Sunday, September 2, 2018

A Midsummer's Equation (2016) by Keigo Higashino

Finally, a Higsahino book review!
 
Like I mentioned in my review of Galileo, I like Higashino, and it isn’t just because I’m a Japanophile. I do think he makes an honest effort at blending the traditional fair-play mystery novel with the more character focused and driving style so popular today, and I enjoy it, even if some people can’t appreciate it. (Just kidding JJ, we all love you, or will when you apologize for what happened in Vegas. :P ) So when A Midsummer's Equation came out I was looking forward to another round of Higashino, but sadly this one rattles a tad too much.
 
The story takes place at Hari Cove, a seaside resort town on the verge of plunging into an economic black hole due to lack of tourism. Hope has come in the form of DESMEC, a company that wants to drill for the abundant natural resources in the area, which could give Japan a much needed boost in that area. While many are happy for the possible economic boost, there are others who oppose the environmental destruction it will bring. One of these is Natsuki, a young woman helping out at her parent’s inn. While attending an informational meeting hosted by DESMEC, she witnesses an old man nod at her...and unknown to her, that man is our novel’s victim of the week.
 
During the night, the body is discovered, smashed against the rocks on the other side of a seawall. The local police assume he got drunk and fell, but they discover that the victim was an ex-cop, meaning that his colleagues will have to be contacted. But when they take a look at the scene, they come to a different conclusion and demand an autopsy. The result leaves no doubt: Carbon monoxide poisoning.
 
From here, the narrative begins dividing itself between multiple parties. There’s the local investigation into the victim’s death, which is frustrated by the lack of any place where the poisoning could have been done. There’s also an investigation into the background of the victim, carried out by detectives Kusanagi and Utsumi (who both appeared in the previous novel, Salvation of a Saint), sparked by the fact that, among other information the victim payed a visit to the former home of a convicted murderer at Hari Cove in the past. There’s also Yukawa’s investigation at the town itself, and the narrative of Kouhei, a young boy sent to live with his aunt and uncle, owners of a local inn, and who Yukawa befriends.* Not to mention all the other characters.
 
This does cause problems for the narrative, as the whole thing gets a bit bogged down in all these plotlines. The characters are often keeping information from one another, and this results in a slightly bogged down story, especially when dealing with both investigations and more Japanese names I can’t seem to keep apart. This sounds like a petty complaint, and if the plot were more engaging it would be, but compared to what else I’ve read it’s a bit of a let down.
 
The problem is that the plot is too telegraphed. Most of the twists were, to me, quite obvious and easy to see coming. Even the final set of twists fell flat, at least compared to the wham-bang of books like Malice. In fairness, the cluing is there, and you can figure out what happened on the night of the murder, but the path to it is simply blah. The background also isn’t made use of, with the DESMEC idea fading by around the halfway mark. While I’m happy that Higashino didn’t take this chance to soapbox (too much, but he’s quite even-handed), I still wished that this played more of a role in the mystery.
 
All and all, this was one of the more disappointing reads. I admit, part of it was because of the expectations I had since this was a Higashino novel, but it does fall a little flat. It’s technically competent and well-written, but a tad too obvious and sadly, that results in a bit of a slog. Not Recommended.
 
*Oddly, this isn't the case in the show, where Yukawa hates kids. This has nothing to with anything, as the idea that a TV show will emulate the books is madness, but even so, this surprised me.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Spy Who Read Latin, and Other Stories (1990/2013) by Edward D Hoch

You know, I’ve had this collection and others on my Kindle for years. I should really actually bother
to use it.
 
Edward D. Hoch has been mentioned here before, many moons ago, but almost always in the context of his Dr. Sam Hawthorne series. Considering his large output, it should surprise no one that Hoch also had many other series characters, dabbling in other genres. Such as Westerns with Ben Snow, capers with Nick Velvet, and the target of this review, espionage with C. Jeffrey Rand.
 
(Notice how TomCat has reviewed the former two but not the latter. I’m catching up.)
 
The Spy Who Read Latin, and Other Stories is a short collection of Rand stories, with the common thread being the clashes between Rand, of Concealed Communications under the British government, and his Russian counterpart, Taz. The Rand stories are a mix of spy story and mystery story, with the spy aspect sometimes having a firmer grip on the story, but I personally didn’t mind, because Hoch did a good job at balancing the two.
 
The first story, "The Spy Who Came to the Brink" is more of a spy story. Rand is tipped off that a two-bit actor was witnessed making a wax copy of a lock to a room containing British codebooks. A quick investigation confirms that he’s a suspected Commie, so Rand goes to intercept...but is beaten to the punch by an assassin, who guns the would-be thief down. All well and good, but the issue arrives when the assassin is found to have Russian connections. Why would the Russians kill a freelancer offering them access to British codebooks? As I stated, this is more of a spy story than a flat-out mystery. You’ll either grasp the solution or you won’t, but it’s a clever solution that can be reached with a fair bit of thinking.
 
It should be noted that Taz doesn’t show up in person in this story, but is mentioned.
 
“The Spy Who Read Latin” has the first true meeting between Taz and Rand, but it’s as reluctant allies. A missionary priest has composed a document detailing the inner workings of China’s Communist Party, which is of great interest to Britain and Russia alike. However, the priest was murdered and now his manuscript is in the possession of an associate who’s willing to sell it to the highest bidder. Rand accepts, but can he trust Taz?
 
This is more of a mystery than the previous entry, with a hit-and-run thrown in near the end, and with a few good plot twists. The risk of trusting Taz is well-done, and it works as an espionage story.
 
“The Spy Who Travelled with a Coffin” is the most densely plotted story in the collection. Rand is being brought in to negotiate the release of an American who has found himself in Russian custody under suspicion of espionage. The man's wife insists that he’s been out of the Army for some time, but he confesses to trying to transmit information about a missile to Russian enemies. But that’s not the only plot thread.
 
The story opens with a Turkish assassin gunning down a Japanese reporter, but by dumb luck another man took the fatal bullet. Said reporter becomes part of an entourage of Rand, the wife of the captive man, a CIA man, and a woman and her companion...who are travelling with a coffin. And it doesn’t contain what you think it does. There is a corpse involved, as the reporter is shot to death in mid-flight!
 
I admit, this story feels a tad crowded. The plot threads are all resolved in a bit of a jumble at the conclusion, with Taz’s agenda thrown in for good measure. But in fairness everything is clear, it’s just all delivered at once. The explanation for the espionage is fair, and even those who don’t know the needed information can at least guess at the broad picture of what happened. The murder of the week is also well-done, with a clever double bluff, as well as a good motive for murder. But those are some of the worst Japanese names I’ve ever heard/read.
 
Interesting note: Rand mentions two previous meetings with Taz, one in East Berlin, another in Paris. When did that first one happen?
 
“The Spy Who Collected Lapel Pins” is a hard story to summarize, because it’s almost a pure espionage story. A retired Taz is semi-forcibly recruited by government agents to help deal with an author who has defected from the Soviet Union. Their method involves pretending to have Taz offer microdots in a collection of lapel pins that contain the author’s manuscripts...but of course, there’s more to it than that, and I shall not spoil it. Hoch isn’t the best at wringing pathos out of his stories, but this is a good effort, with an excellent finale.
 
The collection wraps up with “The Spy Who Came Back From the Dead”. Taz has been MIA after the events of the previous story, and Rand has assumed that the two would never meet again...but it seems that Taz has resurfaced for Taz II: The Revenge.
 
Members of the “Tsar Network," a group of Russian spies whose code names were based on the Tsars of Russia, are being systematically murdered one by one, their throats slit. The first victim left the dying message “Taz,” and since Rand is the man who knew Taz best, he’s dragged in to stop the murders.
 
This is a straight murder mystery story, with little espionage elements. It’s good, and the dying message is clever and simple, but Hoch is a little too obvious with the meaning. It’s not a thud, but it is a bit of thump. But a poor Hoch is still worth your time, if just to observe the construction of his stories.
 
This isn’t a poor Hoch however. My main complaint is that it’s a tad short, the five stories are good, but some might not think it worth it. However, I do think that it’s a solid collection, and if you’re a fan of Hoch it’s Recommended. Even if you’re not, I’d still say it’s a good way to get into Hoch.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Moai Island Puzzle (1989) by Alice Arisugawa

I still blame Ellery Queen for starting the trend of self-insertion in mysteries.

After more or less being French Locked Room International for quite some time, LRI has been branching out to include impossibilities from the wider globe from Swedish to Chinese to Japanese--the latter of which is the target of this review. Alice Arisugawa’s The Moai Island Puzzle was translated by blogger Ho-Ling, who did an excellent job of bringing this classic-styled mystery over for the enjoyment of us lesser beings.

Narrator Alice is part of a five member mystery club that includes him; senior Jirou Egami, a brilliant man who’s still on his fourth year; and Maria Arima, the girl of the group. It’s the latter that kickstarts the plot, inviting Alice and Egami to a family reunion on an isolated, horseshoe-shaped island. Maria’s grandfather was a lover of puzzles who left behind a fortune in diamonds, and like all rich puzzle lovers in mysteries, willed that whoever could solve the puzzle could keep the diamonds. Maria’s cousin Hideo tried but ended up drowning, and she’s hoping that her friends will succeed.

Of course, Alice is nervous. After all, once they get on the island, the boat won’t be coming back for six days, and communication with the outside world will be limited. The mystery fan senses are tingling. Everyone assures him that nothing will go wrong. And indeed, it doesn’t.

Until the 80 page mark or so.
 
With most of the cast lying in a drunken stupor and distracted by the constant bangs of a loose door in a storm, no one hears the twin shots the leave a father and daughter dead behind the rusty-locked door of a bedroom. The blurb boasts of this locked room being worthy of Carr himself, but it’s not. It’s a small portion of the plot, and Egami’s attitude towards it will insult locked room purists, but his conclusions about what happened behind the door are plausible and unique.

Obviously, there’s more death to come, and we’re promised that we can deduce everything logically. I would argue that this is true; while there’s only one real clue, once you have that and realize what it means, it’s possible to follow the chain of deduction to see what the killer must have done, why they did it, and even to follow it back to who the killer must have been, thought this last part requires a small leap. I didn’t solve it (well, I correctly guessed the culprit, but that was a guess), but I didn’t feel like I had been bested because I didn’t have enough information, or because the author was writing something you’d need to be a genius to solve. I felt like that if I’d thought about it a tad more, I could have solved it. This mainly applies to the actual murders; the treasure hunt is nice and complex, and I'm sure it's quite solvable with enough effort, but most readers won't be able to puzzle it all out without some level of getting out a sheet of paper and writing it all out. It's not needed to solve the mystery per se, so the more intellectually lazy among us can consider it a bonus challenge.

Where the mystery suffers is in the cast. While Arisugawa is kind enough to bump a good chunk of them off over the course of the story, you’ll need the dramatis persona at the beginning to tell one name from another. I also have to gripe about the blurb on another point, as it commits the dread sin of “I know the summary is bad/cliché,” which is something that even fanfiction writers know/are warned to stay away from. It also makes mention of a dying message on par with Ellery Queen, but this too, means nothing. There is a dying message, but it has little impact on the plot.

But in the end, any complaints are minor. While it’s not as exciting and super fast as, say, Death Invites You, it’s more competent, more thoroughly thought out, and even manages to reach a bit of melodramatic pathos at the finale. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Ace Attorney Retrospective : Locked Rooms and Other Impossibilites: Part 1

          "Why can't we have a normal, straightforward killing once in a while in this country!?"
 
                                                       "I'll pretend I didn't hear that."
 
This has been in the works for a bit, yes.
 
I’ve reviewed two cases from the long-running Ace Attorney series, one of which was a locked room mystery. Considering how the series deals with defending those falsely accused, locked rooms tend to appear quite frequently, about one per game. And considering how there are ten or so games total, that’s a fair few locked rooms to go through.
 
I’ve elaborated about the series in detail in other posts, so I’ll skip to the good stuff. The goal here is simply to give a brief overview of the locked room encountered throughout the course of the series. I’ll offer comments, certainly, but these aren’t in-depth reviews (since it’s been years since I played them in some cases!), more like a summary (as well as blatant bait to get TomCat and JJ and now Dan to check these games out).
 
Ready?
 
We’ll take it from the top, with the first game in the series: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. While there are a few set-ups that can be described as “impossible” (Cases 3 and 5, if you must know), I don’t know enough to know if they would fall into spoiler territory. So I’ll just stick with the one unambiguous impossibility in the game: the fourth cases in the game: "Turnabout Goodbyes".
 
It’s Christmas. Two men who haven’t met in years take a boat out onto a foggy lake. Suddenly, two shots ring out. One man falls back into the water. Sometime later, the body of attorney Robert Hammond is pulled out of the water, shot from close range. The other man in the boat is swifty arrested.
 
He’s innocent, obviously.
 
This isn’t a complex impossibility by any means. You get told what happened on the second day of investigation, and it won’t exactly cause JDC to be revived in ecstasy, But the main fun of the case comes not from the mystery per se, but from how writer Shu Takumi does an excellent job of forcing the player into the position of underdog. The prosecutor for this case is a “god among prosecutors” Manfred von Karma, who’s gone undefeated for forty years! Much of the trial is desperately flailing about, trying to get momentum against a seemingly unstoppable force. This feeling of desperation would be used to good effect in the next game’s final case as well, but I digress.
 
Speaking of said next game, we can now move onto the black sheep of the series: Justice for All. A reputation it gained for a variety of reasons, such as weaker mysteries and a lack of a real overarching plot. But it was my first AA game, and will always hold a special place in my heart. Also, when you consider the sheer work Takumi put into it, (wrote the script in three months, then rewrote it to include a different prosecutor) I can give the flaws a pass.
 
I’ve already talked about "Reunion, and Turnabout," so I’ll move onto the game’s third case, "Turnabout Big Top"….which has a reputation as the worst case in the series!
 
The case this time takes place at a circus, which seemed to have pushed Takumi’s normal talent for making eccentric but grounded characters to their limit, resulted in a rather unlikable cast for Phoenix to contend with in his investigation.
 
The victim of the week is the ringmaster of the Berry Big Circus, Russell Berry. A much-loved ringmaster and surrogate father figure to some in the circus, but that didn’t stop someone from bashing him in the back of the head. The scene, however, raises questions. Such as the heavy box the victim was slumped over, which contained a small container of pepper. Or the the fact that the snow around him lacked any footprints besides his own.
 
Compared to the case before, this is a better impossibility, though the well-read mystery fan will see right through it. The main draw of the case is the backstory, and the events leading up to the murder, which results in one of the sadder cases in the series’ history. I'll admit that it’s far from perfect, but I do feel that it deserves a tad more credit than it gets.
 
The third game in the series, Trials and Tribulations, is the only one in the series without an explicit locked room. I do believe that one comes up in the last case, but for the sake of spoilers and my unsureness, I’ll just pass from that.
 
We now jump seven years ahead into the next game in the series, Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. As the name implies, the protagonist role has shifted, this time to the titular Apollo, a bit of a loudmouthed rookie who has a magic bracelet that lets him see people’s nervous tics. But we don’t learn that until Case 2, whoops. The locked room in question appears in Case 3, "Turnabout Serenade."
 
This time, Apollo is on enemy ground, in a sense. He’s backstage at a concert by the Gavineers, a band run by rival prosecutor Klavier Gavin. Gavin is actually friendly and the backstage tickets are genuine, but Apollo’s dislike of rock leaves him covering his ears backstage. Of course, this leads to him being a near-witness to murder. While he’s chatting with a detective in the hallway, two shots ring out from a nearby dressing room. They run into the room, and find Romein LeTouse, manager for the singer Lamoir, dying on the floor, only able to cough up, “the siren” before expiring. The problem? There’s only one small window in the room, barely bigger than a head, and the only door had Apollo and Ema standing outside it. A ladder leading into an air vent points to a certain culprit, Lamoir’s pianist, Machi Tobaye, a young child….
 
This is far from a perfect mystery. The trick at the center of the mystery is simple enough, but the mystery plays well with different mystery tropes, such as the dying message * and a common set-up in Japanese mysteries: crimes following the pattern of a rhyme (or song in this case). Most of the gripes I’ve seen (and agree with) are about the contrived nature of why the defendant is even accused in the first place (Essentially: How likely is it that a waifish teenager could fire a heavy caliber gun twice, drag a heavy body, then knock himself unconscious?) There’s a reason for it, but one that isn’t directly stated.
 
There’s also a smaller impossibility mixed in, a magic trick in which the before-mentioned singer somehow travels all the way across the building in a matter of seconds, but that one isn’t a shocker either. But the unraveling of that proves to be a key part in the murder.
 
The fourth case, "Turnabout Succession," wraps up the game’s overarcing plot with a couple more impossibilities of its own. The first being the poisoning of a reclusive artist by his daughter, or so the police claim. After all, the coffee she served him was the only thing he ate or drank, and the poison used is a “unique” (read: fictional) type that kills in fifteen minutes, making other methods of poisoning impossible. The method again, is not complex, but the method ties back seven years, to a certain trial in the past, and points the finger at a particularly cruel murderer.
 
As part of the investigation, there’s a long-time flashback to the events of seven years ago, which continue to work their influence on the present. One of these is the disappearance from a defendant after his trial was postponed. He was spotting running into one of the defendant lobbies, but when a bailiff entered via the only entrance, only a young girl stood inside. Again, not complex, but clever, with the method waved in your face long before this.
 
After this, the series took a bit of a break, with more focus on spin-offs, before roaring back to life with the fifth game in the series, Dual Destinies. Meant as a game which new and old players could enjoy, the game introduces another new character to the cast, Athena Cykes, and her amazing power of Hollywood Psychology (™). This is also the first main series game directed by Takashi Yamazaki, who’d previously been working on the spin-offs. Yamazaki has a thing for more technically complex mysteries, which is clear from the first locked room in the game, "The Monstrous Turnabout."
 
Nine-Tails Vale is a small town started by Japanese immigrants to California, and one that carries its own legend: It’s said that the guardian of the town fought against the bird demon Tenma Taro, ultimately sealing it away. Thankfully, this age-old feud hasn’t had much of an impact on the present, with talks of a merger between the vale and Tenma Town. But a masked wrestler (this makes more sense in context) called “The Amazing Nine-Tails” firmly opposes the merger. And it seems the incident may have led to murder.
 
The alderman of Nine-Tails Vale, Rex Kyubi is found murdered in his home, apparently during a meeting with the mayor of Tenma Town, Damian Tenma. Obviously, Daimin has no memory of what occurred, due to being drugged, but when the locked room was opened, only he and the victim were inside. Not to mention the feathers and bloody footprints implying that a giant bird ran through the room, and the sighting of it flying through the sky not long after the murder...
 
This is a pretty solid locked room, and a clever variation on an old trick. Some might find it a bit of a stretch, but I enjoyed it, and it is set-up well. There’s also a very clever reversal of expectations that should make certain of you stand up and clap.
 
The last case, "Turnabout for Tomorrow," also has an impossible crime thrown into the mix, but to give the deep details would spoil the case. So I’ll merely say that a killer vanishes from a room where the doors were either under direct observation by witnesses or security cameras. It’s simple but well-done, and one of the only mysteries that I know of where only someone of a certain personality could pull it off. But I’ll leave it at that.
 
I know this post is long, but hold on!
 
Spirit of Justice is the sixth and most recent game in the main series, as well as a locked room banquet. The second case, "The Magical Turnabout," involving murder at a magic show, isn’t a straight impossible crime, but it soon becomes clear that the killer has an unbreakable alibi...and Apollo and Athena are only able to break it thanks to a minor error in the killer’s plan. The third case, "The Rite of Turnabout," is no-holds barred.
 
A good chunk of the game’s plot goes down in the Kingdom of Khura'in, a kingdom that has all but eliminated defense attorneys, courtesy of a law that forces them to suffer the same penalty of their clients, and a pool that lets the court see the last moments of victims of murder! It’s a great idea, and it’s played with quite well. But I digress. One of the major figures in Khura'in is Lady Kee’ra, a cloaked figure who’s been gaining attention recently, since she seems to be operating in the modern day, attacking members of a rebellion against the government. But more important is the ritual honoring her, in which Maya Fey, Phoenix’s former assistant, will play the role of Lady Kee’ra. She and the abbot make their way up the mountain to the ritual site...and murder is done.
 
The abbot is found stabbed to death and dumped into a spring at the ritual area. It’s an open air plateau, but the ritual took place in a tent, sealed off from the outside world. Yet someone was able to enter it, and discovering what took place that night will push Phoenix to his limit. Locked room purists will grumble at the solution, but it’s well-hidden and motivated, with a few good reversals along the way. There's also a fair bit of pathos at the ending.
 
The next case, "Turnabout Storyteller," dials down the tension with a pretty unambiguous filler case, that also gives weight to my theory that the game developers and translators are in a Cold War with each other, with the former making the cases as Japanese as possible to frustrate the translators.
 
The victim is one Taifu Toneido, a master of rakugo, a form of Japanese theater. Someone slipped into his room and smothered him to death, and the cards on the table point the finger at a young chef who has a fair bit of anger at the victim, since he was keeping a family recipe back from said chef. To make matters worse, the door to the room was being watched, and the defendant was the only one seen going in and out. Athena mostly plays solo act here to unravel the truth.
 
This is a filler case, but I liked it. The identity of the killer won’t shock most people, and the way it handles a certain mental disorder can be questioned, but as a mystery it works quite well, toying with the dying message and unbreakable alibi.
 
The final case, "Turnabout Revolution," is a true Yamazaki finale, in that it’s overly long and while it’s amazing you realize a day later that it’s really stuffed to the brim. Such as here, where the first day could almost be a case on it’s own, with Apollo hunting for a valuable treasure and getting involved in a civil trial that turns into clearing up the murder of an archeologist. The impossibility shows up in the second day.
 
Sadly, to give any more than the bare minimum of details would spoil too much, so I’m forced to merely say that the case hinges around a stabbing that took place while the murder site was surrounded by guards...and the only one seen to enter was the defendant. Like the previous cases in this game, the fundamental trick is simple, but what makes it unique is that it takes a form that could only happen in the madcap world of Ace Attorney. I shall say no more. (Other than that there’s also a fair and plausible false solution thrown in.)
 
And that’s the main series done, albeit in broad strokes and not as detailed as I might of wished. But nevermind that.

*I think this the only case in the series that plays the dying message trope straight. That’s a whole nother post though.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Death Invites You (1988) by Paul Halter

Death likes pizza.

A few years ago I reviewed Paul Halter’s The Night of the Wolf, a very good short story collection that I still think is worth your time. I planned to look at the novels, but whoops, that took a while. Since I’ve read most of LRI’s Halter translations (barring The Madman's Room), I figured I might as well do this long overdue review.
 
Death Invites You is Halter’s third novel, and the first to feature Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Hurst in the same book. The book opens with these two sitting in a pub, musing on how good criminals are just so hard to find these days. Hurst is particular is feeling smug and boasting about the police need a new, meaty case, unaware that one is beginning just a few feet away.

Simon Cunningham was the officer who helped to bring an end to the Lonely Hearts Killer, who targeted and seduced widows, spinsters, and the like before killing them and taking their money. Cunningham’s pursuit led to the killer’s suicide, as well as the officer himself rising up in the ranks and prestige. Now he’s facing a task that made even Spider-Man struggle: telling his fiancé that he can’t make it to her show. What he doesn’t say is that this is because her father, Harold Vickers, a writer of locked room mysteries, has invited him over for reasons unknown (as well as telling him not to inform anyone.)

Cunningham arrives, only to find that Vickers has invited another man, a famous crime reviewer, as well. Also, according to his wife, Diane, Vickers hasn’t left his study in two days, as he sometimes does. A quick check confirms that the shutters are latched, and when the smell of roasting chicken is smelled within the choice is made to force open the bolted door, revealing one of the stranger crime scenes in fiction.

Harold Vickers is found shot to death at a large table with freshly cooked food on it. His hands and face have been dunked into boiling oil. A pair of gloves are found at the scene. A bowl of water sits beneath one of the windows. The scene suggests a bizarre suicide, but it's soon clear that this is a case of murder… And more than that, it’s a scene straight out of Vicker’s latest in production novel.
 
Death Invites You shows Halter’s greatest strength: He keeps the plot moving. There’s rarely a dull or unexciting moment, and almost every chapter has some form of complication or resolution, which combined with the short length makes for a quick read. The novel presents an interesting set-up, but doesn’t fully deliver. For example, the water in the bowl. There is an explanation for it, and it works, but everyone else is facepalming and going “How could I have been so blind!” over something that isn’t obvious in retrospect. The set-up is amazing, but it’s all hand waved to fit in with the killer’s over complicated scheme, which feels unneeded. Why not just kill who needs to be killed instead of complicating the issue? I understand that this is a mystery novel and every killer has to be Machiavelli, but at least have everything be relevant to what the killer actually wants.

I also have to question how fair this book is. It’s mentioned in the denountment that one of the things that tipped Dr. Twist off to the killer was their reaction to an event. We see this event, but never get the killer’s reaction, not even disguised. Admittedly, the killer isn’t hard to pin down, if just due to the limited number of suspects, but it feels less like a well-reasoned deduction and more like Twist going, “Well, they probably did it.” Even during the denountement, we get no real evidence of the killer’s guilt. It’s plausible, yes, but so was the case Twist made ten pages ago against someone else entirely!
 
That being said, Halter does do a good job working with a limited cast and managing to bounce suspicion between them all. He even does a good job playing with the "relative from Australia/twin" ideas in good, non-obvious way. I still think it ends up being a tad too tangled by the end, but fair points for making it workable in the first place!
 
Still, for all my griping, I found myself enjoying the book. Halter creates a maze of mirrors and quite successfully leads the reader down it, piling on complication after complication, and while the resolution isn’t near as grand as it should be, it’s far from a dud, and the locked room itself is simple and neat--leaving me annoyed that I missed it. I’m not sure I’d go with JJ’s suggestion that this be new people’s introduction to Halter, but fans will enjoy. Recommended.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

AAR : Turnabout Time Traveller

I took too long to get to this case, really.
 
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice, is the sixth main game (not counting spin-offs) in the long-running Ace Attorney series. I already reviewed a case from this series, but that was a case I was recalling from the dark valley of memory. This is far more recent, I was just watching it a week ago!* (No 3DS. I have to make due.)

Turnabout Time Traveler is the DLC for the game, taking place directly after the events of the game (though without directly spoiling them). The previous main series game, Duel Destinies, had a pretty good DLC case in the form of Turnabout Reclaimed (the one where you defend an orca), but can this game match up?

The case opens with Phoenix in his office, watching his daughter Trucy and his co-worker Athena Cykes struggle over Trucy appointing Athena as the new assistant in her magic show. It’s a nice bit of domestic fun, but the day is derailed with the sudden arrival of Phoenix’s childhood friend, Larry Butz, who has a woman in a wedding dress in tow, and is claiming that they’re getting married

Needlessly to say, the childhood saying around Phoenix’s school “When something smells, it's usually the Butz.” holds true, with the woman identifying herself as Ellen Wyatt, the fiancée of Sorin Sprocket, soon to be CEO of Sprocket Aviation, a company specializing in flight. Oh, and she’s on the run for murder. And a time traveler.

According to Ellen, shortly after her wedding reception, she was attacked by Dumas Gloomsbury, the butler (insert jokes here). He forced her to the edge of the “Flying Chapel” the airship where the wedding was being held, but Ellen made a wish on her pendant to go back in time to her “blissful moment”, passing out just as a shadowy figure struck Dumas on the head. When she came too, it was time for the wedding reception again! This time, there was no attack, but while cleaning up, she knocked over a lantern, exposing Dumas’ battered body...and the situation points the finger of suspicion on her.

Needless to say, Phoenix finds himself taking up Ellen’s defense, and the case soon turns into another form of time travel for series fans in the pure nostalgia department. Not only is Phoenix reunited with his long-time assistant, Maya Fey, but standing across the courtroom is Phoenix’s old rival Miles Edgeworth as “the Prosecutor’s Office is full of cowards” who have been intimidated by the powerful Sprocket family. Not to mention that the murder weapon is once again an unusual clock.

It’s hard to judge this case in a pure mystery basis, as like Reunion, it’s not a fair play mystery in the normal sense. There are only two positions for murderer, and you aren’t exactly in a position to solve things in advance per se. The fun comes from having to adjust to the new information that gets tossed your way. Such as why the lanterns at the reception were mismatched or what the flower petals in the lantern with the body mean.

That being said, I can still judge this in the pure mystery sense. Sadly, the time travel gimmick isn't wholly satisfying, though the motivation behind it works. The case as a whole feels a tad shorter than it should. While some of the contradictions are difficult, I can’t imagine skilled players having much trouble with this. The killer is also bit too obvious, though to be fair Ace Attorney isn’t really a traditional whodunit. The cast is well done and distinct, though I feel that Edgeworth gets walked on a bit more than normal in this case.

Speaking of the killer, their big transformation is fun, but a little too over-the-top for my taste, thought maybe that’s because the main game spoiled me on those. Those who are new to the series will get a rush from it though. (Though as a fan, I hope they tone it down for the next game.)

All in all, a fun addition to Spirit of Justice, with plenty of enjoyment for older fans, but I wouldn’t say newcomers should start with it.
 
*At the time of writing. Now it's been like....a few months. A year. Maybe.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Inside Edition

                                                  "The thesis has been proven"

9/10 mysteries take place inside.

In the year 1994, Hiroshi MORI (I swear he wants his name written like that), wrote The Perfect Insider, which got quite a bit of attention as a scientific detective novel. In Japan. In the West it was an unknown, as expected. In Japan, it was the start of the oddly named S&M series, starring architecture professor Sohei Saikawa and his student Moe Nishinosono. Oddly enough architecture plays almost no role in the stories.) Each episode is a two-parter adapting one of the original novels.

The first is “Doctors In Isolated Room”. Saikawa and Moe get to sit in on an experiment performed in a freezing room, which goes off perfectly and without issue. However, during the after party, people realize that the two involved in the experiment seem to have vanished, and soon their bodies are discovered in the locked lab. But how did the killer get into the locked and sealed lab? And why weren’t the victims wearing their suits? And does this have anything to do with a student who went insane and started slashing with a knife before vanishing years ago? (Hint: It does.)

This is a decent opening episode, but the mystery is a tad weak. There simply aren’t enough alternative solutions for the mystery, and while I get that that’s sort of the point, it still makes it easy to tumble to the solution simply by guessing in spite of the attempt at misdirection. It also suffers from the same issue that plagues most episodes in this series: The rest of the cast just aren’t that distinct. The reveal of the killer isn’t “I knew it was them!” but more “Wait, who was this again?” for me, at any rate.

The next episode, “Who Inside?” takes Saikawa and Moe to the home of a family of Buddhist painters. It doesn’t take long for Saikawa to realize that Moe didn’t bring him there to gawk at the architecture, but to offer his opinion on the death of a previous patriarch of the family, who was found stabbed to death in his locked studio. The locked room forced the police to declare it a suicide, but they never could find the weapon used. Needless to say, modern day murder rears its head, and leaves the current head of the family stabbed to death by the side of a bridge.

While I like the atmosphere of this case (creepy Buddhist mansions need more popularity), it’s the weakest episode of the series. Maybe it’s because I’m biased because I really don’t like this solution, especially for locked room mysteries, but it does feel like an anti-climax, and we never really get a real reason why it happened. This episode also suffers from the “killer has so little presence until the summation” problem.

It’s worth noting that there’s another locked room in the present day, but the circumstances behind it are a mild spoiler, though I don’t think it came off how the creators intended. It’s also worth noting that this episode makes good and plausible use of a child to give a clue. I felt it was a little obvious, but also fitting.

“The Perfect Insider” is the series’ high point, and I’ll say right now that if you watch any of this series it should be this. Saikawa and Moe set off to have a meeting with Shiki Magata, a famous scientist who’s been under confinement ever since killing her parents at the tender age of fourteen. However, when our heroes show up, Magata isn’t responding to calls from others at the island facility, and the door to her rooms won’t open...until they do, revealing Magata’s dismembered and wedding dress-clad body comes rolling out (literally, it’s on a rolling robot. It’s not somersaulting down the hall, funny as that is.) How could the killer get into a room that’s effectively been locked and under observation for fourteen years? And what does Magata’s final message “Everything becomes F” mean?

Don’t think you can figure out the message, by the way, it’s not something a layman can deduce. Speaking of deductions, I admit that this series doesn’t fall on the fair play end of things very often. It is better than Galileo, however. I think there’s more of an effort here, and an observant watching can at least grasp the outline of what went on in that sealed room. Very well-done.

“Numerical Models” is my favorite non-arc episode, even though Ho-Ling doesn't care for it. A young researcher is found strangled to death in a locked lab. Her boyfriend is quickly focused on as a suspect, but he’s found unconscious at the scene of a another bizarre locked room murder: the decapitation of a famous cosplayer. Sadly, the locked rooms are far less interesting than you’d think, but what sells the episode is the background, taking place among the world of models and cosplay, which isn’t something you see in mysteries. The almost macabre take the episode goes in the second half is also probably why I enjoy it, in spite of it’s flaws...such as a denouement that comes slightly out of nowhere.

The whodunit aspect is better than normal at least, and the final sequence has Saikawa putting on a pretty good showing.

The finale, “The Perfect Outsider” takes place almost a year after the previous, and has Moe being invited to a theme park by her pseudo-fiance, (their engagement was arranged by Moe’s parents before their death in a plane crash) the CEO of Nanocraft, a software company who created the theme park in question, modeling it after an old European town. But it seems something anti-modern has creeped in.

Moe learns from an employee that a woman stumbled on the body of a man, freshly killed by a dark knight, but when she returned with security, both had vanished. It seems like nothing more than the words of a drunk man, but soon he turns up dead in a chapel, apparently dropped through a stained-glass window. By the time Moe returns, he’s apparently been pulled through the hole again, but how could anyone have done that? Things degrade even more as the one witness is murdered in her locked hotel room and an attempt to show new holographic technology ends in a holographic stabbing that proves to be real and in impossible circumstances.

Add in an old face from the past, and you have...a very uneven finale.

The crimes felt a tad simplistic for the finale, but I fully admit that I was expecting something very different from what we got, which was probably the intent. The murders still felt a tad too simple, and the killer felt a little sudden, but thinking about it in retrospect, I’ll give the series the benefit of the doubt on this one. What I can’t let off is the rushed ending, which leaves almost everyone involved in this disaster unpunished or on the run. I assume this is because of the shift from novel to drama meant some cutting, but why can’t you get the murderer of the week at least! Saikawa’s actions at the end also ring hollow, considered what was established at the end of “Numeric Models”. I know it soured someone I was watching the series with on him, and I can't blame them.

And why was Moe dumped in the chapel at the end of part one? Still don’t know why that happened. The murder plot also is really badly motivated: Why was it started in the first place, exactly? What was the goal? And I’m not talking about the killer’s goal.

All in all, I liked this series. Compared to Galileo, it’s far more even, with better mysteries. Admittedly, they could have used more fair play, but I still enjoyed the ride. I enjoyed the chemistry between to two leads, especially the lack of a “will-they-won’t-they” dynamic, if just because Moe is very open about her attraction to Saikawa, which is nice. I would recommend “The Perfect Insider” even if you don’t watch anything else from this series, but the whole is worth your time, with even the worst having some good ideas.

Next time, more Ace Attorney!