(Note: Although this is the third of this review series, I only encourage you to read the first post in the series in order to understand the premise of the series and the intent of the review series)
While on my hiatus, I’ve been catching up on my back-log of manga series I’ve started to neglect such as The Kindaichi Case Files and Detective Conan. Embarrassingly, my reviews for each are significantly behind my reading. I’m as late as book twenty-five of Detective Conan, and I’m six cases past where I last reviewed The Kindaichi Case Files. Initially, I had actually wrote four separate reviews for these four separate stories we’re reviewing today, but I realized at the end I have very similar opinions of these four stories. I knew that four back-to-back reviews saying essentially the same things would make for awful reading, and spreading it out would mean taking longer before I get to review genuinely good cases in this franchise — which is less fun for you and me. Therefore, I decided to blitz through my thoughts on these stories in a mini-review lightning round!
“Smoke and Mirrors”
Kindaichi is conscripted by the Fudou High School occult club to investigate the “Seven Mysteries of the School”. Practically every school in Japan has their own “seven mysteries” — seven different types of supernatural phenomena that many students claim to have witnessed with their own eyes — so Kindaichi is naturally skeptical of tales of fountain water turning into blood or twelve-step staircases suddenly manifesting an evil thirteenth step. However, he nonetheless agrees to investigate for an important reason: at Fudou High School, only six of the mysteries are known, and a letter has recently been discovered claiming that whoever discovers the seventh will be killed!
Naturally, once Kindaichi receives a phone call from the president of the occult club inviting him to an abandoned school-building so she may reveal the secret of the seventh mystery, a murder is committed with her as the victim! Through the window, he sees the club president hanging in a parallel room in an attached school building — a supposedly sealed school building — but by the time he gets to her, the room has been locked from the inside and her body vanished from within!
This story’s impossible crime isn’t even remotely difficult to figure out, and for that I blame the atrocious English title for this case, as well as the uninspired central trick. What makes this case work decently well is the identity of the killer, which is fairly surprising as it’s one of the few instances in which Kindaichi divests itself of the typical “avenger from the past” motif that it relies on so heavily. The killer’s motive in this case actually ties into the architectural history of the school buildings and the fact it used to be a hospital, and while I think this element of the plot is a bit of an extreme departure from the “supernatural school mysteries” premise that we opened with, in such a way that I actually feel like it’s a waste of the premise, it’s nonetheless one of the better stories we’ve seen so far for having it.
“The Legend of Lake Hiren”
Years ago, a movie-obsessed social recluse, bullied into hiding, kept undergoing plastic surgery to make his face look like whatever his favorite movie character is at the time. However, after so many surgeries, his face was eventually disfigured and disgusting, forcing him to adopt the identity of the only fictional character he could resemble: Jason Voorhees, from Friday the 13th. Haunted by his disgusting appearance and manifesting the personality of the man he resembled, “Jason” proceeded to murder thirteen people with an axe, chopping the faces off of each and every one! He was soon caught and sentenced to prison for this gruesome murder…
Years later, Kindaichi and Miyuki are roped into taking Miyuki’s cousin’s tickets to the screen testing of a soon-to-open resort, which itself is also a competition to determine who will receive the resort’s immense membership free of five-million yen! And it is at this resort that bodies start to show up, each killed with an axe before having their faces cut off, supposedly killed by a recently-escaped “Jason”…
This story epitomizes my central issue with this manga: despite the stories being four times as long as Detective Conan cases on average, you’re really getting half the mystery plot and a quarter of the cluing. This is especially exasperated by the fact that every case is a serial killing (typically involving three victims) and in each of the stories only one of the murders really contributes to the mystery plot. The other two are either committed to supplement the trick of the first murder, or for ultimately no reason and are usually forgotten aside from providing a motive. As a consequence, you get clues that only exist in respect to the one murder, and the other two tend to be long time-fillers that have to happen before Kindaichi can figure out the mystery (for some reason?). The result is that the stories often feel thinly plotted and sparsely-clued, not adequately taking advantage of the standardized length of the plots, and this story is the worst example of that! Especially since you’d need to have your own face cut off not to figure the mystery out…
One thing I did like, the movie motif does come back, as the motive relates to a traumatic event in the characters’ pasts involving an “unsinkable ship” which does, in fact, sink. This is of course a reference to the film Titanic. It’s an underplayed part of the story, but I appreciate this touch of thematic cohesion… It’s still quite a bad story though.
“The Santa Slayings”
At the Hotel Europa, a troupe of actors are preparing to put on a mystery drama, in spite of recent death threats against the unlikable and grouchy head actress. It only stands to reason that, despite the heavy police presence, the lead actress manages to get herself murdered by potassium cyanide in the wine she drank as part of the production…
This one is a pretty standard theatrical mystery, but to its benefit it is one of the tighter mysteries in the series. The tricks involving the central murder of poison are ludicrously cheap and obvious, sadly, and the locked-room murder that gets committed later is pretty obvious, pulling from a well of standard mystery tricks that anyone who has read a mystery story before will likely immediately identify as the solution. There is a double-edged bend to the theatrical murder that I enjoy, especially with how it’s weaponized against the killer, but it’s all standard, average fare.
What kills “The Santa Slayings”, however, is its attempt to give the killer a tragic backstory. The backstory is unearned, essentially un-clued except by one of the most ridiculous visual clues in the medium, and entirely ludicrous. It’s such a huge damper on the story, and the killer explaining it takes up a third of the story!
Oh yeah, and there’s something involving a drug-dealing Santa, which thematically has nothing to do with the story around it and sticks out like a bizarre red thumb. Not very good.
“No Noose is Good Noose”
The students and faculty at a preparatory school have ceased to be surprised when someone commits suicide on the premises. In two years alone, more than two dozen students have hung themselves somewhere in the school. It has since been merely written off as a curse of the school and treated as an expected part of everyday life. However, when chickens start being cut up and hung around school, with threatening messages being left around, the school’s mathematics teacher Yoko Asano is the prime suspect thanks to a series of rumors. She’s only finally arrested when she’s found inside of a locked-and-sealed room with the hanging body of a student…
In a better series, this story wouldn’t stand-out at all, but it’s easily the best Kindaichi case we’ve seen so far! What this story essentially turns on is an Agatha Christie-styled gambit with the addition of a locked-room mystery with its own false solution, and a somewhat obvious alibi trick. While individually these two tricks aren’t even close to being impressive, still essentially being two very old dodges everyone should recognize immediately, it was surprising to see them combined in an actually incredibly smart way to create a surprisingly tight murder plot. The clues also make brilliant use of the school setting, with its alibi plot using a class schedule in place of a Croftsian time table, and things like test sheets becoming actual clues in the mystery — Kindaichi even lays a trap for the killer using a school exam!
In a void this isn’t a great story, as it’s still quite obvious and not totally inspired, but it has some fun with the school setting to generate some creative clues, and the combination of two age-old dodges into a surprisingly dense plot make “No Noose is Good Noose” the most decent Kindaichi case thus far… Gives me hope for what’s to come!
Two quite bad stories and two pretty… decent ones fill out this portion of The Kindaichi Case Files, which actually drops us off near the middle point of the original File series. It really is hard to find so many different ways to say “this story reuses old concepts with little originality, and is therefore quite obvious”. Early Kindaichi is kind of hard to review, because it really is a lot of stories that are underwhelming in similar ways. I know the series improves though, and I definitely look forward to it…!
This review has a lot less production value than my typical Detective Conan reviews, and there’s a reason for that — Conan volumes are written with three stories in mind, so the format lends itself to one post dedicated to three or so stories. But since I’m compressing four reviews into one post, it’s a bit harder to do… I was considering turning this into a running format for these reviews, but I decided against it, and will return to reviewing each story as if it were a novel with the next story, “The Headless Samurai”.
And, as always, rounding everything out with new rankings…
(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.
The Snow Yashka MurderCase (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 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…!
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!
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…
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 House – Sōji 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 – Chiko Uonji
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.