"The butterflies fluttered in the blackness, like ghosts wandering without a destination."– Hajime Kindaichi (The Undying Butterflies, 1997)
You may remember that a few months ago, I posted a compendium of the strength and weaknesses of Yozaburo Kanari's The Kindaichi Case Files by impartially evaluating three volumes I labeled as good, bad and average, but my contempt for the author tainted the neutral tone I intended to adopt for the review. I won't waste time by trodding over ground covered in a previous blog entry, but will simply point you back to that post in case you want to know why I loath him and it's best you read that before continuing reading this one – in which I'll take another shot at putting my personal disdain aside and objectively critique two more titles from this series. I think I can hear someone sceptically mumbling in the back.
The books I opt for in this second-round are The Legend of Lake Hiren (1994) and The Undying Butterflies (1997), which, by themselves, have the framework of a standard, formulaic Kindaichi story, but combined they're lifted slightly above an average effort – as the murderer from the former story resurfaces in the latter and poses an interesting moral question at the end of the second volume.
Still Waters Run Deep
Typically, The Legend of Lake Hiren begins with Kindaichi and Miyuki scoring exclusive invitations to a sumptuous lakeside resort, located at the heart of a secluded valley enclosed by an immense, nearly impenetrable forest with a tottering footbridge as its only route leading back to the civilized world, where the participating members of the traveling group can earn themselves an exclusive and coveted membership once the place officially opens up for business. The participating members of the traveling group include, among other, a former high-school friend of Miyuki, a tacky reporter who goes out of his way to be offense, a kind-hearted doctor with a dark secret, a once promising artist with a morbid fascination for corpses and a gold-digging wife who isn't particular mournful about the sudden and violent passing of her husband – which provides a nice set-up for a good, old-fashioned whodunit.
However, the threat of a menacing murder, lurking from the shadows of the valley as the victims are snatched from their midst, one after another, apparently does indeed seem to come from the outside of the confines of their closed circle – as an alarming radio broadcast notified the public at large that a demented mass murderer escaped from his jail cell. The killer was an avid movie fan who snapped and massacred thirteen people in a single night while dressed as Jason Voorhees, and the vale is beginning to sense his presence when a body turns up with his face torn-off!
Someone torching down the bridge and them uncovering a second, face-less body stuffed in the fridge rapidly follows this. Kindaichi reasons from the facts that the murderer is now "sealed" in with them and that none of their food was stolen must mean that the escaped madman is a clever ruse and that the actual slayer is among them – and here's where Kanari's blatant incompetence as a mystery writer comes into play.
Only a novice would've missed the significance of the shredded faces, a supposed act of random savagery that makes the murderer stand out like a sore thumb, but this could've been solved by taking the personality and modus operandi of the mass murderer into the equation to mislead the reader. The ax-wielding maniac is supposed to be a fiendish movie freak who emulates his on-screen idols and the fact that he neglected to swipe any food from their fridge, after being on the run through the forest for nearly a week without provisions, could've easily been explained away by suggesting that he fed himself with the flesh of the victims – which just so happens to be Hannibal Lecter's favorite snack.
This would've neatly obscured the true motive for mutilating the features of the victims, but then again, what else was I expecting from someone who can only produce an inspired idea when he has a book to copy it from – and the remainder of the story is pretty much what you'd expect from a hack like him who desperately clings to his formula. However, I have to give him props for the way in which he handled the final scene with the murderer who wasn't impressed at all with Kindaichi's attempt at an emo-speech and the semi-original twist he spun on the motive that he loves regurgitating over and over again.
All in all, this is a pretty average entry in the series, impaired by missed opportunities and a lack of truly inspired ideas, and its only saving grace is that it's associated with The Undying Butterflies – as the murderer resurfaces in that story after the murky depths of Lake Hiren swallowed this persons body and was presumed dead.
Note of warning: one of the panels in this story contains a rogue's gallery of murderers from previous cases. The reader is warned.
The House of the Butterflies
Well, after a stretch of time, in which Kindaichi bumped into a number of murderers, the memories of the grim episode at Lake Hiren begin to dim and accumulate a layer of dust in the attic known as the human brain, but one day he's confronted with a magazine article on a dilettante scholar who rediscovered a rare species of butterfly – and a snapshot depicts the savant standing next to the person he unmasked as the one who was responsible for butchering four people at the lakeside resort.
In tow of a reporter, Kindaichi and Miyuki make a journey to the family mansion of the savant, where thousands of invaluable butterflies swarm the heavily guarded premises, and come face to face with the murderer who found employment as an assistant to the residents patriarch, but claims to have no recollection of a prior life – ever since being dragged from a river. Whether this is true or not, it's unequivocal that this individual is neck deep in another murder case when someone begins killing off the members of the family and leave them pinned like butterflies – beginning with the family's 12-year-old daughter!
The death of a child, coupled with a motive that is accompanied with a minor, but nifty, twist gives this story a decidedly dark tone. Unfortunately, this atmosphere of doom and gloom amounts to nothing more than a thin film covering a familiar exterior as the plot goes through the motions of a standard Kindaichi story – which makes it possible for regular readers to identify the culprit without even glancing at the given clues.
What lifts this story above its basic plot is the inclusion of a murderer from a previous volume, whose hands are undeniably stained with blood but who may be innocent of these butterfly-murders and perhaps even morphed into a completely different person due to the amnesia suffered during a traumatic escape, and a really clever trick to create a unbreakable alibi. Even though he probably nicked that part of the plot from another detective story. Yeah, when it comes to Kanari's hackwork I'm a cynic.
On the whole, The Legend of Lake Hiren and The Undying Butterflies are pretty average fares when tackled separately, but read back-to-back the characters managed to wrestle the plots loose from Kanari's death grip of mediocrity and deliver an overall decent enough story. But more could've been done with them had they been put down on paper by more capable hands guided by a brain possessive of a shred of imagination.
And thus ends another shoddily written review. I really have to up my game starting with the next blog post. By the way, did I succeed in objectively looking at these stories?! ;)