Furuhata Ninzaburou Season 1 (1994) by Kōki Mitani (Part 1/2)

Genre cross-contamination between Japan and the West is nothing unheard of. For every The Lion King there’s a Kimba the White Lion, and for every Fistful of Dollars where’s a Yojinbo. Maybe Japanese artists have also taken inspiration from western counterparts. Arisu Arisugawa is a protégé of Ellery Queen, from the masked-superhero trend of Marvel and DC Comics came manga like My Hero Academia. And Columbo… got Furuhata Ninzaburou.

Started in 1994 and led by creator Kōki Mitani, Furuhata Ninzaburou is a Japanese crime drama not only referred to as the Japanese version of popular inverted mystery television series Columbo, but is apparently also explicitly inspired by the show in question. It follows Third Division Homicide Inspector Furuhata Ninzaburou, a disarmingly quirky and aloof detective, as he finds himself (sometimes on purpose, something by sheer chance) sniffing out criminal plots, honing in on a suspect, harassing them and whittling away at their alibi — and their senses! — until he finally has the proof to arrest his mark! As in Columbo and other inverted mysteries, every episode opens with showing us the killer conducting their murder plot and establishing their alibi. Where ordinarily a mystery is told from the perspective of our protagonist, the detective, and we attempt to follow along with their reasoning and intuit who the killer is, in an inverted mystery like Columbo or Furuhata Ninzaburou, the “mystery” is derived from the fact that we know who the killer is, and we have to wonder how the detective will solve this seemingly airtight crime and break apart clever alibis.

In addition, a common element of the Furuhata Ninzaburou series is two segments in each episode where the protagonist breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. Before the opening credits, Furuhata tells the viewer a bizarre non-sequitur that always ends up either being a hint for the solution to the episode or simply some thematically relevant ramblings. Later, right before the denouement, Furuhata Ninzaburou addresses the viewer and asks them if they can see how he solved the murder in something like an Ellery Queen-esque Challenge to the Reader.

Furuhata Ninzaburou ran for four seasons, with seasons 1 and 3 being 12 episodes, season 2 having 10, all 50 minutes long. The fourth and final season was made up of only three 2-hour episodes written to be a dramatic swansong for the titular detective character. The show was evidently incredibly popular in Japan and, according to Ho-Ling of the Casebook of Ho-Ling blog, a major influence not only on Japanese crime dramas, but also on Japanese pop culture as a whole. Similar to my other extended review series of episodic mystery franchises, like my Detective Conan series, I will be attempting to discuss the entire franchise by tackling it chronologically, chunk-by-chunk season-by-season, while also reviewing individual episodes. At the end of each post, I’ll leave a paragraph writing up my thoughts on what I’ve seen so far, and then post a ranking of each episode. However, as each season of Furuhata Ninzaburou is generally four times as long as the average Detective Conan volume, in order to keep the reviews from running on for too long I’ve decided to review the seasons by halves — this post will be talking about episodes 1 to 6 of season 1, for example, while the next will review episodes 7 to 12.

These review series always have such long preambles, so just the same as with Detective Conan rest assured that every subsequent post will be significantly shorter and more accessible. Thank you for bearing with me.

Episode 1 – The Shoujo Manga Murder has Furuhata, car out of gas in the middle of nowhere, interrupting a young woman in the middle of a murder plot in order to use her phone. Three days ago, Chinami Koishikawa, an author of romance comics for young girls, went to a private cabin on a liaison with her business partner and illegitimate lover, locked him into a vault in the basement, left him for three days to starve, and then returned three days later. Naturally, when questioned by Furuhata, the woman claims that she had only been here a month ago at the most recent, and that she believes the man’s death was an accident… but Furuhata is quick to point out that the victim has been bludgeoned, a fact unknown to our killer! Furuhata also has to grapple with an apparent dying message… in which the victim grabbed a piece of paper, opened a pen, held both in his hand, and then wrote nothing at all…

This episode is actually criminally good for a pilot, because it really set the standard a bit too high! Although it’s not the chronologically first episode in the series I think it was a fantastic choice to lead with this episode. Opening with Furuhata operating in a strictly unofficial capacity and putting him in an isolated setting to interact casually with the suspect and form a bond with her all show off the more charming side of Furuhata’s character that transcend the DNA of Columbo I think is missing in the series’ actual first episode (the second episode released, chronologically). Until about the end of the episode, there isn’t much of a whiff of investigation or detection, but instead a protracted scene of Furuhata endearingly getting teary-eyed over a children’s love story, and yet these interactions still drop salient clues and hints that dovetail together for the denouement.

Although the crime is very simple, especially when compared to some of the weirdly complex schemes cooked up by Columbo villains, there are multiple very clever clues that build up a picture of suspicion come the end of the episode anyway. The dying message in particular is brilliant in all of the ways a dying message tends to be — brilliant, while also being stupid and ridiculous. I do feel like given the nature of the dying message, there is a more obvious explanation that isn’t really addressed, and as far as being “the ultimate piece of evidence that allows Furuhata to definitively prove the killer’s guilt” it’s probably the least likely one I’ve seen so far to hold up in a court of law. Those are minor smudges though on a very cleverly-realized inverted mystery that showed me immediately that Furuhata Ninzaburou wasn’t a mere copycat of Columbo — it’s its own show, inspired as it is but nonetheless able to stand on its own two feet.

Episode 2 – The Kabuki Murder opens with a security guard hassling kabuki actor Nakamura Ukon over the homicide he witnessed a few days ago. Ukon had paid the security guard to keep quiet, but after his morals catch up with him the security guard threatens to go to the police and expose Ukon’s crime. In his panic, Ukon knocks the security guard over, causing him to hit the back of his head and die. Trying to cover up the murder, Ukon uses a stage elevator to bring the body to the theater, messes with the time on the victim’s watch to give him an alibi, and then tries to make it look like the victim died by falling from the catwalk…

Just like in the previous episode, the killer’s plot is a lot simpler than those in the Columbo episodes I’ve seen. I like the build-up in this one well enough, though I feel like Furuhata is a much less charming character than in the previous episode. There’s one scene that recalls a Columbo episode where Furuhata lies about the kind of evidence they’re looking for in order to bait the killer into attempting to destroy evidence that doesn’t exist. The final detail that cinches the killer’s guilt is also clever enough, relying on a very understandable misunderstanding.

What’s weird about this episode though is… everything else. The victim died because he was being bribed by the killer into staying quiet about another murder, but outside of the opening segment this second murder isn’t addressed and Furuhata doesn’t even make a pass at trying to give Ukon a motive for the crime. Ukon getting caught at all is also very unbelievably, since even though the final misunderstanding is believable, everything leading up to him being at that point at all relies on unnaturally poor decision-making on his part. They try to explain it away with an artistic motive, but his explanation doesn’t even hold water on an irrational level — the killer said that, as a method actor, he wanted to experience what the character in his upcoming play felt after killing a geisha, and that this opportunity doesn’t come along often. This explanation doesn’t pass snuff for me, because… the killer is the geisha, he did not murder a geisha. Even by this weird, deliberately irrational motive, it isn’t consistent with the internal logic of the character, making this whole episode feel like they needed the killer to be as unreasonable as possible to even let him be caught. A few decent ideas here, but very poor all-told.

Episode 3 – The Psychological Murder has psychiatric therapist Eri Sasayama on a date with her former patient and illegitimate lover, who cooked her dinner for her birthday, when he reveals that he is soon to be engaged to another woman. Enraged, Eri concocts a plan that involves locking him out of the house, thereby forcing him to “break in”, while also taking advantage of a quirk of his of loving to surprise people to make him put a pair of stockings over his head and pretend to be a burglar. Doing this, Eri is able to hit him fatally with a baseball bat, thereby allowing her to pass off her murder plot as a mere case of self-defense!

On the one hand this is probably the most complex and interesting plot any killer has concocted of these first six episodes, and Furuhata is very enjoyable in this episode, with a number of funny scenes (most notably, him smoking through a pair of stockings). On the other hand, though, a clever murder plan means very little to an inverted mystery, as that is merely the set-up. The solution is the method by which the detective reaches the true conclusion, and in this episode it’s painstakingly obvious. Not only is it horribly obvious here, though, but the episode spends nearly the entirety of its investigation beleaguering the obvious contradiction Furuhata is building to. While there is a second, more important contradiction, it’s hidden away from the viewer and is very unlikely, but the clues building up to it are also very clearly telegraphed so that the viewer should definitely already know roughly where it’s going. Not a very good episode at all, charming moments notwithstanding.

Episode 4 – The Faxed Ransom Murder follows the faked ransom of the wife of mystery writer Dai Banzuin. After murdering his wife, Banzuin uses a word processor to automatically fax ransom notes to his office from a supposed kidnapper claiming to have his wife and asking for millions of yen. Banzuin proceeds to perfectly act out the instructions he wrote out for himself ahead of time to create an alibi for himself when the “ransomer” finally murders his wife…

In all honesty, I was afraid that the first episode was a fluke. It was brilliant, but two episodes immediately following it were poorly-constructed, obvious, and not very good. I’ll admit I was tempted to stop watching the show for a bit, but I’m glad I didn’t because this one is stunning!

In both Furuhata and Columbo it’s standard for the killer’s murder plot/alibi construction to be entirely completed in the first portion of the episode, before the detectives discover the murder and begin investigation. However, this episode is essentially one 50 minute-long alibi construction in which the suspicion of murder isn’t meant to even occur to anyone, with the crime disguised instead as a kidnapping. Bending format this much creates a new problem where Furuhata not only has to bring guilt home to the perpetrator, but he has to prove that a death even occurred at all! I was afraid that the episode was going to go the obvious route to the solution, with the fax machine at the killer’s house printing out copies of the faked ransom notes, but no, all of the reasoning is very clever as well as fair, and the eventual trap that Furuhata lays for the killer is brilliant.

My favorite episode of the six, and it’s no contest.

Episode 5 – The Shogi Tournament Murder has Furuhata and his subordinate Imaizumi at a hotel which, thanks to being in a “shogi town”, hosts a prestigious shogi tournament. Three-time loser Yonezawa 8-dan is now one more loss away from being finally disqualified from the tournament, so he concocts a plan to cheat. Either player may, on their turn, ask for the game to be suspended for the night, but in order to prevent cheating by allowing them the whole night to consider their next move they’re forced to write their next move on a paper sealed inside of an envelope. Yonezawa has conceived of some way to bypass this safeguard by sliding an empty piece of paper into the envelope and later somehow writing his move down. But when the coordinator of the tournament finds out and threatens to expel him, Yonezawa hits him with an ashtray and attempts to make it look like he fell in his bathtub…

Another very good one. In addition to the impossibility of the killer writing his move into a sealed envelope, the episode eventually turns on the “psychological impossibility” of “why would a skilled shogi player on the cusp of winning make a losing move that even the most ill-informed of layman tournament-viewers can see is senseless and idiotic”. What I love so much about the Detective Conan inverted mysteries is that they have an element of howdunit — you only see half of the killer’s plot, but the important parts (the actual alibi) are left ambiguous so that the reader is still left a clever impossible alibi problem to resolve. I enjoy it when inverted mysteries leave that little gap there, and while the answers to the impossibilities here aren’t ground-breaking they still contribute brilliantly to Furuhata’s reasoning establishing guilt.

There’s a clue here that I did pick up, but many English-viewers probably won’t since it requires knowledge of the Japanese language. It’s very clever though, and somewhat recalls a clue used in a Columbo involving fingerprints on a painting… The setting of both a hotel and a shogi tournament are utilized perfectly, and this is another homerun for the series.

Episode 6 – The Piano Lessons Murder takes place months after the passing of world-renowned pianist Shiobara Ichiro, and Kawai Ken is set to play at his memorial service. Although Kawai’s favorite pupil, Iguchi Kaoru has been disgraced by his estate, and so she electrocutes him to death, inciting a heart attack and hoping to steal his place at the memorial service.

There’s not a lot to say about this one except that it’s basically a reworking/minor improvement over The Kabuki Murder, involving a nearly identical mistake that leads to the culprit’s guilt and a similarly artistic motive for the killer’s unreasonable actions. However, the killer’s mistake is enhanced by something like a minor inversion of the psychological impossibility of The Shogi Murder Tournament, and the motive is more compelling, consistent, and moving than the one in Kabuki. The killer in this one is my favorite killer character so far, but all-told it’s still only a minor improvement over the plot of an episode we just saw a couple hours ago. I guess just skip that one and watch this one instead?

Three brilliant episodes and three mediocre-at-worst episodes makes the first six episodes of this series average out to pretty darn good! Furuhata Ninzaburou as a character obviously has DNA of Columbo in him, with his disarming awkwardness, politeness-to-the-point-of-annoyance, and there are more than a few instances where I absolutely felt like the writers had to restrain themselves from writing “just one more thing!”. But he’s also got his own little quirks and habits that build up during the series, like his love for children’s comics or his culinary ineptitude. He isn’t an idle ripoff of Columbo, that’s for sure!

Something that seemed interesting to me when comparing this show to Columbo is that in Furuhata the killers’ plans are overall simpler. Just watch the first episode of Columbo, and you’ll see the lengths the killer goes to establish their alibi. Four of these six episodes have remarkably simple plots by comparison, with killers often just… committing the murder in a fit of rage and then lying. What’s more is, in five of these six episodes, the killer tries to make it appear as if the deaths aren’t murders — in three of them, the deaths were meant to look like accidents, one of them natural causes, and one of them self-defense. Despite this trend, I never actually felt like this was to the detriment of the show or its mysteries — the complexity of the killer’s plot don’t seem to actually matter so much!

The show is great so far, with three fantastic episodes lined-up, and even the “bad” ones had great ideas in them. With plenty of cleverness in cluing, variety of situation and skill in presentation, Furuhata Ninzaburou is already a great example of the television crime drama, inverted mystery, and a very pleasant show for anyone interested in more Columbo!

  1. Faxed Ransom (Season 1, Episode 4)
  2. Shogi Tournament (Season 1, Episode 5)
  3. Shoujo Manga (Season 1, Episode 1)
  4. Piano Lesson (Season 1, Episode 6)
  5. Kabuki (Season 1, Episode 2)
  6. Psychological (Season 1, Episode 3)

Top 15 Favorite Impossible Crimes – Revision 0

I’ve never liked making “top favorite” lists in genres where I am so painfully aware of how little I’ve experienced in contrast to how much of it still exists waiting for me. Making a list of my favorite impossible crime novels specifically felt impossible because I’m just so, so, so aware of how many likely very good locked-room mysteries are sitting in my to-be-read pile right now. It’s worse, in fact, since I’ve started studying Japanese and have become more aware of a whole new world of obviously brilliant mystery novels. My personal horizon is so narrow, but the potential is so broad and it makes me feel like any list I make will come off as pedestrian. That’s why I’ve labeled this “revision 0”; I’m confident that by this time in 2023 the list will look immensely different. Maybe 33% of the entire list will be traded out by that time, I’m sure, and there will be at least one revision

This list is media non-specific. Television, movies, video games, comics may all apply. This is also why I’ve also settled on 15, rather than 10, because in the making of this list I realized that it was hyper-dominated by locked-room mysteries from Japanese novels and non-novel media, and I wanted to make some room for good, accessible, western media too. I’ll also only include one full entry from an author, including honorable mentions if necessary. Having qualified my list and the title of the post, my top 15 favorite impossible crimes, in no particular order, are…

Death of Jezebel – Christianna Brand (1949)

Anyone who has ever spoken to me will not be surprised by this being my immediate first inclusion on a list of favorite impossible crimes. Not only is Death of Jezebel my favorite Christianna Brand novel, not only is it my favorite impossible crime novel, it’s simply my favorite Golden Age mystery novel ever written. Christianna Brand is in top-form at demonstrating her ability to build up entire false narratives and hoodwink you into them, to bait the audience into believing things without ever really saying or doing anything. A masterclass in misdirection, the murder of a woman in a locked-and-guarded tower during a play also features multiple grand mechanical and technical tricks that are clever, novel, and macabre. One of four Brand masterpieces that I think even people with no interest in impossible crimes should give a chance.

The Moai Island Puzzle – Arisu Arisugawa (1989), trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2016)

The impossible shooting that occurs in this novel is a very strong alibi trick, but as good as it is this element of the story is only a small part of what makes The Moai Island Puzzle so strong a contender for fans of mysteries-as-a-puzzle. Puzzles buried within ciphers wrapped within riddles and tied-up with lateral thinking problems are the name of the game with this novel that celebrates puzzles as almost like an artform. A brilliantly intriguing and cerebral mystery novel.

Whistle Up the Devil – Derek Smith (1953)

Cringe-inducing romance and overly-convoluted climax aside, this is a homerun of an impossible crime novel. The principle murder of a man conducting a ceremony within a supposedly haunted room is just a good offering, with a complex arrangement of what still amounts to a quick series of little tricks we’ve all seen before, obvious bits and pieces and sleights of hand, but nonetheless enjoyably convoluted. What elevates this novel from good to fantastic is the knee-slapping devious and blastedly simple alibi trick employed in the secondary murder in a police station that nobody ever walked into or out of, aside from two men who were in each other’s view for every point of time that mattered. This short story-length masterpiece hiding in an otherwise just-above-average impossible crime makes this well-worth reading.

Here I want to give a quick honorable mention to Derek Smith’s other novel, Come to Paddington Fair, which if you were to ask me probably has a more brilliantly-plotted and conceived central murder, and a much more unique trick. I neglect to mention it as a proper entry on the list, because I felt like when you realized that coincidence doesn’t exist in a deliberately-plotted world the beginning of the story spoils the resolution in such a way that it makes much of the ensuing investigation feel redundant. Come to Paddington Fair is a fantastic idea, but unfortunately relies so majorly on an early Christie-esque dodge that, if you’re not hoodwinked by it, ends up toppling the whole story and every misdirection that comes after it. I noticed the initial dodge immediately, and pieced together the rest of the plot before the story had even hit its stride, and that did dock a few points for me. I still heavily recommend it, because while I feel like it spoils itself by being too clever by half, I think I’d always prefer a too-clever-for-itself story to its dull counterpart any day — it’s novel, unique, and a very intelligently plotted crime novel with a very innovative take on how to establish an impossible crime.

Murder in the Crooked HouseSōji Shimada (1982), trans. Louise Heal Kawai (2019)

Sōji Shimada is the Japanese locked-room murder, well known for his output of well over 50 novels featuring locked-rooms and other various impossible murders. His other major impossible crime offering, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, which is also available in English is much more well-known and equally deserving of praise for its brilliance and grandiosity of mechanical scale, but I just adore Murder in the Crooked House. Sōji Shimada, I feel, is an author you’ll either adore or hate. His settings and solutions are brilliant and original, but also stretch credulity and highlight above anything else the puzzle. As a sheer lateral thinking exercise, Murder in the Crooked House contains one of the best impossible crimes in any novel ever, even if I can’t confidently say it’s one of the best novels containing an impossible crime. It is wholly original, complex, intricately-plotted, and taut, and a fantastic puzzle from end to end with a fantastic method for committing murder in a triple-locked room that more than makes up for its obvious culprit.

Time to Kill – Roger Ormerod (1974)

Roger Ormerod is an author who wrote well after the Golden Age had ended. Despite this, his novels had all of the fairly-clued plotting and cerebral misdirection and alibi tricks as a novel from the 1930s, blended with the aesthetic of a gritty contemporary PI novel. His debut novel is an impossible alibi problem — from the moment the murder is committed, we know who the killer is, but there’s one problem: the killer has an airtight alibi provided by the narrator himself and we have no idea how he committed this murder under such impossible-for-him circumstances. I used to think that there were only three basic explanations for the impossible alibi, but Time to Kill offers a fourth possibility that to this day is still my favorite explanation for this particular problem. It perfectly sets up Ormerod’s thorough and educated understanding of Golden Age-styled alibi trickery almost in the style of Christopher Bush — a lost disciple of the puzzle mystery that more people should be seeking out.

Till Death Do Us Part – John Dickson Carr (1944)

Despite being a self-styled disciple of the impossible crime problem, I’m actually incredibly ashamed to admit that my reading into John Dickson Carr’s oeuvre is very limited! My first review on this blog was me airing out how little I enjoyed The Case of the Constant Suicides. Aside from that, I’ve only read a small handful of specially-recommended Carrs, only around 10 I think. I’ve been so caught-up in reading other impossible crime novels that I’ve neglected to honor the master himself! Let this be a wake-up call to me to get back to Carr…

Till Death Do Us Part is absolutely the most brilliant locked-room conceived by Carr that I’ve read. Preceded by expectation, nobody needs to know what I have to say about this book. It’s damnably simple and clever, the puzzle is brilliantly conceived, the cluing clever and well-done.

Jonathan Creek (Season 1 Episode 2) “Jack in the Box” – David Renwick (1997)

Jonathan Creek is a late 90’s-early 2000s BBC drama featuring the titular magician’s assistant who uses his knowledge of stage illusions to solve locked-room murders and impossible crimes. I think the series is incredibly hit-or-miss, containing both some of my favorite and least favorite locked-room mysteries ever conceived, and it might be a little worrying that in Jonathan Creek‘s 17 year run I think the show peaked in its second episode ever…

There are more than a small handful of fantastic impossible crimes in this series, actually. The Christmas special “Black Canary”, the first episode of season two “Danse Macabre” are both also great, but “Jack in the Box” really perfected the formula right out of the gate with a satisfying and original explanation to the shooting of a man in a locked-and-sealed bunker that entirely inverts the very premise of a locked-room murder as a question of how the killer escaped from the room.

The Great Ace Attorney 2: The Resolve of Ryūnosuke Naruhodō (Case 3)
“The Return of the Great Departed Soul” – Shū Takumi (2017)

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a Japanese mystery video game series, one game of which I’ve reviewed on this blog. In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and all of its subsequent spinoff titles, the player takes on the role of a lawyer tasked with proving the innocence of clients falsely accused of murder. Using a point-and-click interface, the player investigates crime scenes, interviews wacky witnesses and suspects, and collects evidence. The next day, the player goes to court and is tasked with cross-examining witnesses who are either grossly mistaken about what they saw or hell-bent on seeing your client behind bars and deliberately lying. Through a series of simple question prompts, the player finds lies in testimony statements, presents evidence to expose the lies, and then is loosely-guided on a series of Ellery Queen-esque sequences of deductions and logic where the player explains why the lie was told or the mistake was made and then what the truth of the situation is. By the end of every case, the real killer is discovered and your client is saved from wrongful imprisonment!

In the spinoff series The Great Ace Attorney the format is shaken up by placing the player in the role of Phoenix Wright’s ancestor Ryūnosuke Naruhodō, a Japanese lawyer who teams up with the Great Detective Herlock Sholmes in Victorian London. The third case of the second game of this particular series is a very unique take on the impossible crime problem, inspiring one of my 15 categories of impossible crimes — the impossible technology problem!

Your client is a scientist who was presenting an instantaneous kinesis machine, a piece of technology that is capable of molecularly dissembling any human subject and then reassembling them somewhere else, allowing them to teleport from one location to another in the blink of an eye! Unfortunately, during the presentation, his assistant and test subject was teleported to the wrong location. While he was meant to be transported to the INSIDE of a nearby glass tower, the test subject was instead manifested a few dozen feet in the air above the tower, whereupon he fell through the walls of the tower. The police were summoned only to find the man stabbed to death by a screwdriver through the heart. Since the tower was totally inaccessible to anyone until the police arrived, it’s determined that the only person who could’ve committed this murder is your client, who must’ve stabbed the victim before teleporting him away. In order to prove your client’s innocence, you need to prove how the teleportation could’ve been faked! But how else can you explain a man moving hundreds of feet into the air in less than a second…

The solution to the teleportation isn’t at all difficult to figure out, but there’s a second and third puzzle hiding in the background of this case that makes it brilliant. The true explanation for the murder when you get past the impossible problem is genuinely shocking, and there are quite a few plot threads that connect this murder to an ages-old serial killing that the rest of the game’s narrative is concerned with. A brilliantly innovative presentation of impossible crimes, the method of connecting this subplot to the overarching narrative of the game is a masterstroke of writing, and a somewhat obvious impossible solution doesn’t stop the mystery from offering up some genuine surprises. One of the best cases from a very, very good mystery series.

Death Among the Undead – Masahiro Imamura (2017) trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2021)

One of the most defining features of the shin-honkaku movement that I feel like westerners don’t see from just the translations we get from Vertigo Pushkin and Locked Room International is the amount of authors who love to experiment with form, style, and genre without betraying the underlying and ever-present element of a complex, cerebral puzzle. Hybrid mysteries, the sort we get from Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi mysteries like The Cave of Steel, are even more present in modern Japanese mystery writing than they ever were over here! There are authentically Golden Age-styled mysteries written to take place within the confines of a world that operates under the rules of a fantasy roleplaying video game, or mysteries set within fantasy worlds. There’s a short story collection about a group of murderers who share stories of their exploits over an internet board and every story is a different member of the board. And then there’s Masahiro Imamura’s breakout hybrid mystery, Death Among the Undead, which combines the locked-room mystery with a zombie apocalypse!

Death Among the Undead is a brilliant piece of work with three absolutely stunning impossible crimes that all three offer up entirely novel and unique explanations to the problem of murders committed in locked-rooms either provided by or enhanced by the presence of a horde of brain-eating undead! This novel is an absolute jaw-dropper of plotting genius that can confidently stand with its head held high among any classic of the genre. It is no less a classic, puzzle-driven impossible crime story for the presence of zombies — in fact, I’d say it’s even more so, as the rigid rules that the zombies abide by offer an extra layer of complexity and reasoning. Simply fantastic.

Death in the House of Rain – Szu-Yen Lin (2006) trans. (2017)

Death in the House of Rain is a dangerous impossible crime novel, because its an idea that I feel like could’ve easily failed. It doesn’t succeed on the strength of its core idea alone, but on the framing of its idea through the personification of fate and fortune as almost its own character, which arguably is the true killer, above anyone else who might’ve committed murder in the story. The solutions to the three first disparate locked-room murders are all connected by a single thread that is very devious and devilishly simple, brimming with an original idea whose reliance on coincidence could’ve easily failed if not for the underlying theme of fortune. It’s, in fact, an idea I proposed in my List of 50 Locked-Room Solutions which people often privately criticized me for because no impossible crime existed which could claim to use the solution, so I’ll admit I’m a little biased from reading this book and getting that feeling of aha! I told you!.

A fourth impossible crime brilliantly rises from the resolution of the previous three as a connecting thread, and it’s just as good as you could hope. This novel is fantastic, but easily could’ve not been.

The Kindaichi Case Files Shin (Case 3) “The Prison Prep School Murder Case” – Seimaru Amagi (2006)

I actually know very little about the Kindaichi Case Files franchise or its sister series Detective School Q, having only organically read one or two mysteries from each of them. They weren’t bad at all, mind you! Honorable mention to Detective School Q‘s first proper murder mystery for being blindingly brilliant, actually! However, I was directed to this particular case by TomCat’s blog post on this very same topic, and reading it honestly reawoke my interest in the two franchises! This is ingenuity distilled into its purest form, plain and simple, with a grand, brilliant, and complex impossible alibi trick at the heart of it.

Both Kindaichi Case Files and Detective School Q are classic examples of the locked-room mystery puzzle plot in the realms of anime/manga series, and having read one of the best impossible crime stories of all time by sheer chance in these series I can easily recommend anyone and everyone to seek this series out and read it if they have even a tiny interest in locked-room mysteries. John Dickson Carr would be proud of these two detective series. I read this case in Japanese in the manga, but the anime adaptation is available in English for anyone curious!

Case Closed/Detective Conan (Anime-original, Episodes 603-605)
The Séance’s Double Locked Room Mystery Case – Gosho Aoyama

Detective Conan, as I’ve mentioned on my post about the franchise, contains many classics of basically any form of Golden Age-styled plotting you can think of. Alibi problems, locked-room mysteries, inverted mysteries, Detective Conan could probably make a top 10 list of any of them. Between both the manga and the anime, Detective Conan has produced more than its fair share of strong impossible crimes, many of which could end up on a list like this. For anime-originals, honorable mention to The Cursed Mask Laughs Coldly, which I think is more inventive and innovative, but The Séance’s Double Locked Room Mystery Case narrowly won out for its intricate intertwining of two impossible crimes. A brilliant set of two locked-rooms that rely on each other for their solutions makes this case a stand-out for its uniqueness of plotting, and the solutions are nothing to sneeze at either, but trust me when I say there are probably at least seven other Detective Conan impossible crimes equally worth mentioning at some point or another…

“The Lure of the Green Door” by Rintarō Norizuki (1991) trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2014)

The standout story from international tour of impossible crimes, The Realm of the Impossible, “The Lure of the Green Door” is a locked-room mystery inspired by the premise of an old science fiction parable by English author H. G. Wells in which a man enters a green door to another world. In “The Lure of the Green Door”, a man is murdered in his locked-and-sealed study with a green door that isn’t locked but mysteriously cannot be opened… The solution is a physical trick that plays on an old concept, but it’s a startling unique take on the concept that I’m proud to have solved ahead of time. The scale of the solution is also great without detracting from the elegance of the trick! A masterpiece of the short-form locked-room mystery.

“The Clown in the Tunnel” by Tetsuya Ayukawa (1958) trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2020)

A clown commits a murder, is seen running into a tunnel, and then vanishes before he can appear from the other side!

Tetsuya Ayukawa is a Japanese author famous for crossing wires between impossible crimes and alibi problems. As the introduction to the The Red Locked-Room collection notes, Ayukawa often uses alibi tricks to establish impossible crimes, and locked-room tricks to establish alibis. This gimmick very often lends itself to old tricks being applied in unique, novel, and stunning ways, and “The Clown in the Tunnel” is the best example of this! An absolute stunning example of how an alibi trick can lend itself to an impossible disappearance, and one of the best stories from a very good collection.

“The Ginza Ghost” – Ōsaka Keikichi (1936) trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2017)

The Ginza Ghost is a fantastic collection of impossible crimes from early Japanese crime writer Ōsaka Keikichi. Despite it existing in the early eras of the honkaku school of plotting, this collection shows off an author who demonstrates marked ingenuity and genius, with ideas that are still novel nearly 90 years in the future. The best story in the collection is easily the title story, “The Ginza Ghost”, which features a murder inside of a locked tobacco shop where a woman appears to have killed another and then herself — however, mysteriously, the murderer appears to have died significantly before her victim, suggesting the presence of a ghost who committed the crime… Ordinarily, I don’t enjoy impossible crimes that rely so centrally on an accident for the illusion to function — I’m a sucker for cartoonishly intelligent criminal geniuses — but the accident in this case is so elegant, simple, and brilliantly unique that it’s impossible not to love it.

And there you have it, my 15 favorite locked-room mysteries, which is 66.6% Japanese, quite a few of which aren’t even from novels. I’m sure Ho-Ling doesn’t mind the free publicity. I don’t mind to seem biased, but there are just so many strong and ingeniously plotted mysteries in the Japanese honkaku and shin-honkaku schools of mystery writing… This list will definitely not last long, but I enjoyed making it.