I haven’t updated you on my progress with Detective Conan for a while, so now seems like a good time to discuss the elements that make this on-going one-man Manga both so very, very brilliant and so very, very meh.
For those who don’t know, a precis: Jimmy Kudo is a genius teenage detective who is shrunk down to the appearance of a six year-old after being fed a mysterious poison by mysterious people in black (just go with it…). Taking the name Conan Edogawa, he lives with his secret crush Rachel and her semi-inept PI father Richard, neither of who are aware of his real identity. Each volume is typically made up of three separate cases, often with the final one being left at a cliffhanger which is then resolved at the start of the next volume.
Aoyama is to be commended — lauded, even — for the diversity of his plots, and the compact way he expands and then resolves them. Not all of them work (one case, in which a school friend of Conan’s is kidnapped by two men with a dead body in their car and Conan gives chase while overhearing their discussion of the murder, stretches credulity to a limit never before encountered), but there’s a real talent in laying clues, playing with expectations, and applying the typical trappings of a (mostly) fair-play mystery to a variety of settings and shapes.
Volume 11, though, might just be my favourite to date — and not solely because it contains three impossible crimes.
The first — a semi-inverted impossible shooting at a TV station, where we know the murderer was live on air while the murder was committed but have no idea how it was achieved — utilises the manga medium perfectly: the explanation is visually delightful, especially the moment where Inspector Merguire works out the significance of the window, and if a few infelicities with architecture make this technically not quite fair play, there’s easily enough information given to get the gist even if you don’t get the precise details.
The second case — a murder in a restaurant toilet, where three or four people could be guilty — again has a very clever use of the visual aspect of the clues. You appreciate here how much easier Aoyama makes it for himself by drawing his own art, because there’s not a detail that doesn’t count. The impossibility of the murderer getting past the body of to exit the stall (it’s blocking the door) gives a great false interpretation, and I was looking the wrong way for a different interpretation of this until the key thing comes to light. A great, cunning tale, resolved superbly, and with a nice little twist of sorts at the end.
Finally, we have the body of a monk found hanged at a remote monastery, but the rope is too short for him to have stepped into the noose from below, and the rafters above are covered in dust. This is again a very clever resolution — though the specific property of a key item seems a little…unlikely, and how the hell you test it to ensure that’s the case I have no idea — but you sort of feel this is more of a show-off resolution than a realistic one. Had the murderer wanted to get away with this, they could have just made the rope longer…
All told, though, this is what Case Closed does brilliantly when it gets it right: swift characterisation, evocative locations, and cunning ploys that appear dense and are then rendered transpicuous by a simple addition or reveal. Aoyama wields Occam’s razor with a dexterity that would make Sweeny Todd blanch, and is able to tie in myth and superstition without missing a beat alongside moments of shuddersome malice in his at times very real world detection. When it’s right — which it is a most of the time, if not quite to the heights herein — this is honestly excellent and commended to everyone.
But then, inevitably, sometimes it goes very wrong. Like in Volume 12.
Now, I completely understand that all the code-breaking episodes will struggle in translation because it’d be insane to attempt to translate the clues and the nature of the Japanese language into English. So I’m happy to simply sit back and watch anything with a code in it just happen here, because if I could even begin to follow them I’d be reading this in Japanese anyway. But the house-based clue hunt of the first case just makes no sense, none, and when you get to the end you sort of wonder what the point of it was. Especially as it seems to’ve required a lot of effort on Aoyama’s part to construct. Like, dude. It was not worth it.
The briefcase-swaparama of he second case is transparent from the first, and has easily the biggest shortfall between complexity and convolution of anything I’ve read in this series so far. You’ll never figure out the why, but the who and the how are fine. But, yeah, it barely warrants mention.
The final and longest case — resolved in issue 13 — concerns members of a Sherlock Holmes experts weekend being killed off one by one. There’s a lovely moment at the start where Richard Moore attributes And Then There Were None to Doyle, as this (no doubt deliberately) ends up resembling that far more than anything Sherlock ever took on, but really it’s a loose and not very interesting plot of people getting killed while everyone appears to have an alibi. The explanation of the explosion is nifty, I’ll give him that, but two problems: a) the motive is bullshit through-and-through and is so awful as to almost make me angry, and b) all the killer has to do at the end is go “No, I didn’t do [something they didn’t do] because [give a simple reason, e.g. I couldn’t be arsed]” and there’s no evidence to convict them.
More than anything, these three cases feel like the remainders that Aoyama is trying to clear from his mind so they don’t distract him later down the track. I get we all have off days, or the occasional thread in a novel is dropped or mis-handled, but in comprising a trifecta of undercooked ideas this volume really suffers in comparison to the others, especially given the brilliance of the one immediately preceding it. And there’s no denying that the development that caps this story feels like a deliberate attempt to make up for this — it’s the first time we’ve had something happen that seems as if it will have a permanent effect on the series. Where will it go from here? Time will tell…
So, in summation: some great, some thoroughly not great, but it’s proving to be a helluva ride. Not sure how long I’ll be keen to keep reading, but it’s going very well so far and more will certainly follow.
Watch this space!