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Continuing our manga exploration: with a plain old-fashioned mysery series. . .

Kindaichi Case Files

I first glommed onto The Kindaichi Case Files: The Opera House Murders (Tokyopop) while checking out a manga paperback display in Borders Books. The cover immediately stood out from the rest of the manga offerings: the image of a white mask with droplets of blood conspicuously displayed near the top of the pic. It looked like something you’d see in old paperback releases of early Ellery Queen mysteries. Even the title was reminiscent of those old classic genre works; early Ellery Queens all had variations on the same title (The Roman Hat Mystery, The Chinese Orange Mystery, etc.) As a young teen, I read through every book the team of Frederick Dannay & Manfred B. Lee (a.k.a. Ellery Queen) wrote, so naturally I was intrigued.
Yozaburo Kanari & Fumiya Sato’s graphic novel, a full-length murder mystery in one volume, is apparently the first in a series of detective tales starring Hajimi Kindaichi, a seeming high school ne’er-do-well whose indolent manner hides a brilliant deductive intelligence. (Is it me or is the type – the underrated goof-off – heavily repped in shonen manga?) Perennially underestimated by peers and teachers, our teen hero (we’re regularly reminded) is related to the “famous detective, Kousuke Kindaichi.” He’s also a student of magic, capable of wielding a mean deck of cards or solving a seemingly insolvable locked room mystery.
Opera House opens with narration by Miyuki Nanase, an attractive and smart high school girl (yep, we get to see her panties within the first four pages) who has a crush on Kindaichi. Miyuki convinces our hero to come along with her and the members of the high school drama club, who are preparing an entry for an annual drama tournament. The students, with the aid of their leggy club adviser Ms. Ogata, are planning a production of Phantom of the Opera. They head for an island retreat, the Opera House Hotel, which conveniently has its own theatrical stage – even as its out-of-the-way location makes it possible for our cast to become stranded by a storm once things really start poppin’.
Turns out that some members of the Drama Club have secrets related to the death of the club’s former leading lady, Fuyuko. When the new leading lady shows up dead onstage, crushed under a heavy set of light riggings near the end of the lengthy establishing chapter, the mystery begins. Who’s responsible for the murder? Is it one of the largely indistinguishable Drama Clubbers? The smarmy looking hotel manager? The vacationing doctor who cuts his meals with his surgical tools? Or the unseen bandaged guest, Mr. Kagetsu?

Once the first killing takes place, scripter Kanari sticks respectfully to the conventions of old-fashioned murder mysteries. A lot of the story elements would’ve fit readily into a 30’s era B-pic: thunderstorms, regular appearances by a mysterious cloaked “phantom,” a doltish representative of police officialdom who primarily exists as a foil for our detective hero, a long-winded drawing room explanation and so on. It’s all nicely staged through Fumiya Sato’s heavily gray-scaled art. But like so many formal mystery stories, the only characters allowed to have any real personality are Kindaichi and his Watson, Miyuki. It’s not much exaggeration to say that the only way we distinguish some of the Drama Clubbers is in the way that they’re offed.
Tokyopop has accorded this book a Teen Age 13+ rating, which seems right to me (though some adults may be nonplussed by a murder scene where we get to see a naked woman floating face down in a bathtub). Unlike most American mysteries written for a young audience, this is a full-blooded murder mystery: the killer, we learn, is in fact patterning his slayings after the play that the Drama Club has been planning to put on. Artist Sato doesn’t stint in showing us the results of these dark deeds; while the imagery isn’t as floridly splattery as Battle Royale, say, it doesn’t mask things in shadows either. Back when I was devouring books like EQ’s Player on the Other Side or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (which first established the stranded island murder mystery), I’d have loved coming upon a manga series like this. Who gives a fig if the characters are bland – the book includes pages with maps of the murder scene!
Despite its largely skeletal characterization, the book contains a fascinating coda where we learn the original leading lady, Fuyuka, had sent a letter to the murderer just before her death, asking the would-be killer to forgive those who had done wrong to her “so we both can live together in heaven one day.” The dark irony (the murderer hadn’t read this final communique and thus lost a chance at redemption) and the presumption that one’s place in the afterworld is more significant than it is on this mortal coil aren’t not things you’d find in the old B-mysteries. But they’re sufficient to get me considering picking up the second volume in this series. I’m thinking it’d make a good beach read – the pocket-sized graphic novel format definitely suits it.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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