Kindaichi Case Files: Computer Cottage Murder Case / 金田一少年の事件簿・電脳山荘殺人事件
Whoooooo, Kindaichi! Kindaichi Case Files is probably my favorite mystery series ever, so whenever I read a Kindaichi story, I always treat it as a treat.
The Computer Cottage Murder Case (the Japanese title doesn't translate into English very well), written by Amagi Seimaru, is the third book in the Kindaichi magazine novel series. The setting is fantastic, and the main trick is quite clever. Seimaru also takes advantage of the unique scenario to play some tricks on the reader. The main problem is that the cluing and then actual proof used by Kindaichi is a bit wishy-washy, but it's still a good book.
Also, the killer's name is Takuma. (And now that you're spoiled, might as well read the whole review, right?)
First off, don't worry: you're not actually spoiled. Well, the killer's name really is Takuma. But you find that out in the first chapter of the book. You see, the story involves Kindaichi and Miyuki (his best friend and sidekick) accidentally stumbling upon a mountain cottage where a group of seven friends from an online chatroom are meeting. These seven friends know each other only by their usernames, and refuse to reveal their real name. So while we know the killer is named "Takuma," we don't know which character Takuma is! Naturally, they all get trapped at the cottage by a blizzard, and then the dead bodies start popping up.
A group of people trapped in a mountain lodge by a blizzard is a classic murder mystery scenario (perhaps the classic murder mystery scenario), but the context of an in-person meeting of an online group provides a modern spin that Seimaru takes full advantage of. Each of the suspects has exaggerated the truth of their life (to put it kindly), and each continues to act in accordance with their online persona at the meeting. Thus, everything about each of the suspects is a fiction, from their name to their background to their personality to their appearance. In this way, the theme of the story and killings is that the ski lodge has become an extension of their virtual world, and the murderer is "The Trojan Horse" (as in the malware). A small complaint is that the characters seemed to catch onto this conception of the crimes unnaturally quickly, but it didn't affect the plot so it's not a major issue.
The book was originally written in 1996, so they have to provide several explanations about what things like "the internet" and "usernames" are, but it still generally holds up. The stories and themes of groups of people becoming friends online and people finding escape through the internet are presented as strange even though they seem like normal occurrences now, but honestly I think it's impressive how prescient this novel was. While the finer details are obviously outdated, the themes still ring true.
Although I couldn't find any direct references, the setting felt like a homage to two other famous Japanese murder stories: The Decagon House Murders and Banshee's Last Cry. We have the isolated ski lodge from Banshee's Last Cry, as well as comparisons of the situation to a video game. Meanwhile, just as in The Decagon House Murders, we have a group of mystery-lovers who call each other mystery-related codenames. (Until Kindaichi complicated things with his arrival, the killer's plan was also quite similar to the killer's plan in The Decagon House Murders.) Of course, Kindaichi forges its own path in the development of the plot and the solution.
The characters were fine, and presented a good mix of suspects. As I already explained, what was presented of each character was just a front, and the glimpses into the characters' true lives and motivations for delving into the internet gave them a layer of complexity that detective fiction characters don't usually receive.
Overall, the tricks were good, but the clues were lacking. The main trick cleverly took advantage of the situation to elegantly create a false alibi. Additionally, the group hears the last words of one of the victims, and the meaning and explanation behind them brilliant ties into the main trick. The author also plays a bit of a trick on the reader, but it's difficult to discuss further without potentially ruining it.
Before I get into my complaints, I want to preface them by explicitly stating that despite the number of words I am going to devote to them, they're minor compared to the merits of the book. Now, onto the nitpicking.
First, the characters don't consider the possibility of two people working together. For the first murder, Kindaichi and Miyuki give each other an alibi, two of the suspects give each other an alibi, and the alibi for the rest of the characters is that they were chatting online together. The characters never once even consider the possibility that the two suspects that gave each other an alibi were working together an alibi. They could even suspect Kindaichi and Miyuki for the same reason. Although they supposedly stumbled upon the lodge by accident, one of the forum members doesn't show up, so the suspects could have thought that Kindaichi or Miyuki was secretly the seventh forum member, and brought their friend along to help murder everyone. I can understand that Seimaru didn't want to waste space on a wrong solution that the reader knows is wrong, but when the characters are supposed to be mystery addicts, it felt strange for them to not even consider such an obvious possibility.
Next, I felt the murderer's plan hinged a bit too much on correctly predicting everyone's movements. The murderer's plan relied on everyone moving in a reasonable way (that is, it didn't require anyone to act stupidly or crazy), and the murderer did a lot of work to subtly nudge everyone into acting the proper way. But everyone could have acted in a way that would have been reasonable and screwed over the murderer's plan. While I have no problems with a murderer basing their plan on a grand gambit (see the Magical Express case), there are several passages where "The Trojan Horse" goes over their plan, and assures themself it is perfect. I just didn't like the murderer claiming there was no room for error when there was obviously plenty of room for error.
Finally, the biggest problem, the clues used as proof are just lacking. The final piece of evidence that Kindaichi obtains that lets him piece together the truth is a chat log of the group, but Kindaichi's deductions are nonsense. Kindaichi deduces two things from the log. One of them makes absolutely no sense. The other one I can kind of understand, but it "vaguely suggests, at best" Kindaichi's conclusion, and comes nowhere close to proving it. The idea behind these clues was neat, but the execution was incredibly poor. Kindaichi also uses a certain physical piece of evidence to checkmate the killer, and while I thought it cleverly tied together two subtle details, it felt a bit weak to be decisive evidence for a murder.
However, despite the lack of good direct proof, Seimaru put a ton of effort into subtle details that hinted at the truth. While they don't point towards the truth, they are consistent with the solution and make more sense in light of their deeper meaning. I would like to make a short aside here. This is just my personal preference, but when I read a mystery, I don't want a solution. I want the solution. In other words, the solution shouldn't be just a possibility, but it should be the only answer that makes sense given all the clues. This is a pitfall I feel a lot of mediocre detective stories fall into. This usually means there should be decisive evidence showing that only the killer could have committed the crime. Merely presenting an explanation consistent with the evidence is not enough. When a mystery ends with "a" solution, rather than "the" solution, the sense of satisfaction and closure usually found at the end of a detective story is missing, because it feels like the author simply chose one of several possible answers and merely decreed it to be so, rather than working out a clever problem.
The sort of mediocre story that only has "a" solution is typically one where we're given lots of details consistent with the solution, but none that prove the solution. From this description, it might sound like the Computer Cottage Murder Case falls into this trap, but it actually manages to avoid it for a very simple reason: it's an impossible crime. The reason "a" solution is unsatisfying is because we want to know who the killer is, and we want to know it from the evidence, not the author simply telling us which character it was. If decisive evidence proves only one person could have committed the murder, we know it was them. But if we have a seemingly impossible crime, then an explanation for how it was possible for one character to commit the murder is enough to show the murderer's identity, even if there isn't proof that the murder actually happened that way, as long as there is no explanation for how any other character could have committed the murder. Although showing the murder was possible for only one person isn't quite as satisfying as directly proving the murderer's guilt, it still provides enough closure for a satisfying solution.
In short, even though the intended proof for the murder fell through, the solution is still satisfying because the solution is the only explanation for the seemingly impossible element of the crime. There are so many subtle consistent details, and the explanation for the last words of one of the victims makes so much sense, it's difficult to deny the presented solution as the correct one.
Overall, this is another solid Kindaichi mystery that takes place in a classic setting, but holds its own with an original and clever trick. I would just warn you that hard proof is lacking, so you should try to solve it as an open-ended problem with your own ingenuity rather than trying to be guided by the solution. Besides that, it's a solid book.
This book apparently was translated into English under the title "Murder On-line." It seems a bit hard to track down, so you can watch it in episodes 74-77 of the original anime instead, but due to the nature of the story I suspect the text-based version is superior.