a synopsis that, yes, Ho-Ling already covered it… Sigh… I was already interested in the story from the title alone, but Ho-Ling’s review puts it over the top.

“When the Snow of Dried Leaves Melts” is an impossible crime story (one of many in this anthology) in which a man is murdered on the fourth floor of a real world government building. The only way out of the room was a ladder, which a man was climbing down and soon apprehended from. Naturally, his guilt is debated, therefore the question of how someone can commit this impossible murder comes into play, especially when this suspect helped create the impossibility himself…

Admittedly the premise sounds pretty standard for what the title was offering, but I’m actually glad Ho-Ling covered this one because it let me write this synopsis at all. His review is that the story is simultaneously brilliant and also bullshit, so I’m sure I’m in for a hell of a ride!

And there we have it, the 12 shin-honkaku stories I’d kill to read! I tried to capture a wide variety of stories, form, and genre without relying too much on just mentioning the big names, and I think I’ve done a fairly good job at creating a to-read list of Japanese detective stories, for myself and hopefully other would-be students of the language!

Already, I was fascinated with Japanese mysteries, but the more I learn the language and therefore the more I become acquainted with shin-honkaku mysteries the more deeply my fascination runs! I can only study day-in-day-out and hope one day I can become fluent enough to read all of these brilliant-sounding mysteries!

The Kindaichi Case Files (File Series) File 3 – The Snow Yashka Murder Case (1993) by Yōzaburō Kanari

(Note: Although this is the second 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)

The Kindaichi Case Files is to this day one of the leading names in Japanese detection, and for the longest time has been one of the only ways many people experienced anything shin-honkaku — and many of those people didn’t even know the meaning of the term! Despite this, I actually never really read much of The Kindaichi Case Files. No, it wasn’t because of some anti-manga prejudice; it was actually because I’d read two stories… and didn’t really care so much for them! The first of the stories I read was The Opera House Murder Case, and my feelings didn’t change much from my first exposure and my second exposure (as I reviewed above…). The second of these stories was The Snow Yashka Murder Case, which I read skipping Western Village Murder Case on recommendation from a friend who warned me it spoiled a famous detective novel that I hadn’t read at the time…

The Snow Yashka Murder Case was where I ended my first attempts to read the Kindaichi Case Files franchise, simply because I wasn’t impressed with the resolution of the story’s chief impossible crime. As I had twice been disappointed with the impossibilities of this locked-room mystery series, I ended up refusing to return to the series for quite some time… It wasn’t until my Detective Conan review series that people in the Golden Age Detection group started asking me for my opinions on The Kindaichi Case Files fairly regularly… It’s only fair, then, that I put any preconceived biases aside and delve headfirst into this gallery of impossible crimes and locked-rooms… Seeing as my opinions on The Opera House Murder Case hadn’t changed a bit, how has my negative impressions of The Snow Yaksha Murder Case mutated with time..?

Kindaichi, a young teen detective, has been brought along with police inspector Isami Kenmochi to do the leg-work and be an extra in the latest installment of Shock! TV, a prank show that seeks to scare celebrities with fake deaths and gruesome tricks… The episode is being filmed in the mountain villa of reclusive artist Issei Himuro, who was generous enough to offer his home for the shooting. The main target of Shock! TV is Rie Kano, a woman well-known for being snotty and difficult to work with.

After Kindaichi fakes being poisoned and dying, he and the rest of the Shock! TV crew retreat to the annex house which, although facing the main house, is a 20 minute drive around a massive ravine to reach. There, the crew begins to use a remote control to scare Rie with exploding vases and terrifying sounds! However, when their pranks appear to reach a zenith, a person wearing clothes and the mask of a legendary snow demon appears in the shot, and, to the shock of everyone present, murders Rie with an axe before walking away into the snowy night!

But, everyone realizes… this murder is an open-and-shut case! Everyone except for a few people had been together in the annex house! The only people missing were Marina Ayatsuji, who had taken the only car to go to the main house but hadn’t been gone long enough to reach the main house, and the cameraman Michio Akashi, who had been missing for a significantly long period of time. Therefore, the only person who could commit the murder is Michio Akashi!

The murder is investigated by Kengo Akechi, a crime-solving prodigy who spent much time in America. When Kindaichi tries to get involved, Akechi initially admonishes him as just an amateur who got lucky twice. But when the body of Michio Akashi appears, and it becomes obvious he’s been murdered for well over 12 hours, the murder becomes an impossible crime in which every suspect has an alibi! Kenmochi vouches for Kindaichi’s talents, so Akechi allows Kindaichi to investigate on the condition that Kenmochi and Akechi both put their careers on the line… loser must retire from the police, forever.

And so, the hunt is on for this mysterious murderer who appears by snowstorm…

As a Kindaichi Case Files story, The Snow Yashka Murder Case is nothing special — to my understanding, even the best of the stories in this series are “nothing special” in terms of set-up and presentation. The well-documented tropes of the series are there, with isolated locales, impossible serial killings, and masked villains.

What immediately struck me about this story though, is that I believe it’s the first to really justify its use of masked killers beyond just being a fun little visual gimmick or a flimsy means of trying to convince us the killer isn’t part of the closed cast — it’s also a practical tool for misdirection and cluing, as it allows the killer to operate in full-view of the other characters, and as a consequence the killer’s behaviors are there for us to analyze as a clue!

When the murder is committed on the Shock! TV monitor, the masked killer appears, murders Rie with an axe, turns around, walks for a few seconds, turns back around, and then destroys the hidden camera left behind by the film crew. What this creates is actually an incredibly smart clue that, come the denouement, is part of an impressive Ellery Queen-esque deduction chain that not only tears down a false solution provided by Akechi, but also points irreparably in the direction of the killer by establishing knowledge which they must’ve had, as proven by them overplaying their hand and misinterpreting misinterpretations.

Don’t get me wrong, the killer’s identity is obvious from the moment the murder is committed, but the actual in-universe clues that lead Kindaichi to the conclusion are smart and well-realized.

This part of the story, while impressive in its cluing, represents a part of the killer’s plan that when I first read it was utterly unbelievable, and I thought it essentially suffered from all of the same issues as a “dying message” story. It is part of an elongated form of misdirection that almost entirely relies on the assumption that the detective will clue into small nuances and starts to make it unrealistic how well the killer is able to predict what other characters will think.

However, on a second reading, I actually think that this trap is much more believable than I had given it credit for, especially since it seems as if an immediately-proven-false confession from a certain character was manufactured specifically to spell this clue out in the contingency that the detective doesn’t follow the reasoning the killer expected him to. The intended conclusion is also much less esoteric than many “dying message” riddles, as it’s hidden under a simple, single layer of logic.

But, for the impossibility itself, the solution is shocking, original, daring, deceptively simply… and entirely not good. Now, I understand that’s something of a paradox for locked-room mysteries, as shocking and simple solutions are often seen as the standard to strive for, but the solution to the impossibility is original in the way that it was very obviously not created for a mystery story. Instead, it’s original in the sense that the author obviously had this esoteric real-world knowledge in the back of his head, and wanted to apply it in a murder mystery, but struggled to find a clever way to utilize it. Instead it’s just a dry, straight regurgitation of this esoteric information that’s only “well-hidden” because it relies on a fact that the audience absolutely could not be expected to know. There are a few clues that make a vague attempt at suggesting the solution, but they do very poorly, and this is ultimately not a clever or smart trick, and more just a cheap flouting of obscure knowledge.

Throughout the story, Akechi frequently provides false solutions which Kindaichi easily shoot down. However, in these, only once do we, the audience, have the information needed to disprove the theory as the theory is presented to us. Once, the information is outright hidden from us, and another time the clue is hidden until just a little before Kindaichi disproves his theory. While I understand that these false solutions need to seem intelligent and convincing, I do believe that disproving them should be part of the “puzzle”. We shouldn’t just be able to write them off because “the real solution wouldn’t be presented this early into the story” — I do believe that we should, more often than not, have the information needed to contradict faulty theories brought up in opposition to our detective, especially when the information in question is so easy to slip into a panel at any point before the theories are presented…

However, inversely, Akechi’s theories are themselves also produced from information which we the audience don’t have! This is very frustrating, because it doesn’t matter which side the reasoning is coming from in these debates between Akechi and Kindaichi… the audience will always feel left out. Only one of these three false solutions is actually intended by the killer and advances the plot, the other two, beyond being misunderstandings, don’t actually contribute any information that meaningfully helps us understand the crime. In other words, it’s a lot of frustratingly poorly-handled time-fillers.

Ultimately, my opinion of The Snow Yashka Murder Case did not improve by strides. I did end up lightening up on one small portion of the case, but ultimately The Snow Yashka Murder Case is a deeply flawed impossible crime, with a cheap solution that only really functions because it draws on a boring application of esoteric real-world knowledge, an obvious killer, and a very badly executed “conflict of the detectives”. While there is a very smart clue and an impressive Queenian logic chain that launches off of one of the series’ main tropes, it’s a very minor boon in an otherwise not-very-good story.

  1. The Opera House Murder Case (File Series/S.1, Case 1)
  2. The Snow Yashka Murder Case (File Series/S.1, Case 3)

Minor note: Ho-Ling corrected me in the comments of The Opera House Murder Case. He explained that the first two series being written by Kanari and the later series being written by Seimaru Amagi is a misunderstanding, as Amagi had always been present and responsible for the tricks in the Kindaichi franchise. I wrote the correction here, instead of editing the previous blog post, as I felt like more people would see it as they continued reading the series.

The Kindaichi Case Files (File Series) File 1 – The Opera House Murders (1993) by Yōzaburō Kanari

The Golden Age mystery in Japan has never discriminated by age. In the English-speaking world, there’s a very clear distinction drawn between the sophisticated and authentic Golden Age mysteries that adults read, and those pretenders that borrow the stylings and trappings of detective fiction despite being intended for children — your Nancy Drews, your Hardy Boys — and the understanding has always been that the former had a higher standard of plotting over the latter. However, in Japan, not only does no such stereotyping really exist, with “children’s” mysteries being regarded on the same level of plotting and expertise as any “adult” mystery, it’d actually also be fair to say that a huge portion of Japanese detective fiction has been guided, and even seen its best works come from the so-called “children” mystery series.

One of Japan’s greatest regarded printed exports of honkaku mystery is Detective Conan, a comic-book series about a teenager who is transformed into a young child and forced to solve crimes in order to find the antidote. Despite being marketed for “young boys”, Detective Conan is today one of the longest-running media franchises in the world, maintaining the popularity of classically-plotted detective stories.

However, video games predominantly seen in the west as “for children or teens” have themselves also had immense influence on Japanese detective fiction. Ace Attorney, a video game series featuring a fledgling lawyer defending people falsely accused of murder, is one of the most famous honkaku mystery franchises in Japan and, in my opinion, it has no less than five of the best mysteries I’ve ever read. A video game series inspired by Ace Attorney is Danganronpa, in which 15 students are locked inside of a prestigious high school, and forced to murder each other and get away with it without discovery in a “Class Trial” in order to escape!

Incidentally, despite both series being categorized as “kids’ games” by many people in the west, they’ve both had palpable influence on mystery-writing in Japan. A Great Detective Never Lies (名探偵は嘘をつかない) by Atsukawa Tatsumi is inspired by one of the cases of Ace Attorney. In this book, many famous detective novels are mentioned by name in the chapter titles, and among references to such prestigious authors as Anthony Berkeley and John Dickson Carr, Ace Attorney is listed as an equal. Daganronpa is itself the subject of great fascination by one of Japan’s most famous locked-room mystery novelists, Takekuni Kitayama, a winner of the prestigious 24th Mephisto Prize for his debut novel, The “Clock Castle” Murders. So enamored with the video game was Kitayama that he begged the creators to allow him to write novels set in the Danganronpa universe. What followed was a 6-book long prequel series which were so successful and well-regarded that this Japanese novelist was commissioned as the head writer of the mystery plots in the third Danganronpa game.

“Kid” mysteries and “adult” mysteries do not have the same division in Japan as they do in the west. “Kid” mysteries are respected, not out of nostalgia, but for the genuine quality and inventiveness they bring the genre. Kids and adults alike flock to these franchises, and even famous mystery novelists find enjoyment in these video game and comic book detective plots. They represent some of the best and most highly-regarded mysteries ever conceived, with the only fundamental difference really being complexity of dialogue and the ages of the protagonists.

This generally high standard of quality that supposed “kid” stories have set in the world of Japanese detection is something I’ve already discussed at length in my post On Some of the Best Mysteries Ever Written and the Puzzle of Why You’ve Never Read Them when building up to my Detective Conan reviews but it felt equally worth reinforcing that idea now. Detective Conan and Ace Attorney were not flukes, they are the standard. And they were far from the only “young adult” mysteries that are long-running, award-winning, and influential…

The Kindaichi Case Files, originally written by Yōzaburō Kanari before being taken by Seimaru Amagi, features Hajime Kindaichi. Hajime is your average problem student, failing all of his classes and often getting up to mischief. Everyone thinks he’s the world’s biggest loser, and there’s not a single person in the world who likes him except for his childhood friend Miyuki Nanase. However, he harbors a great secret that only one teacher manages to see through: with a 180 IQ, and a masterful eye for details, Hajime is in reality the grandson of famous supersleuth Kōsuke Kindaichi… Although he never intended to, Hajime gets roped into many different mystery cases, most of which are impossible crime/serial killings by masked murderers, and begins to develop a reputation for himself as a genius crimesolver, just like his grandfather!

The Kindaichi Case Files stands with Detective Conan as one of the greats in Japanese comic-book form detection in the style of honkaku mysteries. It’s interesting, therefore, to note that the two series are in almost every other way stark opposites of each other.

Detective Conan is a much more versatile series, with short story-length cases compiled on average three-to-a-book, and it doesn’t particularly hold any fidelity to form or style. Detective Conan has everything from alibi problems to serial killings to code-cracking riddles to locked-room mysteries to inverted mysteries to traditional whodunits to race-against-the-clock action-thrillers to psychological thrillers to heist stories and inverted heist stories, and even a couple horror tales!

Contrarily, The Kindaichi Case Files are all novel-length cases with most stories being roughly the length of an entire volume, give or take only a few chapters. The individual cases of Kindaichi Case Files are much more uniform, with the tropes of the franchise being well-documented. Almost every case is a serial killing that contains at least one impossible crime or locked-room mystery, and owing to inspiration from the Kōsuke Kindaichi series, often takes place in isolated locations with classical closed-circle casts. Almost always, the killer, in Scooby-Doo fashion, has a masked alias that they used to avoid detection, such as dressing up as a mountain demon or a mummy. And, a mutation from Kōsuke Kindaichi, the motives tend to be born from twisted and misguided emotions.

While more formulaic, The Kindaichi Case Files is comforting in that you always know what you’re going to get: Carrian impossible crimes. It also has the benefit of spending more time with each individual plotline, giving it more time to develop — though, this is of course a double-edged sword, as it also means inferior stories are also longer. It’s hard to pick one and say it’s demonstrably better, but what’s true for both series is that they are major parts of the mystery-plotting landscape in Japan, and if I’m going to be discussing the bite-size short-stories of Detective Conan, then I also need to review the full-length macabre impossible tales of Kindaichi Case Files.

As with Detective Conan, I’ll be reading, reviewing, and subsequently ranking each individual story in the Kindaichi Case Files franchise. Just like before, the intention of this series is to give people a comprehensive “reading list” for this massive franchise so that the more hesitant of manga-readers among us can pick a select few stories that appeal to them, and read them, instead of pushing through all of these stories in a medium they’re uncomfortable with and just… hope they strike gold. This is part of my extended mission to proselytize on the merits of the so-called “kid” detection of Japan and introduce our western friends to these franchises with so much to offer!

The Opera House Murders opens with Hajime Kindaichi being invited by his best friend Miyuki on a Drama Club trip to an island-bound hotel called the Opera House Mansion. The hotel was chosen for its privacy as well as its unused theater, allowing the kids to freely rehearse for their upcoming production of The Phantom of the Opera!

The rehearsal goes well, until diva Ryoko Saotome gets into a fight with her co-star Orie, insisting that her inferior acting will make her look bad in front of the talent coach that’s coming to their debut night! Amidst the flaring tensions, old wounds surrounding the death of the club’s greatest star Fuyuko Tsukishima begin to reopen, revealing to Kindaichi that Fuyuko had committed suicide just a month ago after having her face burnt to hideous remains by acid. Only moments before jumping to her death from the roof of the hospital, Fuyuko, quoting The Phantom of the Opera, had soliloquized…

“I am the Phantom of the Opera! I am the ugliest creature on Earth! And even while the fires of Hell burn this ugly creature… I’ll still dream of a place in Heaven!”

Although at lunch it seemed as if tensions had subsided, the clubmates realized that Orie hadn’t come to the table! Before they can even think about looking for her, the sounds of her scream summon them to the theater to find her crushed by a stage-light! When Kindaichi realizes that everyone had been together in the dining room at the time the murder was committed, making the crime impossible, the proprietor of the hotel informed them all that a bandaged man known only as “Kagetsu” had checked into the hotel the night before…

Although they tried to escape, they found the boat that took them to the island adrift at sea, freed from its place at the dock! From this moment, the masked Kagetsu is haunting the grounds of the hotel while committing increasingly mysterious crimes, such as hanging clubmate Harumi Kiryu in a tree without leaving his footprints in the mud in the grounds…

When Kindaichi realizes that the murders are paralleling the deaths that occurred in The Phantom of the Opera, he’s forced to reconsider that Kagetsu might actually be a fabrication… a member of their club, out for bloody vengeance..! And it’s onto him to solve these baffling impossibilities!

I always thought it was interesting how The Kindaichi Case Files, despite being a series about locked-room murders and impossible crimes, opened with a story that didn’t really have a locked-room mystery. The initial murder of Orie is an impossible alibi problem, as every suspect is together in the same room when the murder occurs, and the hanging of Harumi is a footprints-in-the-mud problem. There are a handful of other deaths, but none of them “locked-room mysteries”.

The Opera House Murders is a fairly inauspicious beginning to a series as esteemed as The Kindaichi Case Files. The story does contain all of the quintessential elements of a Kindaichi case, but despite the inspired trappings of the Phantom of the Opera-themed murders, the case is in every way a fairly standard, average mystery of this sort.

The Phantom of the Opera motif for the murders, while initially intriguing, is arbitrary. It’s window dressing, nothing more and nothing less. The murders themselves aren’t extremely convoluted, nor extremely simple, and they aren’t extremely silly or extremely clever.

The alibi problem suffers from the same kind of problem all impossible alibi problems like this do, where the type of solution that must’ve been used is fairly obvious from the set-up alone. And while there are some decent clues pointing towards the exact application of this trick, they’re reserved until the latter half of the story and resolved immediately, when they would’ve been more potent as more… omnipresent aspects of the setting and case.

The footprints-in-the-mud problem is pretty much exactly the kind of solution you know it’d have to be, and there’s almost nothing particularly impressive about the solution worth noting. It’s notable that Kindaichi reasons from essentially nothing in this murder, and just easily deduces what kind of solution must have been at play based on the situation itself and zero external clues.

Although the whole mystery plot is itself fairly average, The Opera House Murders excels in its art! Although black-and-white, the artist does a fantastic job at using grey-tones to create a salient, tense atmosphere. Kindaichi expertly puts to paper what a John Dickson Carr novel always looks like inside of my head, and it can’t be overstated enough how good the art in Kindaichi Case Files is at capturing atmosphere and mood. The panels with Kagetsu peering into Miyuki’s window always get me, as seeing a face looking into my window is an irrational fear of mine… It’s a shame, then, that from my limited experience the series seems to utilize visual clues much less often than Detective Conan and doesn’t put the art to as good use…

So, all-told, a lukewarm introduction to the franchise. It’s a perfectly average, standard locked-room mystery with not much going on to set it apart from the competition. I don’t particularly hate it, but I can’t imagine I’ll remember it months in the future… At the very least, it gives us room to go up with this esteemed series!

A few things to note are that TomCat over at Beneath the Stains of Time has very strong opinions about Kindaichi Case Files. It’s his belief that the first two runs of the series (called the File Series, and the Case Series, spanning about 26 stories) are on average worse than the many other runs of the franchise. This is because File and Case are primarily written by Yōzaburō Kanari, to whom TomCat refers as “a hack”. Every other story in the series is written by Seimaru Amagi, whom TomCat praises as “the Sōji Shimada of manga”. Part of this animosity, I believe, stems from Kindaichi Case Files‘s second ever story, The Western Village Murder Case, being a direct 1:1 plagiarism of Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Sōji Shimada, with this copying being the subject of a lawsuit in which Kindaichi Case Files had to print spoiler warnings for Shimada’s book in this story… It’s my understanding that TomCat was spoiled by Western Village Murder Case, and that this might contribute to his strong feelings towards the Kanari stories!

Nonetheless, when it comes to mysteries, TomCat’s word is as good as gold! And this word has me a little worried about a long and tedious review series, so in order to keep myself sane and you all convinced this series can be good, I’ve gotten special recommendations from friends for the best stories from the original two runs. If I ever feel like there are too many negative reviews for Kindaichi Case Files back-to-back, I’ll end up skipping ahead to these particularly good stories as a sort of… respite! If you ever see a much later story appear out-of-order, then it’s because I felt like a positive review was in order. This is so I can avoid the issue I had with Detective Conan where I had to write six negative reviews back-to-back before I finally got to the point the series started to get really good.

Also, as discussed above, Western Village Murder Case flagrantly plagiarized a famous novel, and will therefore not be covered in this blog review series as I do not wish to encourage people to read it.

Without further ado, the ranking…!

  1. The Opera House Murders (File Series/S.1, Case 1)

Yes, The Opera House Murders is certainly the best Kindaichi we’ve covered so far! Exciting!