Two Detectives and One Watson / 一つ屋根の下の探偵たち

A certain passage struck me when I was reading Moonlight Game. It was a passage near the beginning of the book, when the characters were discussing Agatha Christie's novels. It suddenly occurred to me at the time that I, an American, was reading what was essentially a Socratic dialogue penned by a Japanese man in Japanese almost half a century ago about the writings of a British woman from a century ago. And I was following it.

At this point in humanity's history we have created an unfathomable amount of literature, and we are in an age of unprecedented access to this literature. And, if Sturgeon's law is to be believed, only a small portion of that literature is good. So how do you figure out what's decent, so you don't end up spending your life reading the mountains and mountains of junk? One of the ways is to read the works that have withstood the test of time, receiving the stamp of approval from each successive generation and becoming the "classics."

I bring this up because Two Detectives and One Watson is now the most current detective novel I have read, having been written by Morikawa Tomoki in the hyper-modern year of... 2013. When reading a "classic," even if I end up thinking it wasn't very good, I still think the time spent reading it was worthwhile by sheer virtue of it being a classic. But when reading a modern book, I always have the concern that it's going to be a mediocre waste of time. So I am happy to report that today's book, Two Detectives and One Watson, is a light, fun detective novel with an interesting premise and a satisfying solution.

The novel begins with a conscious parallel to A Study in Scarlet when Asama Osamu, our narrator and Watson, is introduced through a mutual acquaintance to Machii Yuito and Tenka Reisuke, as all are looking for roommates to get affordable housing. The three of them decide to test out a sharehouse together. While Asama is a writer, Machii and Tenka are both private detectives--but that's where the similarities between the two end.

Machii is polite, conscientious, social, and hard-working. He focuses on building personal relationships, and solves cases by methodically amassing and analyzing all the relevant data. Tenka is slothful, casual, and intuitive. He reaches his conclusions based on flashes of insight from one or two data points. He sleeps three times a day, spends most of his time in pajamas, and rarely leaves the house. They fit very well into the archetypes of Light and L from Death Note, although not quite as extreme. Another way to describe them is that Machii is a detective like an ant and Tenka is a detective like a grasshopper.

This reference to the ant and the grasshopper is intentional, as it is the main theme of the book. Analogies and parallels to the ant and the grasshopper just keep on popping up. Although the references are sometimes a bit of a stretch, Morikawa knows when she's reaching, it's never that bad, and the number of times and ways she's able to draw the parallel is impressive. It's certainly a unique theme for a murder mystery (especially since it's just a theme of the book, and not an intentional motif of the crime), and is legitimately useful in illuminating certain elements of the plot.

Asama decides he wants to write a book about Machii and Tenka's exploits, but there's a problem: his publishing company is only willing to pay one person's worth of consultation fees. Machii and Tenka decide to have a competition to determine who will be the subject of Asama's book: the victor will be the one who solves a certain case first. The case they decide to investigate is the death of the owner of an inn deep in the mountains, who was found inside a locked shed starved to death (not unlike a certain grasshopper from a certain fable...). The major catch? The shed was locked from the inside.

This is a locked room mystery that completely flips the "standard" locked room on its head while managing to remain just as incomprehensible. The usual setup for a locked room mystery is a room locked from the inside with a corpse inside, which is what we have here. The question then (usually) becomes how the killer escaped. But the cause of death this time was starvation, so the question instead becomes why the victim didn't escape. Starvation is a pretty unusual murder method for the genre, which made this problem feel quite refreshing.

In addition to the unusual murder method, the novel also has an unorthodox structure. In most detective novels, the bulk of the story focuses on the detective's investigation, and then all of the deductions and revelations take place in the final passage. In Two Detectives and One Watson, the various elements of the crime (who, how, why, etc.) are revealed steadily throughout the book. And most of the deductions and reveals aren't fair play. In fact, for one deduction, they explicitly remark that it's easy to figure out if you can see the object in question, but nearly impossible with just a textual description. That being said, there is still a grand, fair-play denouement based on clues planted throughout the story at the end, so the traditional detective novel structure is still retained to a certain extent.

(Of course, in a detective novel, it isn't over until it's over. Even if it appears that the pieces are coming together over the course of the novel, it's possible for the author to pull the rug out from underneath you at the end and reveal that the true solution is something entirely different. There is no rug-pulling here. While reading the book I did have hope that perhaps there would be a grand twist of that nature at the end, but I was disappointed. And since the book never even addresses the possibility of this type of ending, I feel I may as well quash it for you can fully enjoy the story for what it is without expecting a layer that isn't there.)

While the "unfair" reveals were slightly frustrating at first, I actually didn't mind them at all by the end. You see, I'm a big fan of puzzle plots. I generally like the conception of a mystery novel as a puzzle posed by the author for the reader. Usually the puzzle involves solving the entire mystery of the crime. But here, the question Morikawa wanted to pose to the reader was much narrower, and so Morikawa simply revealed the non-puzzle elements of the crime over the course of the book; as they were not part of the question, there was no reason to keep them hidden. I don't know if this was Morikawa's intent or how she viewed her work, but I'm perfectly satisfied with the book's structure when I think about it in this framework. Even though the "riddle" we're left with deals with only a single aspect of the murder, it is the strongest aspect. We still have a compelling problem with a surprising and clever solution. The answer is fairly clued, and although the explanation isn't bulletproof, Morikawa does address the most awkward points head-on in what I felt were reasonable ways.

Once into the thick of the plot, we follow Asama as he follows Machii and Tenka in their investigations, each approaching the case with their unique style. Seeing two different investigations at once keeps the book fresh, and the context of a deduction competition results in a few surprising plot turns as well. Revealing the truth of the crime piece by piece, rather than saving everything for the end, also helps keep up a lively pace.

I want to take a moment to point out that there are two concurrent investigations in this book, because I doubt many people will realize the gravity of that. Creating a good detective story is hard. Not only do you need a clever plot, but you also need a way for your detective to actually deduce the solution, with an investigation that lays out the clues without being obvious or (hopefully) too boring. Then with two detectives, you need to do that twice. And on top of that, you need to make sure that each line of investigation isn't too similar, as reading the same investigation twice would be boring, but each still needs to lead to the proper conclusion. So creating a "dueling detectives" plot--at least, one where the two detectives are on equal footing, rather than one being the main character and the other a rival--is harder than simply designing two investigations. On top of that, we need a reason for why each detective investigates and deduces the things that they do, and, more importantly, why each detective doesn't investigate and deduce what the other one does. Morikawa succeeds on all fronts in this respect, with perfect reasons for why Machii and Tenka are able to make their own deductions and each isn't able to make the other's.

...Of course, Morikawa kind of took a shortcut with this one, since Tenka ends up barely doing any actual "investigating" of his own. Still, there's no denying she did a great job with the "dueling detectives" plot, and that extends to the resolution as well. After all, the competition needs a winner. When we have an established protagonist detective and a rival detective (like Conan and Heiji, respectively, in Detective Conan) we can figure from the outset that the protagonist detective is going to be the one to solve the case. But Machii and Tenka are equally important characters, and so the winner isn't a given at all. Rest assured the competition has a compelling end, with satisfying reasons for why the victor was able and the loser was not able to solve the case.

This is quite important, because (for me, at least) the ending of a mystery novel is everything. No matter how fun the body of a mystery novel is, there is always the looming shadow that the ending will be disappointing. (And conversely, no matter how boring a mystery appears, there is the hope that the ending will redeem it.) As I read Two Detective and One Watson, I became quite worried that the solution would be disappointing. Luckily, I was wrong. But I think this point is still worth discussing.

The issue boils down to the structure I discussed earlier of making deductions and revealing elements of the solution over the course of the book. Nearly all of these deductions are unfair and/or simplistic. When all of the deductions in the main body of the book are unfair and/or simplistic, I think it's reasonable to worry that the final resolution of the case will be unfair and/or simplistic. In hindsight it's easy for me to say that those elements of the solution were not part of the puzzle Morikawa was trying to pose to the reader and so there was no necessity for fair and clever play when dealing with these parts of the crime, but while actually reading the book for the first time it's difficult to not have these concerns. In the final segment of the investigation Morikawa shifts gears and shows her talent and ingenuity, and, as I've already said, the ending is satisfying and clever. Moreover, the body of the book is enjoyable despite the unfair and/or simplistic deductions due to the fun plot and characters.

My main purpose in discussing this aspect of the book is not to complain or nitpick, but to assure you that the ending is good, so that you don't have to worry about this and you can sit back and enjoy the characters. As I mentioned, I like puzzle plots and the framework of the mystery novel as a riddle. But at its core, a mystery is about people. You can have a mystery novel without any sort of trick used in the crime, but you can't have one without any characters... This is another place where Two Detectives and One Watson is a bit unorthodox: while most mystery novels focus on the persons related to the crime, this book is focused squarely on the detectives. We are introduced to as few characters connected to the crime as possible, and they are given the minimum screentime and development required by the plot.

And this is okay! In fact, it complements the other stylistic and structural irregularities very well. This isn't a "full" mystery; we aren't trying to pick out the killer from a list of suspects or deduce why they did it, so there's no reason to give us a lineup or an array of possible motives. We are concerned with a single technical element of the crime, and while having so little information on the characters connected to the incident feels weird, it does not detract from the quality of the riddle posed to the reader by Morikawa. On top of that, we have the rare true competition between detectives, who also happen to be polar opposites. These detectives are the characters we want to spend time with and learn about. Machii and Tenka aren't mere caricatures, but feel like real people who have not only the strengths but also the weaknesses and pitfalls of their respective extreme personalities. We end up getting more character development for Machii than Tenka, but Machii is the more active of the two by far, so it seem like a natural result.

The final aspect of the book that stood out to me was the tone. There was just... something about it. The way I would describe it is that it felt like Asama was narrating the events to an audience. All books are obviously written to be read by an audience--the reader. But here, it felt like Asama was telling the story to the reader, with silly quips and jokes and comments. Murders are somber affairs, and detective stories are typically written in more matter-of-fact styles, so the comedic asides felt a bit unusual. As I mentioned in the introduction, this is the most current book I have read; it's written in easy-to-parse modern Japanese, with a breezy flow and tone.

So there you have it. Two Detectives and One Watson is a fun and lighthearted novel, and one of the rare true "dueling detectives" stories. The resolution of Machii and Tenka's competition is almost as much of a plot hook as the resolution of the murder. The deductions are a bit underwhelming for most of the book, but they become legitimately satisfying and clever in time for the conclusion. The book features several unorthodox elements, but they complement and reinforce each other. I think the way Morikawa was able to bend conventions of the genre to her advantage in this way shows that she has a decent knowledge and understanding of the detective genre, and whether she has this skill innately, like a grasshopper, or from lots of hard work, like an ant, I hope she's able to hone and refine it into even more compelling books as she continues her career.

(A note on the title, for anyone who cares: The Japanese title directly translates to "The Detectives Under One Roof," but it has an English subtitle of "Two Detectives and One Watson" (visible in the top-left corner of the cover), so I decided to refer to the book as that.)

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