Wednesday, January 25, 2012


After Another and its unnecessary length deprived me of too much reading time, I felt the urge to read something I knew I'd definitely enjoy in at least some way, so I picked up this second short story collection by Maya Yutaka featuring his arrogant and always brilliant detective Mercator Ayu and his assistant and mystery writer Minagi Sanjou, which was waiting on my desk far too long.

Even though Mercator Ayu is certainly reminiscent of Ayukawa Tetsuya's Hoshikage Ryuuzou, his cases always somehow slide a little bit into the anti-mystery field, while still staying orthodox enough for my taste thanks to brilliant constructions and logical deductions with just enough hints to still be considered fair enough to not freak out and set the book on fire after the solution.

死人を起こす (Waking the dead) first tells the reader about a group of high school friends who find an acommodation trip via one of the student's father's business. The mansion's former owner was German and the first floor resembles a classical western building while the second floor is excessively Japanesque with sliding doors and ostentatious paintings on them. After some alcohol and partying one of the guys dies, seemingly fallen out of a window, and one year after they visit the mansion once more to find out if it was an accident or actually murder - of course with the help of Mercator and of course with one more death.
The second case connects to the first one, which after that seems totally logical in a work-inherent way, but the second murder itself is left unclear in one certain aspect, which will clearly agitate many readers, but I simply can't not like this story because of the setting and how Mercator linked the deductions of the second death to the first one.

九州旅行 (Kyuushuu trip) starts with Mercator testing a disc he got through some other case on Minagi's computer and doing that his hard drive and therefore his current story he was writing, which should have gone to the publishers in a few days, are destroyed. As compensation Mercator promises to give Minagi material for his next story... by finding a stabbed corpse in the same apartment complex where Minagi resides.
Hilarious. Probably the most simply enjoyable story in this collection, especially for fans of the duo and Maya's humor. It's kind of a dying message story, but at the end it's something totally different which still could have been guessed when you think about it.

収束 (Convergence) starts out with the description of three similar murders and different people and motives involved. Then after "knowing" this was a consecutive murder chain by shooting, we are told what happened before. Mercator and Minagi are off to a secluded island where a cult is situated around a certain writing. Mercator is hired to find out what's behind the traces of someone seemingly wanting to steal that certain document, while also being hired by someone else to get back his daughter from that island, who creeped in disguised as a servant to steal said book. After the cult's leader is found shot in the back, the only person that comes into question is the female servant Aoyama, so she is locked in to prevent further crimes until the storm lifts and the police arrives. However Mercator ensures that his client's daughter is not the culprit and that he already knows what will happen from here on.
I'd love to write more on why this story is absolutely brilliant, but spoiling would be a shame for this one. The deductions reminded me of the last book I've read by Maya, because here we yet again have the 後期クイーン問題 (Latter period Queen problem) or at least one aspect of that. More on that afterwards.

答えのない絵本 (Picture book without answer) features a murdered otaku physics teacher in a high school, who did not leave his room to go to the staff room even after four announcements via the school's speakers. While nobody from outside could have been the culprit (certified by cameras and sport clubs outside of the building), all twenty students on the floor of the murder could have committed the crime and Mercator has to deduce who did it with a huge alibi chart.
The solution is what makes this story a love or hate example not really untypical for the genre in terms of today's anti-mystery standards. At first I certainly was somewhat thrown off myself, even though the deductions and the construction itself were totally awesome yet again and I especially liked how Maya used contemporary elements like screen savers and surveillance cameras to set up the whole scene. More on why the solution is so controversial later.

密室荘 (Locked room villa) is just a sort of "bonus track" added to the other already serialized stories and there isn't much to say about it apart from: Mercator and Minagi find a corpse in Mercator's villa. Nobody could have entered or left the building so it has to be one of the two. Nothing surprising about the (not-)solution and the enjoyable part of the story is mainly the dialogue of the duo.

So, about the 後期クイーン問題 I mentioned earlier:
I haven't read later Queens, but I get what it means by just having read The Greek Coffin. The problem includes points like these:

- The detective cannot ensure that his deduction is flawless and that information the detective isn't aware of does not exist.
- There might be cases that are set up around the existence and presence of the detective figure and count on the detective doing his work and fool him through the premise of multiple solutions. Or, cases that only happen because a detective figure is involved.

Just a rough summary of the most important stuff, as I don't have my books on that subject with me right now.
This is exactly where the stories of this book shine. Especially the one on the island and in the school. The former features fake or intended hints by the culprit and the impossibility of a detective to fully predict what happens next in a case of serial murders. The latter deals with the direct involvement and control by the supposedly objective detective figure, as this great review (SPOILERS!!) proved to me. Similar to Maya Yutaka's debut work (as discussed in here), it's possible to get a different just as or even more satisfying solution on the premise of the detective not being impartial.

I can only recommend this collection and many other works by Maya Yutaka to readers interested in this topic. If you're looking for 100% orthodox detective fiction, I'm inclined to say "Look somewhere else" but on the other hand, what exactly is 100% orthodox? This is a highly experimental collection, but not so much that it would be unfair. The deductions are logical and comprehensible nonetheless and amazed me and I guess that's what counts.


  1. If you're interested in late Queen problems, you should take a look at Ten Day's Wonder and Cat of Many Tails, which illustrate the problem very nicely (Cat spoils the name of the murderer of Ten though your reading order).

    This year I'll finally start (formal) academic research on 新本格, so I guess I'll come across good old Queen even more often from now on. This also reminds me it's about time to continue with Kasai's Tantei Shousetsu Ron 2

  2. Ten Day's Wonder is always mentioned in this context and I know I'll have to read it eventually. Maybe when there's time left after and/or between my remaining papers in the next month I'll see if I finally check out more Golden Age stuff.

    Sadly I changed my main research topic somewhen after the bachelor thesis because I found it kind of difficult to put detective/mystery novels in a frame of general interest and relevance in terms of Japanese Studies without focussing on the historical aspects or coercively linking it to major events in society without feeling exaggeratory. You always need theoretical framework and somehow I feel like I'm still lacking there even considering all the (pseudo-)academic secondary literature I gathered over the time.

  3. You could also opt for a more Formalist reading of detective fiction. The first half of Kasai's 探偵小説と二○世紀精神 offers some nice directions for such an approach and there is quite some material on it out there in Japanese.

    I myself am still looking around for my precise approach though; a historic approach is probably the most feasable, but not the most alluring, as I am pretty much confined on building Kasai. I read Tantei Shousetsu Ron 1 for a state of the field literature review for my Master's course and while it certainly is ambiteous and all, it is not without its own set of curious problems. Not sure how 2 will turn out though.

  4. I'm taking a look into 探偵小説と二○世紀精神 among others for a paper right now... or rather I should do so more concentrated. I also find these formalist/narratology approaches often seen in those books quite intruiging and I could write about those aspects myself, but strictly speaking it's not that relevant for the field of contemporary Japanese studies which is why I think I couldn't sell it. Maybe I'll pick up the topic again when I work on my PhD... don't even want to think about that possibility far in the future right now though.