Sunday, 14 July 2013

The Vampire Legend Murder Case

I don't really read manga; but people say it's a good way to improve your Japanese reading skills. Since most manga are written for children, they come with furigana; and as the story is being told in pictures at the same time, you get a lot of contextual clues to what is going on. I have read a few volumes of the detective series 金田一少年の事件簿 (The Case Files of Young Kindaichi). Like Japan's other major detective manga 名探偵コナン (Case Closed), the series has been running for about twenty years. Quite a few of the earlier volumes have been translated into English; but I've only read some of the later volumes, which haven't yet been translated.

If you think about it, comic books have some real advantages for a puzzle detective story. The worst medium is probably film. Filmmakers can't easily show exactly what is going on, if it's a complicated event involving the viewpoints of several people; a whole range of problems are excluded by their nature (railway timetables, for instance); and the audience doesn't have time to think about the problem. A television series can be better in the last respect, but otherwise shares the same problems. I prefer novels and short stories, but those too have their problems. Even in prose, it's a little tricky to make sure the reader understands exactly what is supposed to be happening. You can sometimes solve a puzzle because the writer's necessary gear shift from normal narration to very detailed narration makes it obvious that some particular action is going to be significant. And sometimes the writer knows that prose is just not going to be enough. Like golden age detective stories, most Japanese puzzle detective stories have maps or plans; some have more than one. A comic book is already a visual medium; so it can have maps and plans without admitting a failure of the main means of expression. And it can make clear what is going on without shifts in narrative style beyond those that the authors themselves choose. Interestingly those Young Kindaichi books that I have read make hardly any use of one opportunity that comic books give: any clues that are in the illustrations are almost always also in the text (i. e. in the dialogue or in documents); I've only once or twice noticed a clue that was only in the illustration.  That doesn't mean that the illustrations are superfluous, so that you could throw them away and have a workable radio script. Apart from atmosphere and characterisation, you need them to understand what is being described.

AMAGI Seimaru (天樹征丸) is one of the two writers for the series, and the only one I've read. The Vampire Legend Murder Case (吸血鬼伝説殺人事件 2004) features the regular series characters KINDAICHI Hajime, his not-quite-girlfriend NANASE Miyuki and Inspector KENMOCHI. Kindaichi is supposed to be a typical teenager, without many good qualities except a deductive ability which is generally not exercised until really needed. It was originally hinted that he was KINDAICHI Kousuke's grandson (most stories have a point where he swears on his grandfather's name to solve the puzzle). This isn't spelt out in most stories, presumably to avoid conflict with the estate of YOKOMIZO Seishi; but I remember one book where it is said directly. So perhaps they came to a deal. Miyuki and Kenmochi play the generally thankless role of Watson, identifying by their own suggestions the elements of the puzzle that need to be solved.

The Kindaichi series has its own conventions: a closed set of suspects; a house with a dark history or legend; several murders; a chapter where Kindaichi gets serious, generally ending with the statement "All the puzzles are solved" (i.e. a challenge to the reader); a long chapter with the solution; a final chapter in which we see the backstory from the murderer's point of view. The haunted house this time is an abandoned and dilapidated former mansion, now being used unofficially as a guesthouse for people who enjoy the atmosphere of ruins. The vampire legend is an obvious bit of decoration like in a John Dickson Carr novel or Scooby Doo; but when we've read through to the end, it turns out to have more justification than we might have imagined. The long chapter with the murderer's motivation is the biggest deviation from modern detective stories, though readers of Sherlock Holmes may be more tolerant.

As a puzzle, there is a lot of ingenuity there. The setup is always less realistic than any detective story for adults could allow itself. But within that, Amagi deploys some really surprising tricks.

1 comment:

  1. I really liked the main trick of this story, as it tied in well with the vampire theme. It's at the same time the most horrifying trick I've ever seen (I just can't take... that). Bloody murder is OK, but that trick just... *shudder*

    The art is a bit strange though, with Satou having come from a run of Tantei Gakuen Q.