I suppose only a tiny fraction of my regular blog readers are aware, or have read, a Japanese "light novel." Light novels are targeted at high-and middle school aged readers (i.e. Young Adults) and have an average length of fifty thousand words with the distinguishing characteristic that the books are illustrated with manga artwork depicting various scenes or characters from the story – naturally our beloved detective story is fairly represented in light novels. Some of these light mystery novels have been translated into English.
Zaregoto series: kubikiri saikuru (Zaregoto: Book 1: The Kubikiri Cycle, 2002) by the pseudonymous "NisiOisiN" is an extremely odd, but very good locked room novel, with apparently impossible decapitations on a small, isolated island in the Sea of Japan. Kazuki Sakuraba's Gosick: Goshikku (Gosick: The Novel, 2003) and Gosick II: Goshikku: Sono tsumi wa na mo naki (Gosick: The Crime That Has No Name, 2004) is set in antebellum Europe, which is laced with Ruritanian aesthetics and the series has an impossible crime or two. The Crime That Has No Name was actually somewhat reminiscent of a Paul Halter novel (c.f. The Demon of Dartmoor, 1993).
I'm sure these series convey very little to most of my readers, but during the late 1990s, Kodansha published a quadrilogy of light novels part of detective series most of you should be aware of by now.
The Kindaichi Case Files is a long-running manga series that has spawned numerous anime adaptations, live-action TV series, video games and nine light novels, which were penned by Seimaru Amagi – who's responsible for some of the best stories in the manga series (e.g. The Prison Prep School Murder Case and The Rosenkrauz Mansion Murders). These light novels were illustrated by the original artist of The Kindaichi Case Files and Detective Academy Q, Famiya Satō.
The four books that were translated into English are Opera-za kan arata naru satsujin (The New Kindaichi Case Files, 1994), Dennō sansō satsujin jiken (Murder On-Line, 1996), Shanhai gyojin densetsu satsujin jiken (The Shanghai River Demon's Curse, 1997) and Ikazuchi matsuri satsujin jiken (Deadly Thunder, 1998), but copies have become increasingly rare over time. And expensive. So maybe its time someone reprinted them in an omnibus edition, because Murder On-Line proved to be a pure, plot-driven detective story with an ingenious alibi-trick worthy of Christopher Bush and Agatha Christie. A trick that made the story a quasi-impossible crime novel, but not close enough to label it such.
Murder On-Line is a mystery novel reminiscent of Yukito Ayatsuji's Jakkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987) and Peter Lovesey's Bloodhounds (1996), in which "a group of crime and suspense fiction fans" from a chap-group, the On-Line Lodge, meet each other offline at an isolated, practically deserted mountain ski-resort, Silverwood Lodge – they only know each other by their online aliases. The names they picked for themselves are "Agatha," "Watson," "Ranpo," "Patricia," "Sojo," "Spenser" and "Sid," but one of them has a third (secret) identity. An identity simply known as "Trojan Horse" and this person has murder in his or her heart.
Hajime Kindaichi and Nanase Miyuki end up Silverwood Lodge after getting lost in the snowy mountains, but when the group of mystery fans learn Kindaichi is the grandson of the celebrated detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, they insist they stay the night. And a blizzard effectively strands them there.
Kindaichi and Miyuki are the unknown quantity introduced in the murderer's carefully planned scheme, but "Trojan Horse" merely sees them as “a minor bug” in the program that can be handled. Only "two more characters" who showed up to play the game. The first murder is committed that very same day, but everyone has an alibi: "Agatha" was being intimate with "Ranpo." "Patricia," "Sid" and "Watson" were having an online conversation when they were in their private cottages, which can be proved with chat-logs. Kindaichi and Miyuki were together. There's "an alibi for everyone." Kindaichi describes the murder as an impossible crime, because it was committed in "an isolated lodge" with all of the suspects alibied.
However, as good as the alibi-trick is, it doesn't meet my qualifications to be regarded as either a locked room mystery or impossible crime.
Back in 2017, I posted a comment to a blog-post by Dan, of The Reader is Warned, entitled "But is it a locked room mystery? The case of the impossible alibi," which asked if an alibi-trick can be considered an impossible crime. My answer is that an impossible alibi can't solely relay on eyewitnesses or physical pieces of evidence (i.e. train tickets), but murderer should appear to have been physically incapable of having committed the crime. For example, the murderer was in police custody or appeared to have been wounded/hospitalized (e.g. Mr. Monk and the Sleeping Suspect, 2003). There must be a serious physical limitation placed on the murderer and Christie wrote a rather well-known detective novel that used this kind of impossible alibi to perfection.
This was simply not the case here and the alibis fall apart when you consider two, or more, people working together. The chat-group alibi is not exactly rock solid either, because they all had laptops and the murderer could have been chatting from the victim's cottage. The group could even have suspected the two outsiders, Kindaichi and Miyuki. Something that was not considered or even mentioned in the story. And the clueing was a bit scant. The solution is still hinted at, but not as strong as in the best stories from the anime or manga series. However, you can probably blame the light novel format for that. Amagi didn't had the space to craft an ingenious plot like the one from The Prison Prep School Murder Case. Let alone to throw out too many complications or red herrings.
I should also note here that the last murder is quasi-locked room: a member of the chat-group was barricaded inside a cottage, but the murderer squirted two different liquids underneath the door into the cottage, which formed a deadly cyanide gas – giving the victim just enough time to leave behind a dying message. Technically, you could qualify it as a locked room crime, but it was never treated as such in the story. By the way, this is not a spoiler. The murder is shown to the reader.
So, Murder On-Line is not a locked room novel, but, as a traditionally-structured whodunit, it was brilliantly handled with an ingenious alibi-trick. The prologue gave us a glimpse of a perfect crime that was actually, well, perfect. A crime so perfect, it required private revenge to rectify it. An all too common theme in the Kindaichi series and they have done this motive to death, but the back-story to the murders was very detailed here. Usually, the series uses this motive as nothing more than to create incredibly and ambitious murderers. But this one was very well done. You can almost understand why the murderer planned on leaving six bodies at the mountain lodge.
Naturally, Kindaichi can't allow "Trojan Horse" to take out everyone in the group and not only has to demolish the murderer's carefully staged alibi, but has to separate everyone online identity from who they really are. And has to interpret such clues as the previously mentioned dying message and a body found buried in the snow behind one of the cottages. I particularly liked how the chat-group and early internet (culture) were woven into the scheme of the overall plot. Once again, it's a perfect example of modern technology can be incorporated in a traditionally-styled detective story. More amazingly, the book was published in 1996 and this makes it a far-sighted story as far as internet culture is concerned.
So, all things considered, Murder On-Line is a good and cleverly worked out detective novel with a splendid and original alibi-trick. The setting and cast of suspects consisting of a group of crime fiction readers, who use detective-themed nicknames, makes the book highly recommendable to readers who enjoyed Ayatsuji's The Decagon House Murder and Lovesey's Bloodhounds. A great companion piece to those two mystery novels.
I sincerely hope someone decides to reprint The New Kindaichi Case Files (titled in Japan Opera House – The New Murder), Murder On-Line, The Shanghai River Demon's Curse and Deadly Thunder. And, perhaps, translate the remaining five titles from this series. Do you think Ho-Ling Wong, the Carl Horn of Locked Room International, has any plans for the upcoming holidays? Translating a light novel won't be as much work as a regular novel, right? More importantly, it would make me happy. :D