Ataru (2012) Episodes 3 and 4

September 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Ataru-p2

The third episode of Ataru (2012) sees us moving slightly closer to a better understanding of who the hero of this show might be. The dogged Japanese police have finally tracked down the source of the signals that keep mentioning their “missing man”. Yes, it’s the American Embassy and, in turn, their spies are now monitoring the activities of this particular police unit. The episode’s mystery to be solved is a man who has apparently fallen into the sea while night fishing, i.e. it looks like an accident. But, when he sees photographs of the injuries, Ataru (Masahiro Nakai) is quick to point out that the blow to the head is not consistent with the break in the leg. If he fell head-first, that would explain the head wound. If he fell feet-first, that would explain why his leg was broken. This leads us into a socially interesting family saga in which it appears the victim was less than faithful to his wife. He died while he was supposedly on a four-day working trip, but the assistant manager of the family business confirms the real purpose was to meet up with his mistress. Ataru is on hand to give them the clue to the only shop in Japan using a particular set of stones to decorate nails. From this, a possible candidate for the mistress emerges, but she has an alibi for the night the man was supposed to have died. We then come to one of these genuine “huh?” moments. Ataru suggests the deceased had involuntarily consumed the kind of minute sea creatures that scavenge no matter where they find themselves. Having swallowed them on hitting the water, they would have begun to consume the stomach contents. This would potentially have thrown out the estimate of the time of death. Using this information, the police team is able to pull in the two people most likely to have been involved and, after interrogation, one of them cracks and admits the murder. The precise sequence of events proves to be culturally fascinating and not at all what we Westerners might have expected. Anyway, at the end, the Americans are on the trail of Ataru and are ready to pull in their man when the opportunity arises.

Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura), Ataru (Masahiro Nakai), and Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama)

Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura), Ataru (Masahiro Nakai), and Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama)

The fourth episode has us on a small airfield. It’s self-regulating, i.e. it has no control tower and the pilots are supposed to file the necessary paperwork centrally and communicate with each other in real time to avoid accidents. On this occasion, a small plane has gone off the end of the runway while supposedly attempting a take-off. There are signs the pilot struck his head at different points around the cockpit, the combination of blows causing death. As we’ve now come to expect, the senior police officers are quick to write this off as an accident, but circumstances conspire against this view, i.e. it may be a suicide. Meanwhile Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama) and Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura) have finally decided to place Ataru in a hospital. The Americans are following them as they go to the hospital and wait outside. In due course, Ataru emerges and, when his minder approaches him, he willingly gets into the big black SUV. However, on the way back to the embassy and later inside, Ataru shows signs of independence. Much to his minder’s surprise, it seems their man is becoming self-motivating when it comes to the investigation of crime. They decide to observe and call for copies of all the police files where he might have offered assistance. The plane crash does turn out to have been rather more complicated than it first appeared, and there’s a love interest involved as well. Yet again I’m undecided whether the basic factual sequence of events is actually plausible. It does require a lot to happen without there being any obvious mark on the plane that crashed. I suppose, with a heavy sigh, I accept it because the final coup de grace was definitely a homicide no matter how the parties eventually arrived in that situation. So this leaves me with something of a dilemma. The individual mysteries to be solved are not very well designed to fit into the police procedural mould. They really only make sense when you look back with the clues supplied by Ataru, i.e. the episodes are written to fit the clues. But the backstory of Ataru’s identity and what precisely the Americans are doing is proving quite interesting. The general response of the Japanese characters to Ataru is also culturally fascinating.So that means I’ll keep watching it to discover how the plot all fits together.

For reviews of the other episodes, see:
Ataru (2012) Episodes 1 and 2

The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2014 edited by Paula Guran

September 11, 2014 Leave a comment

Computer designed grunge border and aged textured background

The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2014 edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2014) begins auspiciously with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem, which is a magnificent piece of atmosphere writing, filled with menace. All that happens is that a mother and her son stand by a field of wheat, but it’s an unforgettable experience. “Blue Amber” by David J. Schow takes us to a place where the bridgehead has been established and answers the question of how best to spread the infection. It’s a raw adrenaline fight and flight. “The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed drops the pace slightly with a group of girl scouts that goes AWOL on a forested mountainside. Later a bus tour brings some rich men hoping they’ll be able to find some of those girls to rescue. The result is probably not what either side would have wanted. “The Good Husband” by Nathan Ballingrud flirts rather admirably with the distinction between a zombie and a vampire as a husband comes upon his wife as she’s committing suicide (again). This time, however, he decides not to save her. Except sometimes, wives don’t take being ignored lying down. “The Soul in the Bell Jar” by K. J. Kabza has a great-niece coming to visit her uncle in the Gothic splendour of the family manse while her parents go away on holiday. Here she’s not to touch anything and to avoid the vivifieds. The house cats and horses nay be safe to interact with. The result is a singularly over-the-top romp through the rotting pile, discovering secrets as she goes. “The Creature Recants” by Dale Bailey is the delightfully unexpected backstory to the shooting of the original film version of Creature from the Black Lagoon. It has a pleasing sense of humour, tinged with sadness.

Nights grow long in the Alaskan tooth in “Termination Dust” by Laird Barron. Here we’re playing in the Ripper sandbox as different versions of what might have been play out across the years. As always with this author, an intriguing game is being played. “Postcards from Abroad” by Peter Atkins succeeds because it’s completely naturalistic. The young man with a heart of gold from Liverpool puts down supernatural nasties when they get to be a nuisance. The dry wit is a delight. “Phosphorous” by Veronica Schanoes is historical horror detailing the appalling conditions in which the matchmakers worked in Victorian London. When the phosphorous got into their bones, death followed quite quickly. “A Lunar Labyrinth” by Neil Gaiman is a pleasing story that creeps up on you, as if you were walking through a maze and suddenly felt you might not be entirely alone. “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlín R. Kiernan is an intriguing piece of metafiction with literary overtones as our movie critic sits through a classic piece of horror and thinks about the review she will write.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson is a terrific piece of classic fantasy showing the need to follow simple rules to the letter when it comes to dealing with shades. It’s a short masterclass in how to write dark fantasy. “The Plague” by Ken Liu is short science fiction at its best as the nanobots prove they know what’s best for survival. “The Gruesome Affair of the Electric Blue Lightning” by Joe R. Lansdale answers the simple question of what August Dupin would make of the Necronomicon should he be able to lay hands upon it and, more importantly, read from it. Watch out Old Ones, the Great Detective is barring the way! “Let My Smile Be Your Umbrella” by Brian Hodge has our first-person narrator track down a girl whose celebrity depends on a slow-motion suicide attempt. By coincidence, when he arrives and first sees her, he discovers there’s so much more to learn about her. Perhaps he’ll be endlessly fascinated. “Air, Water and the Grove” by Kaaron Warren is a very elegant science fiction story of the metamorphosis that occurs when the rocket bringing back samples from Saturn is destroyed in our atmosphere. It may all look beautiful, but living that life is a one-way trip to the grove.

“A Little of the Night” by Tanith Lee considers whether a vacuum of nothingness is comparable to a vampire, sucking the positives of life into the nothingness beyond. If such is not too poetical a fancy, how would you fight such a phenomenon? The answer here is rather beautifully explored in true mythic style. “A Collapse of Horses” by Brian Evenson is a Schrödinger’s cat story. Following an accident in which his head was injured, our hero has difficulty in distinguishing what’s real, e.g. are the fallen horses dead? This shows how you should deal with this uncertainty. “Pride” by Glen Hirshberg is an interesting story about collectors and what drives them to put the collection together. It also deals with the complex situation in which a collector loses an item from the collection. “Our Lady of Ruins” by Sarah Singleton wonders what happens when some people disappear for years after they wander into the woods. This is an intriguing take on the fey trope and asks whether love can transcend separation if memory returns. “The Marginals” by Steve Duffy finds a different way of exploring the nature of existence. Some people seem to leave our conventional society and are only visible when they stay too long in one place or are drawn to a particular place. Perhaps they are dead. “Dark Gardens” by Greg Kurzawa is a remarkably effective piece. The image of the hatch as an opening into our word and what lies beneath is managed magnificently. “Rag and Bone” by Priya Sharma is another piece of history but, this time, we’re in an alternate reality and the poor are bought by the rich for their organs. It’s always been a tough life in Liverpool. “The Slipway Gray” by Helen Marshall reflects the fact death can come in many form and, sometimes, if it’s your lucky day, it passes you by. “To Die for Moonlight” by Sarah Monette is a nicely judged story of two families, both cursed, who speculate that if they intermarry, the curses may cancel each other out. Obviously our hero knows what his curse is but what exactly troubles the young lady?

“Cuckoo” by Angela Slatter sees a body-hopping, vengeance-seeking creature find a victim and seek out the man who had killed her. Now there’s just one thing she wants or needs from him before she kills him. “Fishwife” by Carrie Vaughn draws its strength from the inexorable predicability of the outcome. People who are so desperate always pay the price. “The Dream Detective” by Lisa Tuttle is outstandingly intelligent as a man meets the detective both in the real world and in his dreams. At first, there seems to be no problem, but that’s before the dreams take a darker turn. “Event Horizon” by Sunny Moraine is such a simple idea but it’s presented with significant verve such that, just as in science fiction stories when the space ship is on the cusp of a black hole, the ship and its passengers are never able to pull free. “Moonstruck” by Karin Tidbeck indicates a collision between the metaphorical and the literal as a young girl becomes convinced the moon’s strange behaviour is somehow linked to her first period. “The Ghost Makers” by Elizabeth Bear is a classical fantasy of wizards and high magic as two “warriors” fight to prevent the sorcerer from adding to his collection of souls. It’s beautifully written with a poetic cast and an unflinching eye. “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee continues in high fantasy mode with a spy recovering a lexicon from a magician only to find the words may presage an invasion. The semiotic question, of course, is what happens to the language of magic over time and, if it does change or evolve, how would you keep track of it. The answer here is delightfully elegant. All you have to do is understand the true nature of the word “defeat”.

When looking back at this anthology, one fact stands out. Darkness can be found in any situation whether it be historical fact, fantastical or science fictional. So although the title suggests a limitation to fantasy and/or horror, we actually get a demonstration of the diverse range of situations in which the world of the rational slips away, leaving only fear and menace behind. I’m indebted to Paul Guran as editor in producing such a fine assembly of stories. Many deserve to be shortlisted for awards as recognition for their quality. Of course, I might cavil at one or two of the choices where the plot doesn’t quite cohere or the execution is overlong, but such differences in opinion are inevitable in an anthology this long. This does not prevent me from recommending this anthology as superb value for money for anyone who enjoys the darker side of fiction.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Ataru (2012) Episodes 1 and 2

September 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Ataru-p2

Ataru (2012) is a rather surprising series from Japan. The titular Ataru (Masahiro Nakai) is disabled so, to that extent, the producers are breaking the mould by having someone with obvious problems in a leading role. That said, the way in which people respond to this young man’s behaviour is very disappointing. So let’s start off with the formula employed. Detective or mystery series frequently feature someone who has high-level abilities and some challenging social features. So, for example, Galileo acts as an external advisor to the Tokyo Police Department while continuing employment as a professor of physics. He’s socially gauche, disconcerted by children, and behaves with some degree of eccentricity in other social contexts. So these are characters which balance some degree of ability with disability.

Ataru (Masahiro Nakai)

Ataru (Masahiro Nakai)

Ataru has savant syndrome, i.e. is mentally disabled, usually with some degree of autism, but has exceptional skills in one limited area of human activity. Some savants have advanced calculating or musical skills. Ataru is shown as having a heightened level of sensitivity to external stimuli, picking up words, spoken and written, and seeing the world as oddly coloured images with amazing attention to detail. This has apparently enabled him to absorb vast amounts of information on what seem to be entirely random subjects. So, for example, he can survey a number of screws on the floor and tell that one of them is manufactured in Taiwan while the rest are Japanese. He can also tell by observation that an aluminium tube has a nonstandard composition. Coming new to this series, we’re expected to find such ability plausible. There’s just one problem. He can’t speak to people. In part this is his autism, but it’s also a feature of the fact he speaks many words in English, presumably because he’s spent a long time abroad. This makes the series somewhat unique in having the feature character unable to speak the kind of dialogue expected of mystery detectives.

We’re also led to infer this young man is an important asset for a “foreign” agency (probably American) yet he’s left unsupervised at Tokyo airport and wanders off. The agency then spends the rest of the series trying to find him without admitting to the local authorities that he’s lost. Frankly, if he’s that important, he would be under constant supervision. To his handlers, he’s a known quantity and should be treated as needing full-time management. It’s also baffling he should have so much money with him (as US dollars). Although he understands enough of the world to buy food and has some understanding of scales of monetary value, there’s no explanation of why he should have a wallet stuffed full of money, but nothing else by which to identify him. You should think if he was prone to walking off, he would have an RFID tag taped to his ankle or at least have a card in his pocket with a telephone number saying, “This man needs help. Call this number.”

Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama)

Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama)

So Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama) is the lone woman in the local police department. As we have come to expect, she’s an example of patriarchal tokenism. She featured in adverts and some video presentations about life as a police officer and has become a pin-up girl. But she’s not taken seriously when she tries to investigate real crime. It’s left to Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura) to act as a buffer between her and the rest of the department. From a very brief observation of the scene of an explosion in a factory, Maiko Ebina wants to treat the death of one worker as suspicious whereas all the senior detectives write it off as an accident. When she returns to the scene, she meets Ataru who gives her a number of totally obscure clues which she then wrestles with. In due course, the solution to these clues convince Shunichi Sawa there’s a real crime to investigate. In due course, they track down a critical link in the chain and, incredibly, we’re then told who was responsible. We have never met this person. We have no idea why the murder was arranged. Before you can even begin to think about it. the episode has ended. I’ve never seen anything quite like this before. The focus is on the eccentric clues and not on solving the case by formal police work. The production also keeps breaking off for what the producers hope is humour. I’m not saying one or two of the jokes are not amusing, but a sad number of them are actually making fun of the disabled man, e.g. in his lack of self-awareness when it comes to wearing clothes in public.

Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura)

Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura)

Now here comes the second crunch. In her first interactions with Ataru, he hits and then bites Maiko Ebina (actually, as a character, she’s quite annoying and deserves to be hit). Yet despite not apparently recognising this man is disabled, she accepts this abuse and instead of calling in medical support to diagnose and offer the right type of treatment, she gives him a place to live. If you visit Japan, it’s rare for you ever to see anyone disabled. The vast majority of the abled never meet anyone disabled. Indeed, in this series, Ataru is left at the police station and, within a short period, the staff say he’s out of control and want him removed. Why? Because he makes a fuss when his hotdog does not have any lettuce in it. In Japan, no one ever has lettuce in their hotdogs and, if they do, they keep quiet about it when at work. It’s not an exaggeration to say prejudice against the disabled is institutionalised. It’s only when Maiko Ebina’s brother, Sho Ebina (Yuta Tamamori — a member of a boy band) who’s a medical student meets Ataru that we have an informal diagnosis.

The second episode is equally odd. The trio happen to be in a flower shop when a man drops down dead. His dying words are, “Blue roses.” Ataru is fixated by some spit which the dying man had dropped. Our savant diagnoses this as gastric reflux disorder but, in a quick screen for poisons, the forensic department fails to find anything suspicious. His wife confirms the deceased had heart disease. The doctor treating him was giving him drugs for arrhythmia. But Ataru offers two hints by a roundabout route. The first is a change in the way the deceased knotted his tie. The second relates to eyeballs. An hour later, we have an admission of murder which, in a way, was not actually necessary. Sorry, that’s ambiguous. The man might have deserved to die two or more years ago, but not because of his recent behaviour. At least the plot followed a more conventional police procedural track with the officers solving the case. The only other issue of interest is that there may be a question surrounding the way in which Maiko Ebina’s mother died some fifteen years ago.

For reviews of other episodes, see:
Ataru (2012) Episodes 3 and 4

The Locked Room Murders or Kagi no Kakatta Heya or 鍵のかかった部屋 (2012) Episodes 8 to end

September 7, 2014 Leave a comment

Kagi_no_Kakatta_Heya-p1

The eighth episode in The Locked Room Murders or Kagi no Kakatta Heya or 鍵のかかった部屋 (2012) has Gou Serizawa (Koichi Sato), our enthusiastic lawyer, trapped into investigating the case of an accidental death with a manga artist/author dead in her own studio — he appears on a television chat show and is ambushed. He further piles misery on himself by announcing this is a murder before the expert is anywhere near the solution. All the doors and windows were locked, but this is not a locked room mystery because of the locks. In fact, several people had duplicate keys and could have entered. Except the owner of the house, having seen neighbours victimised by burglars, got a big dog that barks when anyone it does not know tries to come on to the land around the house. So the dog did not bark at any time during which the forensic analysis says the death occurred, i.e. apparently no-one entered or left the house. Except that would not explain the beer. . . It’s so refreshing when the first real clue is beer. Anyway, it’s obvious whoever did it not only had a key but threw drugged food to the dog over the hedge. With the dog incapacitated, the person with the key can now come and go without any of the neighbours hearing the barking. Except there’s then a break in at the house and not only is the dog silent but it’s also completely unharmed. So why would anyone come back into the house? And why were none of the collectible watches stolen and, hey, why has one of those watches stopped working? There’s also the fascinating way in which Japanese local authorities discourage young people from congregating in the civic parks after dark to consider.

Gou Serizawa (Koichi Sato)

Gou Serizawa (Koichi Sato)

The ninth episode has our lawyers called in to advise a firm on an international deal only to find this is probably a front for the yakuza. It seems one of the senior executives was found dead in his office, so the president of the company calls in Kei Enomoto (Satoshi Ono) to improve the security system. He installs multiple locks on the only door and a new camera system but, almost immediately, another employee is found shot inside this room. Obviously this looks bad for a firm doing its best to appear legitimate, so the team is “encouraged” to take on the case to establish how the deaths occurred. For once, I actually got a part of the answer right, but the bigger picture is very nicely rounded out with touches that never occurred to me. Indeed, the one place where the evidence can be found is pleasingly just out of sight all the time. Gou Serizawa does his best not to be intimidated despite the fairly obvious gangster backgrounds of some of the employees. But Enimoto is strangely unmoved, even when threatened.

Junko Aoto (Erika Toda)

Junko Aoto (Erika Toda)

The final two episodes run together to provide the big finale. This has a man killed inside his office on the twelfth floor of the block. There’s bulletproof glass in the windows, there are locks on the doors up from the main staircase and from the roof, there are cameras on the corridor showing all the office doors, and there’s a keypad lock on the elevator to ensure no unwelcome visitors stop at this floor. This is a company about to seek a listing on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. It specializes in medical devices to help nurse the elderly. Their two major projects involve the use of a robot to lift and carry patients around, and training monkeys to fetch and carry things for the patients. Shortly before the launch, there’s an attack on the president’s office. A bullet is found embedded in his door and there’s a break in the glass with glass fragments on the floor inside (the glass was not as bulletproof as people thought). It’s concluded that someone believed they could assassinate the president and Kei Enomoto is called in to beef up security. But before he can put the plan in motion, the president is found dead in his room. It seems he was stuck on the very top of his head where he had a skull abnormality. Although it was only a light blow, it nevertheless caused a haemorrhage and he died. When the internal office layout is investigated, only one man could have entered the president’s office to deliver the fatal blow. There’s a connecting door with the vice president who claims to have been asleep. The police duly arrest him. However, the police then receive an anonymous tip that there had been bad blood between Kei Enomoto and the president five years earlier and, with his known ability to beat security systems, he could have killed the president out of revenge.

Kei Enomoto (Satoshi Ono)

Kei Enomoto (Satoshi Ono)

This proves to be a very satisfying final case for this team to solve. With Kei Enomoto out of the picture, it falls to the lawyers to do some spade work. Junko Aoto (Erika Toda) slowly puts together a profile on one of the suspects, showing he has changed his identity. And then, when Kei Enomoto is released through lack of evidence (and an ambiguous confession from the vice president), Gou Serizawa has his first major idea about what actually happened. This involves the use of the medical robot which was standing in the president’s office. Unfortunately, when put to the test, the robot’s internal programming refuses to perform the predicted movements. However, this does trigger an answer from Kei Enomoto who is able to demonstrate one of the ways in which the robot could have been used. The full explanation does come at the end but, given what we’ve seen in the first nine cases, this is rather unusual. It also leads to an ending which, again, is not quite what might have been predicted. Nevertheless, it does bring this highly entertaining series to a bitter sweet conclusion. For anyone even vaguely interested in locked-room mysteries, this should be mandatory viewing. Here are ten very different types of case with very ingenious mechanisms in play.

For a review of other episodes, see:
The Locked Room Murders or Kagi no Kakatta Heya or 鍵のかかった部屋 (2012) Episodes 1 and 2
The Locked Room Murders or Kagi no Kakatta Heya or 鍵のかかった部屋 (2012) Episodes 3 and 4
The Locked Room Murders or Kagi no Kakatta Heya or 鍵のかかった部屋 (2012) Episodes 5 to 7.

War Stories edited by Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak

September 6, 2014 4 comments

war stories

War Stories edited by Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak (Apex Publications, 2014) begins with a thoughtful introduction by the editors and then reprints “Graves” by Joe Haldeman which is as good a war story as you could hope to find (it did win the 1994 Nebula Award). It’s always pleasing when the editors say something interesting. It’s also incredibly daring of them to put “Graves” out front as a yardstick against which measure the success of all the new stories.

The book is divided into four parts, each with its own illustration to start. This is a pleasing design choice. I like to see an artist’s take on the content. Part 1 is titled Wartime Systems and it explores the various practical and ethical problems when creating different ways of engaging in combat. One trend is clear. Telefighting is the preferred option. Warriors are too valuable to waste in direct combat. It will be much better if they are sequestered away somewhere safe. If a human must go, he or she must be cocooned in metal the better to escape the bullets and explosions coming their way. “In The Loop” by Ken Liu is an ideas story that comes over a little cold because of the need for a significant amount of exposition to get started. It holds the interest but the emotional impact is not as sharp as it could have been. “Ghost Girl” by Rich Larson is a rather beautiful story which again deals with the relationship between a human and a machine. This time, we have the aftermath of a war in which operators could sometimes become close to their drones. “The Radio” by Susan Jane Bigelow continues the theme of a human and machine, this time with a reanimated body at the heart of a cyborg. It comes slowly but there can sometimes be hope when the extremists on all sides leave the field of action. “Contractual Obligation” by James L. Cambias reaches a nicely ironic conclusion as the link between automated units and the human commander is reconfigured in the light of exigent circumstances. “The Wasp Keepers” by Mark Jacobsen is slightly polemical, but it does convey the age-old truth that you can fight a war and never achieve a victory. “Non-Standard Deviation” by Richard Dansky gets the balance exactly right as we enter a simulation intended to teach soldiers how to fight only to discover that the AI doesn’t do war no more. The result is a delight.

Part 2 is titled Combat, but instead of this referring to major battles, we’re either dealing with local engagements or the role of individuals in situations where they have to fight. “All You Need” by Mike Sizemore is an elegantly told story of a girl assassin and her intelligent gun as they pursue targets and aim to survive in a threatening environment. “The Valkyrie” by Maurice Broaddus finds the Church Militant out to exterminate the atheists and heretics. There’s just one problem. Inflicting so much injury and death take a toll on the mind of long-surviving soldiers. Sometimes, they crack. “One Million Lira” by Thoraiya Dyer is a fascinating future history of a world without fossil fuels in which the rich literally take to the air and leave poverty behind them on the ground. Except, of courser, technology is not infallible and accidents happen. When a sky city crashes, the poor come to scavenge. This story wonders who will fight over the remains and why. Then “Invincible” by Jay Posey invites us to consider the difference between invincibility and invulnerability. A crew of highly-experienced soldiers kills a group of “pirates” who have taken a ship. Some people die. Others survive but not necessarily in exactly the same form. It’s quite good but feels as thought it’s a part of a longer piece. “Light and Shadow” by Linda Nagata pursues the discussion about a human’s machine interface with combat armor and the extent to which this might affect the mind. Humans, as the title suggests, have minds filled with light and shadow. What happens if something disrupts this delicate balance?

Part 3 is titled Armored Force and begins with “Warhosts” by Yoon Ha Lee. This sees us in a distant future where war has been ritualised into a series of trials by combat. Whichever group of champions prevails wins the designated territory. It’s all a matter of scale. Dragons may be unstoppable, six-legged antagonists and the two-legged dream of their defeat. The question, as always, is whether the dreams of the human inserts will affect the armour that carries them into war. “Suits” by James Sutter has both exoskeleton fighting machines and cloned technicians to keep them in repair. As for all soldiers and those who support them, the question is always whether the cause is just. If it is not, what are the options for conscientious objection? “Mission. Suit. Self.” by Jake Kerr asks what heroism is when the human is enclosed in a suit that effectively makes him or her invulnerable. For some, the answer would be the ability to overcome fear, but the real question to be answered is whether the mission itself is worth dying for. “In Loco” by Carlos Orsi wonders about the man inside the armour. Does he still have the cojones to go mano-a-mano when he has a chance for freedom?

Part 4 is titled Aftermath with “War Dog” by Mike Barretta an outstanding story which strikes the perfect balance between emotion and the hard world in which vets find themselves when the fighting is done. The threat left for the civilian population to deal with is genuinely innovative. “Coming Home” by Janine Spendlove is a PTSD story which shows a decommissioned captain trying to adjust to life after serving with the marines, while explaining the operational background of her flying the wounded out of the battlefield when the threats were hot. “Where We Would End a War” by F. Brett Cox takes a different view of PTS (it’s bad PR to describe it as a disorder) and wonders what returning vets might do for kicks if they found the world too boring. “Black Butterfly” by T.C McCarthy demonstrates a completely coldblooded way of fighting an alien race. There’s just one problem. It takes rather a long time to work. “Always the Stars and the Void Between” by Nerine Dorman is a touching story of a soldier’s return. She thinks she will resign and return home but, as seventeen years have passed, things may not be quite as she remembered them. “Enemy States” by Karin Lowachee is a desperately intelligent and yet sad story of the man left behind when the man goes to war. Because their experiences are not the same, they change as people. Perhaps love can transcend minor differences. Perhaps not. “War 3.01” by Keith Brooke is a completely delightful way to end the war to end all wars just so long as you believe what you read on the internet. Put all this together and you have a superior anthology with one or two genuinely outstanding stories. That said, none of the modern stories are as good as “Graves” which captures a moment of horror on the battlefield in a way that has only rarely been equalled. This is not to take anything away from the modern stories, but simply to reflect on the editors’ decision to include a yardstick against which to measure how far we’ve progressed in the fiction writing stakes over the last twenty years.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Locked Room Murders or Kagi no Kakatta Heya or 鍵のかかった部屋 (2012) Episodes 5 to 7

September 5, 2014 2 comments

Kagi_no_Kakatta_Heya-p1

The fifth episode restores my faith in The Locked Room Murders or Kagi no Kakatta Heya or 鍵のかかった部屋 (2012) with another completely unique situation. Once again, I’m caught by the creative brilliance of this set-up. If you go back through the annals of locked-room mysteries, there are locked doors and windows, often with bars on the windows or a sheer drop no-one could climb. This time the door had no lock but it could not be opened. Yes, that’s right! There had been an earthquake and, because of the shoddy building work, the house had suffered serious physical damage, subsiding on its foundations so that the openings for the doors and windows were no longer in true. So most of the doors were caught in place by the movement of the walls. Windows were locked, but also very difficult to open because the frames were bent. One of the two doors into this particular room had been forced open. The only way in which it could be closed again would be by someone with a soft mallet knocking the door into the frame from the inside, focusing effort on the top corner of the door. Obviously there’s a man dead inside. He apparently fell and hit his head. But, of course, there’s no mallet or any other heavy tool that could have forced the door closed without seriously damaging it. The only oddities about the room are two vents, one at about head height and the other just above floor level. Someone could have put their hand and a part of their arm through into the room, but neither vent is anywhere near the door. There is a suspect but he has an alibi. As a teacher in the local school, he was coaching the baseball team for four hours. I managed to guess the basic principle involved, but the detail of the execution is one of these delightful reveals to produce a really pleasing outcome. For once, it doesn’t matter whether it might have been practicable in the time available and I don’t care that the design of the room and the effect of the earthquake have produced exactly the right conditions. It just feels good.

Kei Enomoto (Satoshi Ono)

Kei Enomoto (Satoshi Ono)

The sixth episode is a locked-room situation rather than one physical location. Events all take place in a theatre. While the live show is on, a man is killed in a room under the stage. Most of the cast is on stage all the time. Hence, only a very limited number of people could have committed this crime. The problem is that the only escape routes from this room either require the killer to leave the theatre and re-enter through the front doors which would have been rather visible, or to physically cross the stage (something which you would expect members of the audience to notice). This is another of these plots where the solution of the mystery only comes when the motive for the killing is understood. Once it’s possible to say who might have done it, we can then move on to decide how it might have been done. This is another answer that works completely from one point of view, but you have to wonder about those with a different point of view. However, if you put doubt to one side, this is another very satisfying answer to a fundamentally interesting question. The demonstration of the practicality and psychology involved is fascinating.

Junko Aoto (Erika Toda)

Junko Aoto (Erika Toda)

The seventh episode has us in a one-hundred-year old farm house out in the countryside. The ground around the house is very muddy and the front door is only approached over stepping stones to keep shoes dry. On the day in question, we have a woman working in her orchard, pruning apple trees during the critical period of time. She had a clear view of the front of the building at all times. Although a side window was open, anyone stepping out on to the mud would have left clear footprints and there were no marks. There was nothing inside the house that could have been used to enable someone to cross over the mud and so escape on the grass beyond. And then there are the supernatural phenomena that seem to have spectral apparitions and lights in the sky just to add a little spice. The answer to this is nicely obscure until we are asked to consider just how many crimes have been committed. It’s not just the death of the girl. There’s also the theft of a substantial amount of gold bullion and who knows what else.

The characters are developing nicely. Although Gou Serizawa (Koichi Sato) is somewhat shallow and has poor social skills when it comes to relating to the general public, he is a good lawyer. So when there’s a need for a useful overview or the right consequences have to flow when Kei Enomoto (Satoshi Ono) unlocks the room, he usually gets the necessary done. However, he’s also puffing up with the vicarious success of the team. Instead of modestly allowing credit where credit is due, he keeps inflating his own role and so attracting more cases for him to solve. Junko Aoto (Erika Toda) began as a meek and submissive assistant, but she’s beginning to show signs of greater independence. When the need arises, she’s willing to walk around the neighbourhoods to interview potential witnesses and she’s also prepared to speculate with Kei Enomoto as to how the crimes might have been committed. Indeed, there’s even a hint she might be forming some emotional feelings for the young man. At present, they are just team-members, but as time passes, who knows what might happen. As to the man himself, Kei Enomoto remains as enigmatic as when we first met him. He’s clearly obsessive when it comes to physical locks and finds the challenge of solving crimes to be irresistible. He’s very watchable.

For a review of other episodes, see:
The Locked Room Murders or Kagi no Kakatta Heya or 鍵のかかった部屋 (2012) Episodes 1 and 2
The Locked Room Murders or Kagi no Kakatta Heya or 鍵のかかった部屋 (2012) Episodes 3 and 4
The Locked Room Murders or Kagi no Kakatta Heya or 鍵のかかった部屋 (2012) Episodes 8 to end.

The Locked Room Murders or Kagi no Kakatta Heya or 鍵のかかった部屋 (2012) Episodes 3 and 4

September 4, 2014 1 comment

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The third episode of The Locked Room Murders or Kagi no Kakatta Heya or 鍵のかかった部屋 (2012) sees a body found with a single stab wound to the back in a hotel bedroom which had a chain put in place from the inside. This makes a change because, from the outset, this is treated as a murder investigation. For all practical purposes, it’s impossible for the chain to be lifted into place from outside. Yet, if the killer was inside to put the chain in place, how did he or she get out? We are into the land of the elite Shogi players. As our entry into the story, Gou Serizawa (Koichi Sato) is general counsel to the National Association and fielded a call from the deceased, one of the senior professionals, just before he was found stabbed to death in his hotel room. The police begin harassing our lawyer who refuses to reveal anything of what was said. Because he finds this embarrassing, he sends Junko Aoto (Erika Toda) and Kei Enomoto (Satoshi Ono) to investigate. The most obvious possibility is that someone knocked on this man’s door and then persuaded him to turn around so he could be stabbed in the back. But if there was such a level of distrust that the man would not unchain the door, why would be casually turn his back on the attacker? So here we have a locked room and Kei Enomoto decides the only way in which he can unlock it is to understand the motive. This breaks his usual pattern which has ignored the people involved and focused on the facts.

Gou Serizawa (Koichi Sato)

Gou Serizawa (Koichi Sato)

This takes us inside the world of the professional Shogi players. The qualification event that’s currently causing waves offers the possibility a woman might finally reach the highest level. She has one more match to play and if she wins, she will make history. By a curious coincidence, the other man who has qualified for this final match should have played the deceased in a previous round. The form book says he would have lost, but there’s doubt as to whether this would give him a motive for murder. The female player also had a sexual relationship with the deceased, but immediately before and after the time of death, she was apparently calling the deceased from her home on the telephone landline (old technology). Although the theme for the motive is fairly obvious, there’s just enough in the rest of the story to keep this fresh and these represents another winning locked room.

Kei Enomoto (Satoshi Ono)

Kei Enomoto (Satoshi Ono)

The fourth episode, however, sees a slight misstep. Gou Serizawa’s beginning to gain some fame because he’s been taking the credit for solving these locked room puzzles. Normally, nothing would have persuaded him to accept this obviously fairly poor and rather obsessive man as a client but, with a photographer looking on, he’s trapped into accepting him.The man wants the lawyer to gain entry to an apartment that has been set up to keep an expensive collection of spiders. The man asserts a claim over two of the spiders but, with the collector dead, neither the mother nor the widow are prepared to allow him into the room. As the story is revealed, it seems the collector was found dead a few days ago. There was a security lock on the outside door and every single window, vent and drain through which a spider might otherwise have escaped, was covered by a mesh or taped up. It seems the collector was bitten by one of the spiders and died. But this is problematic because if he had known he was bitten, why did he not call for help? He was carrying a cellphone and there was a landline in the room. So, on the face of it, this is a very intriguing mystery, but the answer turns out to be one that might conceivably have worked if it had been in written form. We tend to find more things plausible when we see them in our mind’s eye. But as seen on the television screen, this strikes me as seriously implausible. This is unfortunate because, if you accept the basic premise, the various factors do all fit together perfectly.

For a review of other episodes, see:
The Locked Room Murders or Kagi no Kakatta Heya or 鍵のかかった部屋 (2012) Episodes 1 and 2
The Locked Room Murders or Kagi no Kakatta Heya or 鍵のかかった部屋 (2012) Episodes 5 to 7
The Locked Room Murders or Kagi no Kakatta Heya or 鍵のかかった部屋 (2012) Episodes 8 to end.

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