This is a repost of Notes on Hyouka as an Exploration of Detective Fiction as published on Altair & Vega on July 5, 2012. As the post’s original author, I have reposted it here for preservation purposes since that blog is no longer fully functioning. It has not been edited or revised in any way.
Often in murder mysteries, narration is meant to give the reader or viewer pause, be it truly unreliable or simply filtered through the respective lenses of others. If the property desires the viewer to play along with the detective – and more often than not they do, as the reader is served by an in-universe self-insert of sorts – it behooves them to pay attention to who is speaking and what the speaker’s biases are in relation to the departed.
One person whose voice is conspicuously absent in The Perfect Insider is the deceased herself: Shiki Magata. Her innermost thoughts and desires are shown in bits and pieces, always in the words or mind of another.
A tradition of detective fiction, the locked room mystery requires very little at its core. There are no exotic locales required, nor are many props or even people required. At its essence, a locked room mystery can thrive in simplicity– a standard crime scene, limited access, and an ultimately solvable situation for the detective, if not the audience as well.
This same simplicity is accompanied by many pitfalls. If the mystery is solvable for the audience, it cannot be too difficult or too easy, lest they come away disappointed. When the mystery revolves more around the characters themselves, said characters must be interesting or emotionally resonant. A simple setup makes both poor characterization or the lack of a compelling mystery all the more apparent.
In anime, the presentation of a locked room mystery is compounded by the difficulty of showing the mystery – often accompanied by large swaths of expository dialogue – visually, without giving too much away and all while captivating the viewer.
“Beautiful. So beautiful, it just makes me swoon. The most beautiful part about it is that the answer is zero. That said, someone like me thinks that if the answer is going to be zero, there’s really no need to go out of your way to make the calculation.”
-Ougi Oshino to Koyomi Araragi, Owarimonogatari, Episode 1
A locked room mystery plays on the idea of the impossible. The crime scene is isolated with a set amount of variables: a vanished culprit, and information given to both the detective and the reader of that respective work. In a way, a locked room mystery is an equation or a formula. After a while, the reader learns what to expect and when, eagerly anticipating the detective’s incoming speech. This subgenre of detective fiction is responsible for some of the most famous, influential, and bestselling works of all mystery novels, most notably John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.
The insatiable appetite humanity seems to have for these types of mysteries is intrinsically tied to human nature itself. When presented with a seemingly insolvable situation, we crave rationality and an explanation.