Earlier this year, Ho-Ling reviewed the sixteenth volume of the Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura manga by Nemoto Shou, an essentially self-published manga that has received raves for its detective plots and was picked up by a mainstream digital publisher.
This volume — ‘The Ogress with the Robe of Feathers’ — was especially interesting to me because it had a superb-sounding no-footprints-in-the-snow murder which Ho-Ling described as:
[R]eally original…and this alone makes this issue worth a read. While I know of variants with other impossible crime situations that use a similar idea, it’s the way it’s contextualized and set-up in this particular story that makes it a memorable story. The means are singularly unique to this particular story and its background story, yet properly clewed and foreshadowed.
Now, Ho-Ling is far more intelligent and well-read than I — being fluent in at least two languages — and I’m used to coming away from reviews of these superb-sounding Eastern impossible crimes with a slightly disconsolate feeling of missing out. But something about this one really struck me — maybe it was the combination of the picture above and the promise of “several (fake) solutions” — and my comment on that post (Gah! It is not fair to taunt me with amazing-sounding no-footprints problems!) sums up my feelings pretty accurately.
And then Irregular Scans got in touch, saying that they’d be doing a translation and asking if I’d like to read it when it was done. Who or what is Irregular Scans?, you ask. Why, they’re a scanlation site. And what the behoozles is ‘scanlation’? Well, cue Wikipedia:
Scanlation (also scanslation) is the fan-made scanning, translation, and editing of comics from a language into another language. Scanlation is done as an amateur work and is nearly always done without express permission from the copyright holder.
So, essentially, they’re a bunch of fans bringing manga over the language barrier for those of us too dim to learn Japanese, working exclusively on detective manga — Tantei Gakuen Q (which has featured on here before), the Kindaichi Case Files, Q.E.D, etc — for about four years and 700 chapters. Is it morally grey? Very. Did any money change hands? No. Is there currently an alternative way for these works to get known in English? No. Would I pay for this if was guaranteed that some of the proceeds would go back to the creators? Hell, yes. After this experience, I’d love nothing more than to see this manga translated and on sale everywhere…but, let’s face it, the English language market is slow to catch on to these sorts of things; I imagine there’ll be a renaissance in about 30 years when everyone else has moved onto the next thing, and I wasn’t willing to wait that long.
“Patience is a virtue, Jim.”
The copy of this I read, translated by Osakanon at Irregular Scans, has been given the title ‘The Hagoromo Witch’ and — ahead of its publication on IS in January — I wanted to share my thoughts, add to Ho-Ling’s enthusiasm, and (y’never know) possibly get someone interested enough to make these translations official in the future. Because, yes, I have that much influence. Ha.
We start with our teenage detective pair Sharaku Homura and Yamazake Yousuke looking for mushrooms in the snow-covered mountains that comprise the property of a nearby monastery. After witnessing a man walk past them, and then being scared away by a second man with a dog who claims they’re trespassing on his property (and I, for one, learned something about how to transport mushrooms in the process), the two wander in the woods lost for a little while before emerging in a clearing where the man who passed them earlier is lying face down in the snow, dead. As shown above, only his footprints approach the spot where he fell, which becomes a problem when it transpires that he was killed by a sharp point thrust into his ear, the tip having snapped off in the wound.
It’s difficult to go into details from this point, but one of the joys of the visual medium is how the various ersatz solutions discussed can have their flaws demonstrated so cleanly and efficiently in a single panel: had the attacker, for instance, strung up a zip line across the clearing, the attack would have to have been timed to a perfection not attainable since the victim could easily have ducked out of the way, and this would be evident in the footprints in the snow.
The joy in these 90 pages is the sheer density of the plotting — there is so much going on, and yet — as with the best detective stories — it remains clear and well-focussed throughout: there’s never an attempt to muddy the waters by hurling lists of information at you, and frequent notes in the text point you back to where a piece of information was established beyond doubt so that you’re able to confirm what you saw.
It does seem increasingly to m — as Locked Room International bring out their shin honkaku translations, as I continue to read Case Closed/Detective Conan, ans as translations of works by the likes of Akimitsu Takagi, Soji Shimada, and (soon!) Seishi Yokomizo drip-drip-drip into the English language market — that there’s much more understanding of this sort of puzzle scheme in these Eastern impossible crimes. Having recently only been able to pour scorn on the half-assed efforts by modern English writers (see here, here, and here for the most egregious), the key difference with these higher quality stories is that ingredients are only put in because they serve the wider purpose of the plot. It spoils nothing to say that even the bag the victim is carrying has a part to play, a detail of quite devious and insidious malice that would most likely be overlooked by anyone working in my native tongue, I’m inclined to feel (at least in a traditional publishing milieu — we still have James Scott Byrnside to fly the flag…).
A huge amount of fun is also deployed in the confidence of the scheme: you’re told that one of a selection of weapons mentioned in another round of false solutions (one of which would have made a very pleasing solution of its own), and then a separate Challenge to the Reader where the appropriate clues and questions are dropped ahead of the solution.
And, after all that wildly enjoyable speculation, the solution is a magnificent coup de grâce. Not entirely original, but using the multitude of cultural and incidental ingredients mixed in with a real flair — and explaining away the core principle (and difficulty) behind the method very intelligently indeed. A little while ago I tried writing a post on the various alternatives offered by different surfaces in no footprints murders — snow, sand, dust, thick carpet, etc — but it proved a little beyond my capabilities at the time. This is one of the perfect examples to draw in that case, since while many schemes — say, ‘The Night of the Wolf’ (1990) by Paul Halter — would work on almost any of them equally well, there are distinct difference offered by each one, and when (as here) they’re exploited to the full, that’s when this sub-subgenre shows itself at its very best.
English publishers who see these manga stories as something of a literary white elephant, then, are doing we fans no justice at all in this neglect. Yes, we’re a small and ultimately not hugely profitable corner of a market going through a huge amount of upheaval, and understandably any such undertaking would be approached gingerly in those conditions, but — as the British Library Crime Classics series has shown — there’s a real appetite for diverse, well-told stories in the detection genre, and this is so brilliantly done, and so imaginatively conceived, that you’d hope someone would take an interest in bringing it over more officially before too long.
Until then, Irregular Scans can be found here for the curious. Yes, an imperfect solution to an imperfect problem, but when the material we’re missing out on this this damn good, and when someone is going to such great efforts to bring it to you, it seems churlish to pass it up.