For December, those of us who collect once a week under the banner of The Tuesday Night Bloggers (it’s an open thing, by the way, so please do get involved if you’re moved to) are looking at anything which falls under the term ‘foreign mysteries’ — be that mysteries in translation, or anything set outside of the traditional Golden Age habitat of the UK or the USA. And today I’m looking at Gosho Aoyama’s Case Closed (a.k.a. Detective Conan) manga from Japan.
Case Closed is an ongoing serialised manga following the genius teenage detective Jimmy Kudo who, after solving a seemingly-impossible beheading on a roller coaster in the first issue, stumbles upon Some Mysterious Types Who Are Up To No Good who knock him out and then feed him an experimental untraceable poison to kill him off. However, instead of killing him, the poison simply alters his appearance to that of a six year-old, and — to protect the people he cares about, lest the People in Black (they are actually dressed in black) find out he isn’t really dead — he must pretend to be a young boy (christening himself Conan Edogawa, a combination of Arthur Conan Doyle and Edogawa Rampo) while trying to figure out how to get back to normal.
And, inevitably, old habits die hard. Moving in with his secret crush and her largely-useless private detective father, ‘Conan’ finds himself involved in the solving of all manner of baffling crimes that only he can see the sense to unravel. But, of course, as everyone else believes him to be six years-old, how can he get them to take him seriously?
My fellow locked-room enthusiast TomCat at Beneath the Stains of Time has been extolling the virtues of Case Closed for a while now, and I’ve finally been able to take the plunge. TomCat says that the first few volumes don’t showcase the series at its best, but obviously the beginning is a very good place to start, so how does it fare thus far?
Volume 1 has to set up the universe, get Conan housed with his neighbours, and throw in a couple of mystery plots along the way, and Aoyama juggles these various threads very well indeed. The beheading gives you a great sense of Jimmy before he’s shrunk, and while the other two mysteries — one involving a kidnapped child, the other a murder in a hotel — aren’t hugely complex, the first has a wonderful visual clue that exploits the use of graphics perfectly, and the second throws in a good twist on a classic of logical thinking puzzles. There’s also a very interesting scene where the six year-old Conan gets absolutely pasted by a villain which raises some interesting questions about how Jimmy will cope in such a young body.
As someone completely new to manga, I have to say that the art is excellent. Aoyama draws as well as writes, and there’s a great sense of freneticism and dynamism in his lines and actions. It feels uniquely Japanese, with its slightly over-wrought sense of drama and sound effects (KYYYYAAAA! and FWAK! are two favourites), but that’s by no means a bad thing. If anything, the slight reduction of the Japanese element when it occurs is…weirdly dislocating — his neighbour/crush is called Rachel Moore, and her father is Richard Moore, two names Anglicised from the original where others are clearly not…like it would be difficult to cope with Ran Mori. But, well, that’s hardly Aoyama’s fault.
Volume 2 is…less good. We have an impossible alibi problem which — and here’s a rare occurrence — the art makes too obvious, a missing persons case that turns out to be more than it seems and bring The People in Black briefly back into things, and then Conan going to school and investigating a spooky old house with some chums. If anything, this feels like bedding in some of the key ingredients: the James Bond-esque gadgets (voice modifier so he can sound like anyone, special shoes that can kick really hard, glasses with a tracker in them, super-strong stretchy braces) which are obviously going to be crucial in keeping a six year-old involved in the cases he investigates.
The first case in volume 3 is a reasonably involved family-gathering-where-people-are-attacked, and has a good line in some decent visual clues, and a larger cast than before that gives Aoyama a chance to play with motivations and expectations. It becomes increasingly clear at this stage that a lot of the resolutions are going to be reached by Conan putting someone to sleep with a tranquiliser dart from his watch and then using the voice modifier to make it appear as if they’re explaining things. I mean, this is unsustainable in a narrative sense, but then the central conceit here is a teenager shrunk down to look like a six year-old, so narrative veracity probably shouldn’t be high on anyone’s agenda. The second case, in which a man is sent a large amount of money on the same date every year, sounds far more interesting than it turns out to be.
Volume 4 does a very clever thing in taking one media form — in this case, moving pictures — and making them crucial in another — manga — without damaging the fairness or misrepresenting either form. Y’know what? That’s just me trying to preserve it. There’s a key bit which uses this and it’s very clever indeed. The second case is a ‘ticking bomb on a train’ story, the kind of thing I’m really quite partial to as Conan has to figure out who of five people is carrying the offending weapon before it goes off, and it does that very well indeed. And the third case is his school chums again, something about a treasure hunt…I find these guys kinda tiring, but I can’t fault the central idea, and there’s a nice line in false solutions, too.
A great ‘teenagers in an isolated mansion’ killer story starts volume 5 and, while the solution is a little technical, I felt quite pleased with myself for getting the essential idea from the information given (again, there’s a key piece of visual clewing — Aoyama is great at his visual clues, they work so, so well). The second case is a semi-impossible poisoning which I’m pretty sure doesn’t quite make sense, and we’re not given the information needed to deduce the killer anyway. I’m not convinced it works from a motivation or opportunity standpoint, but there’s a definite air of sadness about it which is hard to deny. And then in the final case, questions about Conan’s parents are conveniently circumnavigated when a woman claiming to be his mother turns up…but who is she really? And how does she know who he is? This one ends on a cliff-hanger, so we’ll have to put that on hold for the time being…
So, as a start, yeah, it’s pretty good. Clearly Aoyama has a great love of the classical detective stories and, if he doesn’t always play fair, well, frankly it’s not like he’s alone. The art is very easy to get used to, as is the reading right-to-left and back-to-front, and I’m especially pleased that no attempt was made to remove those aspects. True, it hasn’t set me on fire with its brilliance yet, but the important thing is that I believe it still could, and that’s good enought for me right now!
Next week, if all goes to plan: France, and it’s not Paul Halter. I know, right?! How exciting!