Moonlight Game / 月光ゲーム
Ah, a relaxing summer vacation camping on a dormant volcano. You were just going with some buddies, but then you run into a few other groups of students on the mountain and quickly make friends, causing the trip to become even livelier and more fun than you expected. What could possibly go wrong?
If you're a character in a murder mystery, the answer is everything.
Moonlight Game (subtitled "The Tragedy of Y 1988") is the debut novel of Alice Arisugawa, one of the most important and prolific figures in modern Japanese mystery fiction and a pioneer of the "new orthodox" movement. This book came out almost three decades ago, so I'm not sure how Arisugawa has changed over the years, but in Moonlight Game, he is clearly a bright, passionate fan of detective fiction who has tried his hand at writing a novel.
The book is narrated by Alice Arisugawa, a freshman at Eito University, where he joins the Eito Mystery Club, led by Egami Jirou, who functions as the detective of the novel. The four members of the EMC decide to spend their summer vacation at Mt. Yabuki, a dormant volcano, where they run into 13 other students from various universities. After a few days of fun, Mt. Yabuki erupts, trapping the students, and then students start disappearing and getting murdered as the letter "Y" keeps popping up. (For reference, "Arisugawa" will refer to the author and "Alice" will refer to the character.)
Arisugawa is clearly a mystery fan, and, judging from the novel, likely a fan of Ellery Queen. (For starters, the subtitle is a direct reference to a Queen book.) Alice is part of his university's mystery club, and so they constantly mention mystery novels, especially those by Queen. And, for those concerned, there are no spoilers! But the group does not merely mention mystery novels, but also discusses them, which can only be a presentation of Arisugawa's thoughts. (Ideas he has at least considered, even if he does not actually hold his characters' opinions.)
I instantly felt gratified and knew I would enjoy Arisugawa to at least a certain extent when one of his characters complained about how Christie books tend to present "a" solution, rather than "the" solution. (An issue I have complained about multiple times in this blog, including for a Christie book!) And this also made me a bit surprised and disappointed by the ending, since Arisugawa acknowledged this pitfall in detective fiction but partially fell into it.
The puzzle plot of the novel presents a few questions: the identity of the murderer, the meaning behind the dying message of "Y," and then the explanation behind a multitude of seemingly unimportant but nonetheless unexplained and mysterious events. The reasoning that led to the murderer was nice, and felt like it could have come straight from a Queen novel; Egami linked together seemingly trifling details of the evidence and events into an unbreakable chain.
However, an extra dollop of cluing would have helped everything. As I said, Egami's reasoning that identified a certain trait that the murderer must possess was fine. But this trait of the murderer is mentioned once in the entire novel through a single word; miss it, and you're out. As for the other problems presented, they fall into the "a" solution trap; while the explanation for all of them works, there's nothing to suggest that they are what actually happened. The explanations for the mysterious events are mostly explanations of, given that the murderer is Character X, how and/or why the murderer did that thing, rather than how the clues borne of that event point towards the murderer's identity.
This goes especially for the answer to the dying message. Arisugawa apparently felt proud enough of it, or at least liked it enough, to dedicate the subtitle to it, and yet it... is just a bit disappointing. It's not impossible, but a certain element of it does feel very strange, especially without any cluing towards it. I do like the idea behind the message, but an extra dollop of cluing would have made it feel a lot fairer, and this still may not have been the best setting for this dying message.
To briefly and more specifically enunciate my issues with the dying message (major spoilers!) in rot-13: Pbafvqrevat gur bayl cynpr gurve anzrf jrer jevggra jnf ba gurve gragf' gntf, juvpu gurl cebonoyl qvqa'g ybbx ng irel bsgra (yvgrenyyl abobql abgvprq jura Evlb'f grag'f gnt jrag zvffvat), naq gurl jrer yvxryl gnyxvat naq punggvat naq hfvat rnpu bgure'f anzrf nyy qnl, vg frrzf ovmneer gung fbzrbar jbhyq trg fbzrbar'f anzr jebat onfrq ba gur xnawv. Naq vs gur ivpgvz jnf fzneg rabhtu gb svther bhg va gung zbzrag gung "Gnxrfuv" pbhyq or zvfvagrecergrq nf n phg bss "Gnxrfuvgn," jul pbhyqa'g ur ernyvmr gung jevgvat va xnawv jbhyq'ir orra gur pyrnerfg?!
I'm just going to say it: there are too many characters. We have 17 students on the mountain, which is way more than you need, even with multiple students getting murdered and going missing. And on top of that they're all Japanese university students in a realistic setting, so you don't get the diversity of characters in other large closed-circle stories like Umineko no Naku Koro ni or Danganronpa. And to top it all off the prologue begins in media res, with first names and last names and nicknames flying around without any context or explanations. Arisugawa does clearly attempt to make each character distinct to a certain extent, but it's still a lot of characters to take in. This was Arisugawa's first novel, so he may have simply been a bitten off a bit more than he could chew. As a mystery fan writing his first novel I'm sure he poured his heart and soul into the story, but that also meant he would know it and know all the characters back and front, and so maybe he lost sight of how hard someone it would be for someone not as intimate with the story to keep track of everyone.
I just finished complaining about how there were too many characters so I'm not doing to discuss them all in detail, but I will briefly give my thoughts on Egami and Alice, since they are the two most important characters from the standpoint of the series.
Egami is... a bit disappointing, to be honest. Alice and some other characters seem to become charmed by his mysterious air, but I just didn't feel it. He also kind of comes out of nowhere with suddenly having the solution to everything, but... hey, maybe he's just a more low-key Ellery Queen. And not everyone wants Philo Vance prancing around their detective story.
Alice was more surprising, since he had more of a presence than I expected. A lot of detective fiction narrators are bland and unobtrusive, to provide a blank slate for the reader to relate to and to give the detective as much room to maneuver. (Or at least, they tend to be as neutral as they can be; it's a bit more difficult in a game and when the narrator is the detective, but Phoenix Wright and Naegi Makoto are still pretty mild.) Nonetheless Alice interacts with people, has a lot of thoughts and reactions, and does a particular thing that I really didn't like. While it made me not like Alice that much as a person at the time, thinking back on it having a character like Alice as the narrator is a bit refreshing compared to someone like S.S. Van Dine, who is so passive as a character it's easy to mistake his novels as being written in the third person.
One element of the book that really impressed me was the pacing. The prologue is a rocky start because there are so many characters you don't know running around and the first third of the book is admittedly slow. Once the first corpse popped up things picked up steam and I really started to get into it. The characters are trapped on a mountainside in the wilderness, so you'd think that there wouldn't be much for the characters to do, but there is a steady pace of actions and new developments, and they do occur in a progression that feels somewhat natural. The plotting of this book and its ability to continually draw out action in literally the middle of nowhere is truly commendable.
Arisugawa seems quite knowledgeable (or at least puts in the proper research to write his books), and so his writing is filled with references to... all sorts of stuff. A lot of his references (most of them, I'd wager) were towards Western things, which actually surprised me a bit. It can also make the reading a bit hard to parse if you don't know what he's talking about. Between this intellectual writing style and a ton of characters popping out of nowhere I did not have fun in the beginning of the book, but once I got used to the writing style and got a sense of the characters I did enjoy it.
Before I finish, since this is a murder mystery, I have to at least comment on the motive. It's not the strongest element of the book, to put it nicely. After chatting with someone about it, I realized that the motive was a lot stronger and nicer than I had initially given credit for. Therefore, I think the main problem with the motive is not that it's too weak, but that the novel is too vague about the motive and does not present is clearly enough.
Moonlight Game is a decent puzzle plot written by someone who is clearly a mystery fan, although it definitely has its rough edges. If you enjoy Ellery Queen (and can read Japanese) I'd definitely give it a spin, but just be warned that the cluing is nearly unfair, so if you want to actually challenge it make sure you pay attention and keep your brain on high gear.