The Kindaichi Case Files
I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed a good mystery read until I tried this series. Each book is a stand-alone “fair play” case in which the reader can match wits with the detectives. The series is reminiscent of a grown-up Encyclopedia Brown with an older cast, more serious crimes, greater emotional motivation, and spooky overtones.
Hajime Kindaichi is an under-achieving troublemaker with a gift for deduction and a grandfather who’s a famous detective. His best friend, Miyuki Nanase, is the only one who defends him, even when people directly ask her “why are you wasting time with that loser?”
A model student, Miyuki is also involved with the school drama club, a connection that creates the setting for the first book’s mystery, The Opera House Murders. The club members are going to a camp to prepare for a national drama competition, and Kindaichi tags along to help with sound effects. Some nice character bits on the way there introduce all the participants and their temperaments. The group’s on edge because of an earlier death, the mysterious suicide of one of the student actresses.
The club is staging The Phantom of the Opera, and the camp location, a resort hotel on an isolated island, doesn’t help settle their emotions. One of the other guests turns out to be a police detective, a helpful coincidence when someone starts murdering the drama club members. Of course, a growing storm prevents outside contact or help.
The volume’s chapter breaks start with recaps of the story so far and the characters involved. Even if the reader doesn’t get caught up in trying to figure out who’s behind the killings, the characterization propels them through the story. There’s a good range of student types, and the slow revelation of the circumstances behind the original death is gripping, illustrating the horrible consequences of unthinking teenage pranks.
As the story progresses, the chapters get shorter, building the reader’s anticipation. The book includes the traditional map of the location (for those playing along) and the scene where the cast is gathered together so Kindaichi can reveal his deductive logic and thus the murderer. A crossword puzzle provides an additional clue to solving the mystery.
There’s a strong undercurrent of the possibility of the supernatural. When confronted with a locked-room murder, some of the characters seem to seriously consider whether a ghost is involved. That coordinates nicely with the other cultural contrasts. Since Japanese readers may not be familiar with the story of the Phantom, the events of the play are recapped for the reader. It’s fascinating to see how elements from a foreign (to the original manga reader) culture are turned into mystery themes.
A similar imported element drives the second book, The Mummy’s Curse. Miyuki’s schoolmate Wakaba has been sent back to her village to an arranged marriage. Strangely, the village is anchored by six mansions arranged in the shape of a Star of David around a burned-out church. While horsing around, Kindaichi and Miyuki find a hidden chamber containing a headless mummy. The mansion owners have been hiding the village’s terrible secret, and now they’re paying the price, as someone begins killing them one by one.
A belief in a curse, marked by mummies as symbols of the crime, has shaped these families for decades. That impedes the investigation, as fatalism takes over. The family members are convinced that they’re deserving of whatever happens, since history shapes their lives more than the possibility of the future. That’s set up almost from the beginning, with Wakaba quietly submitting to a marriage her parents determined for her years ago.
After the revelation of the murderer, three succeeding chapters explore the ramifications of the discovery, wrapping up not just the mystery but the emotions surrounding it. A continuing theme in the stories is the redemptive power of pure love and the need for atonement. That’s not surprising, since the mysteries deal with emotion strong enough to inspire murder.
Death TV is the third book, in which Kindaichi is working for a reality show that tries to shock celebrities. The show is filming at the villa of a reclusive painter in an area with legends of a snow demon. Due to strange geographical quirks, a snowstorm, and the desire to prank a know-it-all actress, the crew winds up watching her get murdered on video.
The TV element is really just set-dressing for the real themes. Once again, history can’t be forgotten, with effects of a ten-year-old plane crash providing a motive, and there’s another example of parents shaping their children in ways they could never predict.
Miyuki doesn’t come along on this trip; in her place, Detective Kenmochi (the police officer from the first book) plays second fiddle. The detective’s young, show-off boss gets on everyone’s nerves with his constant refrain of “when I worked in Los Angeles” and his refusal to believe a kid could solve a mystery, providing another example of generational conflict.
The fourth book, Smoke and Mirrors, foregrounds the relationship between Kindaichi and Miyuki after an attractive upperclassmen hits on him to join her mystery club. It seems that their school has seven mysteries associated with it, and rumor says that anyone who knows them all will be killed. The two must solve those past crimes as well as determine who’s using them to scare others in the present.
Kindaichi sets out to win a treasure-hunting contest in Treasure Isle, the fifth book. When he and the other contestants arrive at the island, they discover that their host has been murdered and there’s one more person in the group than was invited. Plus, there are legends of a mythical monster protecting the island’s treasure. In a variation on a well-known mystery structure, the hunters have to find and stop the killer before the next boat returns for them a week later.
The Legend of Lake Hiren, the sixth book, sends Kindaichi and Miyuki to a camping resort where the lake turns red. Things are complicated by an axe murderer on the loose who calls himself “Jason”. Miyuki has a crush on one of the other guests, making Kindaichi jealous. Two of the other attendees are a bloodthirsty writer and a mentally disturbed, corpse-obsessed artist, in a possible joking allusion to the book’s creators. The story wraps up by raising the question of a perplexing moral dilemma.
The seventh book, The Santa Slayings, returns to a theatrical setting, similar to the first book. Only this time, it’s during Christmas (a popular but mostly secular holiday in Japan), and a “Mystery Night” game is being held at an old hotel. A theater group acts out a mystery so that the attendees can try to figure out who the killer is.
Detective Kenmochi has invited Kindaichi and Miyuki along because threats have been received by the event organizers. The situation is complicated by the presence of Kenmochi’s boss, a female supervisor who has little patience for amateurs, an aging actress diva, and another student who fancies himself a videographer. Someone calling himself “The Red-Bearded Santa Claus” is trashing rooms and leaving unpleasant gifts for the cast members.
It’s impressive how efficiently the characters, setting, and situation are introduced, allowing the story to quickly proceed into the mystery. We know enough about the victims to consider possible motives, but we don’t get so involved with them as people that we lose track of the puzzle through overwhelming emotional impact. The art, especially character expression, is clear and direct as always.
No Noose Is Good Noose, the eighth book, follows Kindaichi and Miyuki to a prep school as they attempt to improve their grades. The administrator has been the target of a prank involving blood-spattered test papers, and she’s heard of Kindaichi’s reputation for solving problems.
The school has a history of its inhabitants attempting to hang themselves, due to stress. One student succeeded in committing suicide last year after being bullied, and rumors have spread of a ghost driving others to attempt the same thing. The two students must discover what’s really going on.
The ninth book, The Headless Samurai, begins with Detective Kenmochi receiving a letter from an old friend whose husband has passed away. She’s been receiving threatening letters, so the detective takes Kindaichi and Miyuki with him to her village to investigate. She was the husband’s second wife, and his first family became very jealous when his estate was left to her, so there are plenty of motives for foul play.
Their village has a legend of a headless samurai, and when a guest is beheaded inside a vault-like closet, Kindaichi has to solve a classic “locked room” murder. Like many of the other mysteries, long-hidden secrets set the bloody events in motion. No one ever kills anyone for as simple a reason as greed. Motives are mixtures of fear and twisted love, often complicated by secret vows.
The writer Itsuki, previously seen in book six, brings Kindaichi a new mystery in the tenth book, Kindaichi the Killer (Part 1). A famous author has declared that the first company to break his code will get his new book, bound to be a best seller. Kindaichi is asked by Itsuki’s publisher to solve the puzzle, so he and Miyuki head out to the author’s country house, along with a number of other publishers and celebrity chasers.
Earlier, Kindaichi had dreamed of a video-crazy murdered student from earlier books, so he starts off feeling haunted. As the title suggests, bigger problems soon appear. The author is found dead with a dazed Kindaichi standing over him holding the murder weapon. He has to solve the case to prevent an innocent — himself — from being blamed.
The book then becomes a kind of scavenger hunt based on the departed author’s clues. Kindaichi chases from suspect to suspect, continually pursued by the police and one step behind the real killer. While the mystery isn’t as intellectually challenging as in some of the other books, the stakes are higher and the emotional impact more important to the story.
The story’s conclusion in book eleven feels even more like a TV thriller, with plenty of action. There’s a betrayal, secret meetings, dramatic tricks to fool onlookers, a showdown with a mysterious masked figure, surprise revelations, and life-saving action to protect a cute kid. Supporting characters are impressed by Kindaichi’s heroism even while he’s being hunted, and Miyuki provides the emotional notes of worry and relief.
After a slight delay, the series resumes with book twelve, Playing the Fool, and it was worth the wait. It’s about twice as thick as previous volumes, returning to the pattern of each book standing alone.
We’re reminded at the beginning that, for all his skills and insight, Kindaichi is still a teenage boy, dreaming of making out with an attractive young woman. Reika, a singer who met him during Death TV, has invited him to join her at her father’s ski resort. She needs his help, but she won’t say why.
Kindaichi and Miyuki arrive to find her father trying to send everyone, including two entertainment reporters, away. Also visiting are Reika’s manager, the president of her studio, and an obsessed fan. The group misses the last gondola down the mountain, necessitating them staying the night at the Tarot Lodge, named after a set of rare antique tarot cards.
One of the reporters, a real sleazebag, riles things up by telling stories of gruesome past cases. The next morning, the reporter is found murdered in a way connected to one of the cards, and the gondola system has been wrecked. Meanwhile, Reika and Miyuki are jealously fighting over Kindaichi. With the group trapped with a killer, Kindaichi works to solve the various mysteries.
House of Wax, the thirteenth book, is another tale of revenge. Kindaichi and Miyuki are attending a weekend murder mystery contest at a German-style castle peopled with wax figures. Their invitation is a kind of rematch, courtesy of a detective Kindaichi previously outsmarted, and the winner gets the castle, all that’s left of a defunct theme park.
Other guests include a mystery novelist, a book critic, head of a detective agency, and an American teen named Edward Columbo. The creators have nicely captured some of the original’s Columbo’s tics, including his habit of stories that reveal secrets. That method of crime-solving contrasts well with Kindaichi’s observations, the writer’s imagination, and the detective’s reliance on codes and laws.
The creepy, Frankenstein-monster-looking butler locks them all in and a “murder” quickly occurs. The characters keeping one-upping each other with deductions until the game turns deadly. Typical for the series, it all turns on the events of a twenty-year-old crime whose results stretch to the present day.
The Gentleman Thief steals famous works of art in book fourteen. He’s so arrogant that he even warns his targets ahead of time; this time it’s a famous painter whose recently discovered daughter is a former classmate of Kindaichi’s. Kindaichi and the thief face off in a classic mystery-styled battle of wits, with intermittent jabs at the police getting help from a teenager.
The thief not only takes paintings, he also alters their subjects so they can’t be recreated. That leads to fear of something happening to the daughter, the subject of the artist’s award-winning portrait. Her presence is already disruptive, since there are some questions about her identity and a jealous former heir. She’s not the only one with a secret background, of course; everyone’s got some sort of hidden history and motives to kill, including the artist, charged with plagiarism.
Book fifteen takes place on The Graveyard Isle, a vacation getaway billed as a restful campsite. Kindaichi and Miyuki, along with several of their classmates, hope for a peaceful, flirtatious trip, but they wind up discovering WWII wreckage and skeletons. Once they encounter a group of college kids playing war games, things turn deadly.
Not only are the participants freaked once they discover that they’re trapped on an island with danger on every side, there’s conflict between the freer, more emotional kids and the students playing at army discipline. One in particular is a gun nut, a particularly scary type for the Japanese, where many weapons are illegal to own.
The next book, number sixteen, involves a different kind of travel: a train trip on The Magical Express. First, the teen detective is invited to police headquarters to receive an official thank-you, a visit he cuts short by embarrassing himself in public. But that doesn’t stop a detective for asking for his help in opening a magic box, a package that turns out to contain a disturbing puppet and a threat to a scheduled train.
The kids and detective board the train for a trip to a famous magic festival. Turns out that there is also a troupe of professional illusionists traveling with them, entertaining the passengers. The misdirection complicates the situation when a mysterious voice, the “puppetmaster”, calls in a bomb threat.
A body is found, it disappears, then returns in gruesome fashion. The troupe of magicians are torn apart by business disputes and personality conflicts. The whole time, the puppetmaster is taunting Kindaichi with cellphone calls about how he remains one step ahead. Like many of the books in this series, the themes of family inheritance and murderous revenge for a past sin are prominent. The magical trappings are highly entertaining, and the different tricks and magic gimmicks allow for attractive designs and images.
Throughout the series, classically cartoony art plays up emotion expressively but doesn’t over-exaggerate it, with distinct faces that add to the character development. It’s clear and professional, with plenty of detail so the reader gets a needed sense of setting. Lots of dialogue deepens both plot and characterization.
Since almost every book is a complete mystery, they can be read in any order. There aren’t enough mystery comics out there, let alone good ones — this series fills that niche admirably, especially since the characters and their motivations are as important as the plot.