That “the alibi is the locked-room in time, where the locked-room is the alibi of space” is a philosophy typified by such authors as Roger Ormerod and Tetsuya Ayukawa. To their mind, the two are merely opposite sides of the same coin, a dichotomy of impossibilities dictated by physical inaccess and those defined by chronal inconsistency. That the two are merely parallels of each other also raises an interesting question: for any passionate disciple of the locked-room mystery, the BBC drama Johnathan Creek, a show about a magician’s assistant who uses his knowledge of illusion to solve seemingly impossible crimes, exists… but what about those interested in a classically-plotted show focusing on the impossible alibi problem, its direct counterpart?
In 2018, detective fiction author Ōyama Seīchiro, known for his themed short story collections, published アリバイ崩し承ります (Aribai Kuzushiuketamawarimasu, or Alibi Cracking, At Your Service). Alibi Cracking, At Your Service was a collection of short stories focusing on Tokino Mitani, the granddaughter of a clockmaker who took over his shop following his death. However, the store offers a bizarre service in addition to clock-selling, -cleaning, and -repairing: because her grandfather said that “anything to do with time is the business of a clockmaker”, her shop also deals in the secret service of cracking a guilty person’s seemingly airtight alibi. This is a service often employed by a prideful member of the police force, who has come to secretly rely on her talents when he’s certain he’s found the guilty party in a murder but can’t seem to place them at the scene of the crime.
In 2020, the Alibi Cracking, At Your Service collection was adapted into a Japanese mystery drama of the same name, covering seven of the original stories. As I can’t yet read Japanese, I cannot speak for Ōyama’s bonafides as an author, and I can’t comment on the television series as an adaptation of an existing work. Because of that unfortunate limitation, although I herein refer to Ōyama’s plotting, assume that I am speaking purely on the adaptations as stories that exist in a void.
As both the title and premise indicate, all of the stories in this series revolve around the theme of “alibis” as a matter of course, and it manages to wring a surprising level of variety from such a specific theme. Most of these stories take the form of semi-inverted/impossible alibi problems, in which we know the killer’s identity but not how they committed the crime while managing to manufacture a seemingly airtight alibi, leaving the question of “howdunnit” hanging in the air. A few other episodes, though, do deal with other variations on the concept, such as the stories adapted into episodes “The Alibi of the Mountain Villa” and “The Alibi of the Beautiful Sister”, which deal with the inverse problem of “providing an alibi to an innocent character”. But even when the series is indulging in its more conventional alibi plots, the versatility in how alibis are established (and cracked) is salient, as in episodes like “The Alibi of the Dead”, where a dying man confesses to murder but is given an alibi based on the time and place in which he died, or “The Alibi of the Download”, in which the killer was with his friend at the time of the murder, a fact proven by the friend remembering that the killer downloaded a promotional song that was only available until midnight that night, and still yet in “The Alibi of the Murder Weapon” in which the time of death is established by the time the murder weapon was deposited into the mailbox, and for every moment this could’ve happened the killer naturally had an alibi!
The average quality of the stories is also quite high for what essentially amounts to an authorial collection, which will be made abundantly clear during the individual story breakdowns. While I think few of the stories are truly brilliantly ground-breaking, equally few are overtly derivative, obvious, and underwhelming. While there is one episode which stands out as particularly original and clever, and even made it onto my list of my 30 favorite mystery stories ever written, the typical episode of Alibi Cracking, At Your Service features tricks that, in their most basic form, are immediately recognizable to any detective fiction aficionado, but Ōyama still manages to get a lot of mileage out of time-worn concepts, twisting them into new forms where it’s nothing short of impressive he could do that much with that idea. Even when he falls back on concepts so old-fashioned that, if I were to spoil them in this blog post, you’d roll your eyes at the basicness and banality of the idea, the way the unique qualities of the alibi’s set-up inform new and genuinely inspired variations of these solutions showcase Ōyama’s skills as a detective plotter. He isn’t just mindlessly copying things he’s read before, he’s building on them.
But while the plotting is genuinely skillful mystery-threading, the acting and direction of the show is worth further scrutiny.
Tokino Mitani (depicted by Minami Hamabe), despite her adultlike talents at cracking alibis, is bubbly and childish, down to every episode’s pivotal moment taking place during (tasteful) scenes of her eating a smorgasbord of sweets and confections in the bathtub while she mulls over the case, or is pouting that she got yelled at for overstepping personal or professional boundaries that she didn’t recognize were boundaries. The lead police officer of the show, Saji Yoshiyuki (Yasuda Ken) is deeply prideful and professional, hating his reliance on a teenage girl to solve his mysteries for him. Mitani, however, relishes in the work, often trying to get him to consult her on mysteries he doesn’t even need help with. He’s in a fierce rivalry with one of the policemen working under him, Detective Tokai Yuma (Narita Ryo), otherwise known as “Junior”, the young son of a high-ranking politician and who is also fiercely in love with Tokino Mitani. Since Saji needs to be seen as a superior in the force, and is embarrassed, he keeps his consultations with Tokino strictly confidential.
There’s a lot of over-acting and exaggerated melodrama, and it’s frequently very cheesy, just enough to be charming, not too much where the characters begin to feel unrealistic, but enough that those who don’t typically consume Japanese comedy mysteries could easily find it saccharine and annoying. None of the characters are particularly deep, though, and all of them can be accused of being bidimensional cut-outs. Of course, their dynamics are solid and the characters are charming enough to behold, but only enough to carry the individual plotlines — you won’t walk away from the show remembering the depths of the characters of Tokino Mitani or Saji Yoshiyuki, at least. None of the actors do a bad job, but the tone of the show they’re working with, combined with the thinness of their characters, makes this saccharine corniness a directorial quirk of the show.
It’s also a tone the show is often quite bad at carrying. A lot of comedy typical of the worst of Japanese comedy screenwriting is present in this show, and few of the jokes land. There’s only so many shows that can be written where an adult man is wrongfully accused of having a romantic attachment with a teenager until, I hope, screenwriters realize it wasn’t a very funny joke the first.
Ultimately, though, character depth is not a prerequisite for a good mystery, or even a good story, and riotous laughs aren’t necessary for a tonally silly show. Tokino Mitani, while not a particularly impressive character, is one of the most adorable super-detectives in the mystery fiction genre, and she’s an endearing, precious presence to follow through crime scenes, and her charm helps carry a lot of the quirkiness of Alibi Cracking, At Your Service. Better yet, Alibi Cracking, At Your Service offers a variety of competently-constructed alibi plots perfectly balancing spatial and chronical misdirection that should please fans of tricky, classically-plotted mystery stories. For its faults I still can’t deny having enjoyed the show on those strengths alone, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in a drama that deals with alibis as a rule.
Episode 1 – “The Alibi of the Dead” sees Tokino Mitani and Saji Yoshiyuki meeting for the first time at a store that sells Tokino’s favorite snack. Neither gets the opportunity to enjoy a meal, though, as a disoriented man shambling down the street ignores their shouts of warning and is struck dead by an incoming car. In his last moments, the man confesses to the murder of his girlfriend at her apartment…
…only, however, this is simply impossible!
Even with the most liberal estimates of time, Saji realizes, based on the distance from the crime scene to the site of the crash that killed the man, it would be impossible for him to commit the murder at her established time of death, and then walk to the storefront street in time to be run over by that car. The distances are too great, and no matter how much you stretch the logical limits of when the woman could have been killed it’s impossible for any man to cross the city in the allotted amount of time.
And so, Saji is stuck with an unusual alibi: the time the killer died doesn’t permit for him to have committed the crime! And if he can’t crack this alibi, it means that someone else must have committed the crime..! If his confession is true, how could this crime have been committed by this dead man?
“The Alibi of the Dead” serves both as a lovely introduction to our core characters, with Saji desperately trying to prove himself a competent detective and refusing to relent to the nosy Tokino’s requests to allow her to investigate, and as solid snapshot of this show’s competency and creativity with the alibi plot. The set-up quickly establishes a fairly clever variation on the “impossible alibi” problem, with a known killer’s time of death seemingly acquitting them for the crime, and the solution is very neat indeed!
The resolution to “The Alibi of the Dead” turns on a pretty corny but certainly unique trick that not only permits for the dead man to show up to his death on time, but also kind of turns the “semi-inverted alibi problem” plotline on its head — using the dead man’s alibi trick to reveal how this episode had nothing to do with alibis at all and how, in retrospect, this episode doesn’t even qualify as an “alibi plot”! If it relies on no less than three glaring conveniences and coincidences for the plot to even work out, that is something of a smudge on what I still consider to be a fairly neat and clever ending to a promising pilot episode of this show!
Note, though, that the version of the show that exists online has incorrectly translated subtitles. One line of dialogue is translated incorrectly in such a minor but also such a fundamental way that the plot of the episode becomes utterly incomprehensible if you don’t know Japanese and are incapable of realizing the mistake the translator made. I was able to recognize the mistake, but to explain the mistake also inadvertently points you in the direction of the solution. I will be able to supply a version of the show with corrected subtitles in the future, and if you’re interested in seeing this version of the show leave a comment below and let me know so I can sign you up to be able to view it!
In Episode 2 – “The Alibi of the Stalker”, Dr. Hamazawa Kyoko, a professor of pathology, is interrupted in her university laboratory by her ex-husband and current stalker barging in, yelling at her, and demanding her students leave so that two can talk in private. It’s therefore only natural that when Dr. Hamazawa winds up stabbed to death inside of her apartment that very same night, the police immediately hone in on this man as the obvious suspect. Only, of course, he has an airtight alibi: at the time of the murder, he says, he was at a bar and his location can be verified by many reliable witnesses.
With the victim’s stalker’s alibi verified, they begin to close in on the victim’s brother, who receives a mighty fine life insurance payout that is, conveniently, the perfect amount needed to pay off all of his outstanding debts. But Saji isn’t convinced of his subordinate’s deductions: because, after all, if the stalkerish ex-husband was truly innocent, how did he know the precise moment Dr. Hamazawa died in order to insist upon his own alibi, when none of the police ever told him the cause of death..?
To save a man soon to be falsely accused of murder, Saji is yet again on the case to find out how a man can commit murder when he appeared to be at another place at the time the crime took place!
This episode deservedly takes its place on my list of my 30 favorite mystery stories ever written. It might be easy to walk away from this review and, retrospectively, think that the set-up to this is the most unappealingly generic of the bunch, but Alibi Cracking, At Your Service contrives an almost certainly entirely unique piece of alibi trickery to this premise. It’s a method that feels so natural I am frankly stunned that I can’t think of another mystery of any sub-genre that uses this kind of mechanism in its solution. It’s a type of ingenuity that feels less like the story is pushing the genre into new territory, and more like the story is retroactively covering ground that the genre has no excuse to have left untouched — writers will be kicking themselves as much as readers at the conclusion of this very clever episode.
There’s also a very sweet motive at the heart of this story which, while not as unique as the alibi trick, is really touching, and serves as a natural and solid explanation for why this plan was contrived. All around, “The Alibi of the Stalker” is a fantastic episode, and with its cleverly unique alibi trick, heartwarming motive, and neat clues, it’s easy to recommend. If you only watch a single episode of this show, let it be this one!
Episode 3 – “The Alibi of the Beautiful Sister” is a departure for Tokino’s career as a watchmaker detective: rather than destroying an alibi, Tokino must create an alibi for a young woman who claims to have murdered her sister. She tells Commissioner Saji that she is stricken with the habit of sleepwalking, and after a bizarre 12-hour-long night of sleep she woke up in her bed, covered in her sister’s blood, evidently from having killed her in her sleep… Saji refuses to believe that such a kind and gentle woman would commit a murder, in her sleep or otherwise, and so brings the case to Tokino to have her use her talents, not to crack a guilty person’s alibi, but to create an innocent person’s…
I don’t really care for this one, sadly. After the very imaginative and unique first two episodes, this one was a massive disappointment with its obvious, silly, and hoary resolution, which anyone should be able to see coming rather quickly.
It’s equally disappointing that the episode doesn’t particularly pay off on the premise of “creating an alibi”, which has the potential to be a brilliant inversion of the alibi plot, instead falling back on being a fairly typical whodunit with a killer who just so happens to use an alibi trick which, conveniently, creates a gap in the alibi of the innocent sister. It’s even sillier because in retrospect, the killer’s plan would’ve had a greater chance of succeeding if he hadn’t bothered framing the sister for murder… Ironically, I think “The Alibi of the Dead” serves as a better “create an alibi” plot than this dedicated episode, which says a lot…
Easily the worst episode of the show, and it’s sad to have this immediately after the superb “The Alibi of the Stalker”. However, it’s notable for being the moment Saji begins regularly and willingly bringing his cases to Tokino for assistance.
In Episode 4 – “The Alibi of the Mountain Cottage”, Saji attends a vacation at a remote mountain villa where he befriends a young man who deeply admires policework and hopes to one day become a police officer just like Saji. So, of course Saji is deeply troubled when a murder is committed and the only person in the whole villa who could have committed it is this upstanding young man!
Two sets of footprints lead to the clocktower off of the property villa, and only one comes back, so of course when this is investigated a dead body is found inside of the clocktower! At the time the murder was committed, every person staying at the villa was together in the bar, drinking and talking together… Every person, that is, except the young man and the murder victim! Saji yet again asks Tokino Mitani to help prove the young aspiring police officer innocent by finding the real killer.
Similarly to “The Alibi of the Beautiful Sister”, this episode doesn’t do a lot by setting up that there’s an innocent person who needs to be defended, and the story is otherwise a pretty typical alibi plot in the “every suspect was together in one room when the murder was committed” mold. The fact someone has been wrongly framed is incidental to the plot.
There’s an interesting idea at the heart of this to use footprints as a mechanism to confuse the timeline of the crime, combined with a very smart visual clue, but it’s such a simple application of the default, assumed footprint trick that it’s trivial to see through even by bypassing the intended logic. For a show as frequently creative with the alibi plot as Alibi Cracking, At Your Service it’s sad these occasionally very uninspired episodes. Marginally better than “The Alibi of the Beautiful Sister”, but still the second worst episode of the season.
Episode 5 – The Alibi of the Download sees a young man in university for game development be accused of a murder committed months earlier, but to his great fortune he actually has an alibi! For the entire day of the crime, November 20th, he and his best friend were hanging out in his apartment playing a video game that he actually created himself. When pressed that his friend might have been incorrect about the day or time, the young man remembers that on November 20th he actually downloaded a promotional song from his favorite artist! The song was only available on that day, and he showed the song to his friend once he downloaded it, so if his friends corroborates this story then, naturally, he has an alibi for the whole day of November 20th!
The friend is interviewed and naturally corroborates his friend’s story. Saji and Tokino quickly consider and then reject the possibility of him lying, but as long as this friend truthfully remembers the killer downloading that song, only available on the day of November 20th, his alibi is in tact…
If you take away everything surrounding it, the trick at the heart of “The Alibi of the Download” is one many detective fiction readers will know well as one of the most recognizable, age-old, and eyeroll-inducing methods of time manipulation in the genre, but Ōyama Seīchiro really does great work twisting this trick into a form where it seems inconceivable that it could even work. The trick is applied in such an astonishingly creative way that, if I were to spoil what the solution to this mystery is in the barest terms possible, you’d likely be at a total loss as to how it could even apply to this particular problem as I’ve described it. That’s worth a bit of awe in and of itself, I say!
For its stunning ability to turn seconds into days, “The Alibi of the Download” is an impressive and worthwhile piece of work from Alibi Cracking, At Your Service.
Episode 6 – “The Alibi of the Murder Weapon” sees a gun discovered inside of a mailbox by the deliveryman! The gun shows evidence of having been fired recently, a worrying fact especially with the ongoing gang war in the area! The bad omen of the gun is soon validated when a pharmaceutical representative is found shot to death in the basement of his home by bullets matching those in the gun..!
The victim had no connection to organized crime, but suspicion soon falls onto his boss at his company when it’s learned that he does! But, there’s one issue… the boss was having a dinner at the time the murder was committed and the time the gun was thrown into the mail box. With this double-barreled alibi, the boss is seemingly cleared of the crime, but his connections to the gangs keep Tokino and Saji investigating his potential guilt…
This clever set-up lends itself to an equally clever and very tricky resolution that somewhat reminds me of the exceptional alibi trick in “Whose Body?”, collected in Tetsuya Ayukawa’s The Red Locked-Room. The solution here is one of the more complex and unique of the series, but I do think it’s easy to roughly figure out what must have happened if you stop and think reasonably about the set-up.
The plot here is, conceptually, wonderful, but a common issue with alibi-centric mysteries is when they don’t really need to be alibi plots at all… Oftentimes, by highlighting the existence of an alibi-related trick (by either placing all of your suspects together in one room, or having a known killer) you tend to underscore the weaknesses in the killer’s plan and make the tricks less solid as a consequence. This is one of those stories where I think being forewarned of the presence of an alibi trick somewhat dents the foundation of the killer’s scheme. “Alibi of the Murder Weapon” is still a brilliant idea, mind you, just one that for my money would have benefited from being put into a normal whodunit without naming the culprit. I still wholeheartedly recommend it as a stand-out episode from the show!
Episode 7 – “The Alibi of Too Many Witnesses” sees the body count already at two, following the discovery of a corpse on the riverside, a man soon revealed to be the secretary to a member of the House of Representatives. He disappeared from the Representative’s fundraiser the night before, and when it’s discovered that the victim was blackmailing his boss the politician is quickly labeled the prime suspect. But of course, as we’ve come to expect, this politician has a perfect alibi, and one that’s more than a little difficult to contest: he was at the fundraiser, speaking to well over 300 people at the time the murder was committed!
While Saji is trying to deal with how he could commit the murder with nobody seeing him, he learns that this isn’t quite true… it seems as if one person noticed how the politician could commit murder, because another victim, also an attendee of the fundraiser, is found murdered in his apartment! It seems as if the killer is willing to murder witnesses, and with this revelation Saji is uncomfortable involving the extremely insistent and nosy Tokino in the case, for fear he might be responsible for a young girl being murdered…
This season finale, in a lot of ways, reminds me of the finale to season 1 of Furuhata Ninzaburō, involving a dramatic confrontation with a high-ranking member of the government known to our protagonists, but I think Alibi Cracking, At Your Service‘s finale handles it better. Where Furuhata Ninzaburō doesn’t meaningfully lean into the inherent drama of the killer being a legendary detective, “The Alibi of Too Many Witnesses” charmingly plays it up by making it clear Tokino’s life may very well be in danger, showing meaningful character development for our secondary protagonists (like Junior confronting the killer, his own father, to protect Tokino), hinting at the possibility of Tokino and Saji’s secret being discovered, and even introducing a friend of Tokino’s grandpa to help in the last minute. It’s a solid bit of drama befitting the finale of the first season of this show.
That being said, this is certainly the most conflicted I’ve felt about an episode of Alibi Cracking, At Your Service. The double-murder involves an interweaved alibi plot that kind of recalls the double-faceted locked-room murders of John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man; or, The Three Coffins in a pretty clever way. Not only that, but there is a fantastic piece of misdirection surrounding motive at the heart of this as well, but a lot of the mechanics of this plot feel like it’s revisiting concepts the show has already used before…
The actual mechanism used to establish the alibi is not incredibly dissimilar to “The Alibi of the Stalker”‘s trick, and there’s an “inversion” of what it means to destroy a suspect’s alibi in a similar fashion to “The Alibi of the Dead”. While neither are just redressings of old concepts, the fact the plot majorly recalls earlier episodes of the show does dampen the impact of what’s otherwise a pretty smart and tightly-plotted alibi story…
And that was Alibi Cracking, At Your Service! It can be said it’s a frequently unfunny show, despite its best efforts, but if the jokes are duds it doesn’t take away from the charm of the hammy melodramatic over-acting. Better yet, it’s a mystery show with what are on average pretty good mystery plots, oriented around a theme often neglected in the television sphere! For all of its occasional faults, I can still wholeheartedly recommend Alibi Cracking, At Your Service to anyone looking for a show imaginative with respect to how to create and destroy alibis!
As we wind down this review to make way for the episode rankings, happy reading and happy sleuthing!
- “The Alibi of the Stalker” (Episode 2)
- “The Alibi of the Download” (Episode 5)
- “The Alibi of the Murder Weapon” (Episode 6)
- “The Alibi of the Dead” (Episode 1)
- “The Alibi of Too Many Witnesses” (Episode 7)
- “The Alibi of the Mountain Cottage” (Episode 4)
- “The Alibi of the Beautiful Sister” (Episode 3)