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).
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 fiancĂ© 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.