Somehow, despite my best intentions, I never seem to get on reading Motohiro Katou's Q.E.D. without spluttering starts and stops, which tend to have an average gap of 6-8 months between reviews and the latest stop can be blamed on indecisiveness – torn between continuing with Q.E.D. or make a start on its sister series. Some comments on previous reviews pointed out Q.E.D. and C.M.B. crossover several times and the latter has history as its series theme. I was afraid I would end up really liking C.M.B. and it would take me years, not months, to return to Q.E.D. So I came to the decision to finish Q.E.D. first and intend on getting as close to the ending (vol. 50) as possible, before the end of this year. After that, on to C.M.B.
Motohiro Katou's Q.E.D. vol. 21 begins with "Joined Threads" and can be counted among the stories that stand out in this imaginative, often unconventional series for being traditionally-structured and plotted detective stories. You only have to read previous stories like "Jacob's Ladder" (vol. 4), "Serial John Doe" (vol. 7) and "Three Birds" (vol. 18) to get an idea just how far this series can stray from the beaten path.
"Joined Threads" finds Sou Touma and Kana Mizuhara aboard a bus, en route to enjoy a skiing holiday with friends, but Mizuhara spots a young, tense looking couple sitting behind them. The man hits the stop button and they get off the bus right in the middle of the snowy mountains. Mizuhara drags Touma off the bus to follow the couple, because she fears they might intend to commit suicide together. Only they loose track of them, get caught in a snowstorm and miraculously end up on the doorstep of a remote and lonely villa before they can freeze to death. The villa turns out to be the property of a well-known trading company, Higashiizumi Group, which comes with its own caretaker, Sawaguchi Junzo – who gives Touma and Mizuhara a frigid reception ("I don't care, now get outta here"). They're nevertheless allowed to stay and discover the couple they followed already present at the villa.
The man is the Executive Director of the Higashiizumi Group, Jouji Higashiizumi, and the woman is his girlfriend, Kashima Satomi. Jouji is currently fighting with his father, Akinobu Higashiizumi, who's the president of the company and "opposing the marriage of those two." Kashima Satomi had been married before and has a son, which makes Akinobu fear the possibility that her son "will be the one to get all of the inheritance" even though "the child doesn't have any blood relation to him." On top of that, the company is in financial bad weather. So with emotions running high and money potentially low, the stage for a good, old-fashioned detective story is set.
Akinobu Higashiizumi has locked himself into his bedroom to work, but, when they bring him his food, he doesn't answer and the door is locked. So they fetch the master key and find the company president hanging from a double-knotted rope tied with a woman's obi (a sash for a woman's kimino) and an obi for a man's yukata. The regular key, which locked the door from the inside, is lying on the desk and "all the windows are locked" with "no sign of it being tampered with." Nobody could have gotten the master key from the caretaker's shed between the time Akinobu was last seen alive and the moment his body, because everyone is alibied. Even stranger, Touma finds a fax in the bedroom informing the president the company has begun to recover. So why would he kill himself? But before Touma can start playing detective in earnest, a second body is found hanging inside the cottage (see map) with a single track of footprints in the snow going to the front door. Apparently, the case resolved itself with the murderer committing suicide after the botched murder of the president. Or so it appears. Touma would not stumble to the solution until three days later when he and Mizuhara have returned home.
I figured out the identity of the murderer fairly early on in the story and made a pretty good guess regarding the motive, but the how of the crimes, particular the impossibilities, is a different story and the no-footprints situation offered something new – a trick I had never seen before. Sure, the very nature of it makes it a highly opportunistic trick and not something you can really plan for far ahead of time. However, the no-footprints is one of the most difficult impossible crimes to pull off and coming up with something new or fresh is even harder. "Joined Threads" accomplished both feats! The locked room murder of the company president is a little more routine, but cleverly elaborated on the finer details surrounding it to give the trick some more substance. A very well written, plotted and pleasantly traditional locked room mystery with some fresh and original touches to the tricks and clues. Needless to say, I loved it!
The second story to close out the volume, "The Beautiful Actress Being Watched, The Fear of the Stalker, The Gunshot Reverberating Off the Cliff Face, What Touma and Kana Saw," is as the title suggest not quite as conventional as the previous one.
Nagisa Yukiyo is an actress whose star power has been slowly fading away and together with her manager, Ogata Hideo, concocts a plan to reignite media attention for her person. So they make up a stalker and the manager knows a police detective who "can make a normal case become famous." Detective Kasayama Sugimichi, "a die-hard fan of two-hour police drama series," who wanders around crime scenes acting like a TV cop and trying to make grandiose molehills out of simple, routine cases. So they ask him to investigate the imaginary stalker and he's only to happy to accept the assignment as he has seen all the TV detective dramas in which she starred ("did he just recount all of the episodes?"). Kana Mizuhara is dragged into the case as a witness and she drags along Sou Touma. Pretty soon, the fabricated stalker begins to come alive as Nagisa Yukiyo is nearly killed on set and Ogata Hideo is hospitalized after being attacked.
However, the stalking case is only the vehicle used to tell the story of Detective Kasayama Sugimichi. A caricature of the TV detective who can be truly annoying at times, but became a bit more sympathetic as the story progressed. He tells Sou Touma and Kana Mizuhara he loves police dramas "because of the romance," but only got to handle small cases like brawls and petty thefts. Kasayama Sugimichi simply wants to feel the romance of doing his job and began walking around in a sort mentally augmented reality saying things like "maybe this will be a deleted scene" or "if you're just tuning in after a commercial break, you've got to know a brief summary of the case." But he tended to ignore the dull, routine parts of his job like reading reports. And that has consequences as he gets reprimanded and suspended for neglecting his duties. Sou Touma and Kana Mizuhara come to his rescue and help to get the detective his moment in the spotlight. Morally dodgy, as he really did neglect his duties, but the story ended better than it started. You can put that entirely on the character of Detective Kasayama Sugimichi.
The first story from Q.E.D. vol. 22, "Spring in the Small River," begins with Sou Touma and Kana Mizuhara having a chance encounter with a haunted, deeply troubled painter, Keisetsu Akabane, who suffered a head injury in a traffic accident – which resulted in complete amnesia. Just like his memories, Akabane's ability to paint was wiped away in the accident. However, his wife believes "if he could remember that important place" and "paint that place," he would go back to normal. Nobody knows where, or what, that important place is. Time is ticking. Shinji Kuroshima's art gallery and business depends on him getting back to work. But then some weird things begin to happen. Several people recognize Keisetsu Akabane, but not as an artist. One man recognizes him as an airline pilot, while an angry woman believes he's a doctor who had promised to marry her. She angry flings an apartment key in his face, before stamping away. And when they go to investigate the apartment, they come across a few disturbing pieces of evidence. So what's really going on here?
On the surface, this is merely another amnesia (suspense) story, and not a bad one, but they tend to be an acquired taste and not everyone likes them. I'm not a big fan of amnesia stories myself and would not have thought much of "Spring in the Small River" had not gone off script. A twist that has become a cliched trope in modern times (ROT13: fur jnf qrnq nyy nybat), but honestly didn't see that one coming and kind of worked here. My only complaint is that (ROT13) gur gevpx gb uvqr gur obql jnf jnfgrq urer nf vg'f tbbq rabhtu gb or gur sbpny cbvag bs nal qrgrpgvir fgbel. This story and the previous one demonstrate that besides a plotter with an originality streak, Motohiro Katou is also a gifted storyteller. Neither would have been particularly memorable as simply detective stories, but how he tells a story or what he does with his characters often carry the lighter-plotted cases to the finish line. Such a criminally underrated artisan of the detective story.
The second and last story from this volume, "Venetian Labyrinth," sees the return of Alan Blade, CEO of Alansoft, who previously appeared in vol. 13 and vol. 17. This time, Alan Blade asked Sou Touma and Kana Mizuhara to accompany him to Milan, Italy, to help him pick an expensive ring, because he has no idea about any of that stuff – settling on a ring that costs "e-enough to buy a house." But then they get caught in the middle of a bank robbery. Alan Blade is taken hostage and kidnapped by the criminals who turn out to be three brothers, Pietro, Carlo and Mauro Russo. Alan advises the brother to ask ransom money instead of bungling around ("I think this guy's smarter than you, bro").
So, yeah, another story which uses the detective story format as a vehicle to tell a character-driven story of the Russo brothers and their dear mother. I thought their backstory was interesting as the three of them used to run "a small, but quite successful business in making leather goods" and expended the business with a bank loan, which became a problem when the Euro was introduced and the factory ended up being confiscated. So they turned to crime to get back their hard earned money. This is very much their story and how it ended up affecting Alan Blade, but not much else as the mini-puzzle regarding how the ransom money has to be dropped off is a little disappointing. So much more could have been done with the setting. Not even an original-minded mystery writer and plotter, like Motohiro Katou, can whip something truly great out of a kidnap plot, but appreciated the attempt.
So, on a whole, two pretty descent and solid volumes with the two opening stories, 'Joined Threads" and "Spring in the Small River,' standing out respectively as an excellent locked room mystery and an amnesia story with a highly unusual ending. While the other two stories showed the series willingness to cede the spotlight to either recurring or one-time characters simply for the sake of telling the best story possible. It's what makes Q.E.D. one of the most original, innovative detective series published over the past twenty-five years and not by rejecting the past, but by building on the genre's rich, long history – trying something new or different every other volume. You can expect more Q.E.D. reviews in the not so distant future.