12/7/22

The Kindaichi Case Files: Demon God Ruins Murder Case

Back in August, I reviewed The Seiren Island Murder Case from The Kindaichi Case Files and turned out not only to be immensely enjoying, intricately-plotted detective story, but a top 10 candidate for a series best-of list – which encouraged to return to the series before too long. I was already eyeing Demon God Ruins Murder Case when two anonymous comments sold me on it as my next stop in the series. 

Demon God Ruins Murder Case originally appeared as a serial from March 19 to June 18, 1997, in Weekly Shōnen Magazine and is the 18th case in the first run of The Kindaichi Case Files known as the File Series. That was some cause for concern as the series was being (mainly) written by Yozaburo Kanari at the time. Fortunately, it turned out to be one of Kanari's occasional success stories, but he clearly had no idea how exactly to begin or end the story. More on that ending in a moment.

So the story opens a little chaotically, but the gist is that Hajime Kindaichi needs money and is offered a part-time by another student at Fudou High, Munakata Satsuki. It's an archaeological excavation job at her home village, Majin Village, situated in Izumo, Shimane Prefecture. The Majin Village is not, exactly, a typical village. Firstly, the only entrance to the village is a tunnel cutting through a mountain, which is the only way in and out. Secondly, the village is more of a private estate nestled in a mountain valley with only three houses. The House of Gems, The House of Daggers and The House of Seven Mirrors. There used to be a fourth place, The House of the Copper Bells, but it had burned down years ago. A place with a long, sacred history dating back to the time before Buddhism was brought to Japan, countless ancient artifacts have been excavated in the Majin Village, but the recent excavation attempts to locate four so-called cursed Demon Artifacts – worshiped "as magical items during earlier times." It's believed these Demon Artifacts were dedicated to the deity of curses, Magadori no Mikoto. Whoever "finds all four Demon Artifacts will become rich and famous." And possibly a little cursed.

During the Meiji Era, Satsuki's great-grandfather, Munakata Kichiemon, collected all four artifacts and became very successful, but there was a price to pay. Several family began to die and not from natural causes. So he decided to put the artifacts back to sleep, "burying them back in the ruins of this Majin Village," which is why the family build and moved to the family. The Majin Village is "a sealed village" to suppress "the terrifying powers of the Demon Artifacts" and Satsuki's family have now lived there for generations worshiping the very god that keeps them captive. However, the artifacts have an immeasurable value to the field of archaeology and Munakata Shirou, Satsuki's father and an archaeologist, assembled an excavation team to dig out the ruins. But in the middle or excavation, he died in a cave-in. So now a new attempt is made by the family to find those priceless artifacts.

Hajime Kindaichi, Miyuki Nanase and Saki go to the Majin Village where they find a mixed group of relatives, residents, servants and archaeologists. Firstly, there's Satsuki's aunt, Minatoya Asuka, who lives at the House of Gems with her husband, Minatoya Kanichi. They currently have a house guest, Yamato Takeru, who used to be one of Munakata Shirou two assistants. And he insisted on participating in the next attempt at excavating the historical treasures. Secondly, Edogawa Kenji is a well-known mystery novelist and current owner of the House of Daggers and gave a room to the second ex-assistant, Soga Toyohiro. Thirdly, Kunimori Akihiko, Professor of Archaeology at Tojoh University, who's a former research partner of Munakata Shirou and leads the current excavation party. And he brought along his own assistant, Toribeno Akira. Lastly, there's the household of Satsuki, but her mother has withdrawn from life years ago and now lives with face veiled in the upstairs rooms of the House of Seven Mirrors. So the most prominent characters from the House of Seven Mirrors are Satsuki and the two servants, Muranishi Yayoi and Tsukumo Iyo.

Kindaichi begins his part-time job by helping the archaeologists and the dig is a cave, known as Magadori's Seat, which has an opening sealed by a smooth and shiny stone door – named the mirror rock. There are two semicircular cavities in the mirror rock door that can be used as handles, by two people, to push the door open. One handle is covered with a panel that has a keyhole in it, which can be unlocked and removed. A safety precautionary to keep people away from the dig site. You can probably guess what a creative murderer can do with such a setting.

After the first day of work, the mirror rock is moved back into place and locked simply by replacing the panel on one of the cavity-handles. Kindaichi is entrusted to safeguard the key, but soon they discover Yamato Takeru has gone missing. A murder of crows is cawing and pecking away at the cave entrance. So the mirror rock is opened and inside they find Yamato Takeru's body, strangled to death, surrounded by the rotting crow cadavers. There's "no way to open the mirror rock without the key to the second handle" and that makes the stone chamber in Magadori's Seat "a perfectly locked room." This is indeed a really good and original locked room mystery. Not only in presentation! The story provided the problem with two very different, very original solutions to the problem, which are both (technically) correct without one turning out to be a false-solution. And how that works is something you have to find out for yourself. But it worked. My only complaint is that one clue to the second locked room solution really should have been displayed much earlier in the story.

Other than that, the seemingly impossible murder at the dig site would have been enough to carry most detective stories, but the bodycounts in The Kindaichi Case Files almost never stops at just one.

The second death comes as quickly and unexpectedly as it's visually startling and gruesomely presented, but it unfortunately turned out to be nothing more than mere story-dressing with no relevance to the plot. It actually made me feel sorry the character had to die in such a spectacular way for absolutely nothing. If you kill a character in such a way, you have to make it count. Dammit, Kanari! You were so close to being consistent here. A third death in the House of Seven Mirrors introduces a new puzzle to the plot, namely a dying message, as the victim is found tightly clenching pieces of paper – torn pages from a daily wall calendar. Japanese dying messages tend to be language-based and almost never translate very well into another language, which is no different here. This time, I thought the dying message was solvable as the murderer was shown throughout the story either disguised as Magadori no Mikoto (yes, very Scooby Doo) or as a featureless shadow figure, but both times the murderer was coughing blood. I figured the victim could have been aware of this and tried to identify the attacker by pointing out the murderer's days are numbered. Well, I was wrong. The dying message turned out to be a language-based clue after all, but suppose an untranslatable clue is not something I can hold against Kanari. And, to be fair, Kanari held the plot together fairly well. 

Demon God Ruins Murder Case is a mostly well-plotted detective story that also include the archaeological search, or rather treasure hunt, to find the lost artifacts. That plot-thread made good use of the floor plan of the House of Seven Mirrors as a clue to the hiding place. However, the key-word here is mostly. Demon God Ruins Murder Case clearly shows the difference between Kanari and his much more talented co-writer, Seimaru Amagi. Kanari not only lacks Amagi's talent as a plotter, but also his confidence as a writer. I already mentioned the messy, almost contrived opening to get the story started, the inconsequential second death and withholding an important clue to the locked room until the last acceptable moment, but he also had no idea how to end the story. You can only interpreted the ending as divine intervention that allowed for a very convenient and happy ending. Nor did I care for that last-minute, feelgood surprise-twist about one of the other characters.

That being said, I can't deny Demon God Ruins Murder Case is among Kanari's better treatments of the series formula. I agree with the anonymous comments that there's "variation and nuance" to familiar tropes, stock motive and cast of characters, but, more than that, I simply found the idea of the double solution to the original locked room situation to be impressive. Never let it be said Kanari was treated unfairly on this blog!

So, while not among the top-tier titles in the series, Demon God Ruins Murder Case stands as a fairly solid, multi-layered and engrossing mystery with a surprising amount of originality and consistency from a writer I normally rate very lowly. There are some weak spots in the storytelling and plotting, but ended up being as pleasantly surprised as when discovering Kanari's The Headless Samurai defied all my expectations by being unaccountably excellent. I actually wanted to end this review with complimenting Amagi for dragging a good locked room mystery out of his writing partner, but I'll stop bashing Kanari now and say he did a good job here.

Anyway, sorry for this messy, rambling review, but cranked it out as it came to me and dumped it. No idea what's next, but probably something Christmas-themed.

14 comments:

  1. I said it on my blog, but it's worth repeating here. I thought HEADLESS SAMURAI and MAGICAL EXPRESS were fine but a little overrated by the Kindaichi fanbase. I didn't like the impossible crime of HEADLESS SAMURAI, but I did like the decapitation plot. MAGICAL EXPRESS I liked even less, as I simply detest the core mechanic used to pull off the impossible disappearance (something I've seen done multiple times and I dislike every time I see it. I understand it's plausible, but it's very corny in a way that makes it impossible for me to take seriously and enjoy). I'm starting to worry that maybe Kindaichi is simply not very good, or just not for me. I'm still working through the series though, about halfway through the original run, and I'll keep this story in mind.

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    1. How can you think The Headless Samurai and The Magical Express are overrated by the Kindaichi fanbase when you ranked No Noose is Good Noose as the best of the first seven cases? After that "high point," those two feel like newly uncovered masterpieces from Seishi Yokomizo himself, but I don't think we're going to agree on which point of the Kanari period is the lowest in the series. I don't seem to be able to find common ground with anyone on the Kanari issue. Whether I liked something he wrote or hated it. Typical. :)

      "I'm starting to worry that maybe Kindaichi is simply not very good, or just not for me."

      Or maybe, just maybe, I was right from the beginning and Kanari is the problem. Why is everyone so reluctant to admit Kanari just is not a good writer and plotter of detective stories? So, if you continue to struggle, I recommend you skip to the cases Amagi wrote before deciding if the series is not for you. It did wonders for my perception of the series!

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    2. I think NO NOOSE IS GOOD NOOSE is pretty decent, but also look at what it's sized-up against. What am I going to say is better than it? LAKE HEIREN? MUMMY'S CURSE? DEATH TV? I mean, there wasn't a lot of good in the first seven, it's not hard to be "the best" of them. :P

      I think HEADLESS SAMURAI is unequivocally the best so far, but I still didn't like the obvious and goofy locked-room trick, but the clues identifying the culprit are absolutely fantastic! Some truly bold stuff there I'd go as far as to compare to Christianna Brand, love it.

      As for MAGICAL EXPRESS, I've seen "onyybba pbecfr" a few times before, most notably Arrowmont Prison Riddle, and I didn't like it there either. Call it a personal hang-up if you will, but "onyybba pbecfr" is just a type of trick that I consider fundamentally too corny and silly for me to enjoy no matter how well-written the story surrounding it is. Even in a series in a medium in a genre that enjoys comically convoluted murder plots, "onyybba pbecfr" is just a step too far off for my personal tastes.

      Also, I read Amagi's GHOST MANSION MURDER CASE and thought it was pretty... eh. Still love PRISON PREP SCHOOL, though, which I read in Japanese! And I'm currently reading BLOODTHIRSTY CHERRY BLOSSOM, which I have on good authority is nearly as good as PRISON and ROZENKREUZ!

      I do like the SHORT FILES series, though. They're obvious as get out, but the tricks at least have some hint of imagination and originality which makes hem fun even when I figure them out immediately. With their focus on "tragic misunderstandings between lovers", school clubs with years old accidents that may or may not be murder, and a general de-focusing of impossible crimes, I can see that KINDAICHI CASE FILES - SHORT FILES, may be an ancestor of DETECTIVE CONAN...

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    3. "I mean, there wasn't a lot of good in the first seven, it's not hard to be "the best" of them. :P"

      "I think HEADLESS SAMURAI is unequivocally the best so far..."

      So... we agree (sort of) after all? I believe the same rule of thumb applies to "onyybba pbecfr" as to string-trick and booby traps: it all depends on who's doing the writing and plotting (i.e. who has the right idea and skill to execute it). I can see why you didn't like "The Arrowmont Prison Riddle," probably the execution scene overtaxing your credulity, but I can think of two stories with "onyybba pbecfr" tricks that are pretty good.

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  2. Out of the ones left, I liked 'The Third Opera House Murder'. 'Yukikage Village Murder Case' is pretty decent as well, and the tone is slightly different than other Kindaichi stories. I also liked the trick in 'Amakusa Treasure Legend Murder Case' (must be read before 'Snow Spirit Legend Murder Case' as the later spoiled the former), although there are Japanese-dependent codes.

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    1. I'll get to them eventually, but Third Opera House is likely going to be next. The second one is a series classic!

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    2. Seconding Yukikage Village.

      I am far more critical of Drifting Firefox Murder Case than you were in your review of that one because as far as anyone is concerned, that one was just a far inferior rip-off of Yukikage Village which was written almost 20 years earlier, in literally every single aspect.

      Yukikage is a sombre story about coming of age and the fragility of childhood dreams and fantasies that would have still functioned even without murders. The who is brilliantly-clued, with all the crucial hints littered about everywhere in disguise as mere set dressing during the character interactions. The fatal clue is connected to the crime through a well-thought out piece of ratiocination also. The how is wonderful, with its multiple false solutions that chain into each other sequentially, and my God, I sincerely hope that the actual solution is original and hasn't been seen before, because it's possibly my favourite ever for this particular class of impossibility. In fact, this entire case, with its multiple false solutions, likable and well-characterised suspects, and inevitably heartbreaking ending evokes Brand more than anything.

      The motive is hot garbage though so there's that.

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    3. You sure know how to end a recommendation. You had me tempted there for a moment, but have to return to Q.E.D. sometime. But, like all recommendations, I'll keep Yukikage Village Murder Case in mind for the next time I decide to dip back into the series.

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  3. I'm glad you enjoyed the Demon God Ruins Murder Case. I think you still have a couple of good Kindaichi titles on your TBR pile: Burial Franc Murders, Third Opera House, etc.

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    1. Like I said in the comment above, Third Opera House is likely my next stop in the series and really hope it measures up the Second Opera House. One of the best and most enjoyable Kindaichi's I've read to date.

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  4. Glad to see you enjoyed the locked room in this one as much as I did. Demon God Ruins is probably the best-hidden culprit in all of Kindaichi, (ROT13) abg bayl orvat na hayvxryl xvyyre gurzfryirf ohg nyfb orvat fuvryqrq ol abg bar ohg gjb boivbhf Xvaqnvpuv zheqreref (Rqbtnjn naq Fngfhxv). They still had multiple clues pointing to them as well, which makes this a standout for the franchise as far as "who" is concerned.

    Third Opera House is good, but I definitely wouldn't rank it as a series best for a number of reasons, the primary one being that none of the impossible solutions really wowed me. It lacked that magical element which separates the great impossible crime tales from the merely solid ones, but that's just my opinion. I have other criticisms of it too but those get into spoiler territory.

    After you get to that one, I would recommend Kenmochi The Killer next. Very unpopular opinion, but this is my 3rd-favourite Kindaichi overall ever behind Rosenkreuz Mansion in 1st and Prison Prep School in 2nd - and if just one element of the plot was changed it would have been number one and one of my top 5 stories in the entire genre. I have a lot of love for this one.

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    1. I don't know why Kenmoichi the Killer is considered an unpopular choice, but you're definitely the first one to recommend it. And, on that account alone, it goes on the list. But also approve with your number 1 and 2 picks.

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  5. I notice that you mention here that you plan on reading/viewing the Third Opera Murder Case next, and I feel that you should know that the anime movie adaptation completely removes one death from the story, which is a pretty big change. I agree with the reccomendations given for Kenmochi the Killer and Yukikage village, and would also venture to suggest Russian Dolls Murder Case, which I think is one of the better cases in the Case Series.
    Hope to see you go back to reviewing Q.E.D., as I did like those reviews!

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    1. Huh. I though I had already covered the Russian Dolls Murder Case, but it was the Doll Island Murder Case. Recommendation noted! You can expect me to return to Q.E.D. in a month or two. This time, I'll try to go on without long gaps between them.

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