American publishers have been trying to market light novels to manga fans for close to a decade, with mixed results. Though Dark Horse’s Vampire Hunter D books have sold more than 300,000 units, few other companies can claim similar success with light novels. TOKYOPOP, for example, launched its Pop Fiction imprint in 2006 with several high-profile series, among them The Twelve Kingdoms and Trinity Blood, but poor sales doomed the line to obscurity; by the time TOKYOPOP announced that it would be shuttering its North American publishing operation, it had scrapped its Pop Fiction imprint and drastically curtailed its light novel production.
Part of the problem was logistics: light novels pose a unique problem for retailers, who must decide whether the books should be shelved with graphic novels — where manga fans are more likely to find them — or with science fiction and fantasy books — where a broader readership might discover them. And part of the problem was quality: many of the light novels TOKYOPOP published were poor-to-middling, rendered in flat, functional prose that conveyed little of the energy or imagination of the best manga TOKYOPOP licensed. There were some genuine stand-outs in the Pop Fiction catalog, however, among them Kino’s Journey, a wistful travelogue about a young woman who wanders the globe on a talking motorcycle; Welcome to the NHK, a rude, hilarious expose on Japan’s hikokimori subculture; and Gosick, an old-fashioned murder mystery that’s equal parts Arthur Conan Doyle and Scooby Doo.
Described as a “modern twist on Holmes and Watson,” Gosick adheres to a tried-and-true formula in which a cold but brilliant detective is paired with a sincere but slightly dim sidekick who’s always a few clues behind the audience. In the case of Gosick, the Holmes stand-in is Victorique, the resident eccentric at the Saint Marguerite Academy in Sauville (a fictional European country, just in case you were about to visit the Wikipedia), while the Watson surrogate is Kazuya Kujo, the school’s sole Japanese student. Victorique is a little less degenerate than Conan Doyle’s greatest creation, favoring a pipe over a glass of absinthe; nonetheless, she shares Holmes’s contempt for small minds, superstitions, and emotionally driven decision-making. Her reputation for deductive reasoning leads the nearby town’s pretty-boy inspector to seek her advice whenever there’s a murder – which, given the size and geographical remoteness of the town, occurs with rather alarming frequency.
In the course of investigating a fortune teller’s death, Victorique and Kazuya board the Queen Berry, a ship which supposedly sank ten years earlier with a cargo of murdered children. The two endure a night of extreme violence and seemingly supernatural events as they comb the ship for clues about the old woman’s past. These scenes play like Ten Little Indians crossed with Battle Royale: the ship’s other passengers visit horrific deaths on one another, usually with sharp objects or booby traps. Interspersed with the carnage – which, despite my description, is pretty tame – are numerous conversations in which Victorique patiently debunks the notion that the Queen Berry is haunted, culminating in the kind of “if it wasn’t for those meddling kids I would have had my revenge!” ending familiar to Scooby Doo fans.
What sets Gosick apart from most of the light novels I’ve read — admittedly, a small and unscientific sampling — is the prose. As Carlo Santos noted in his review of volume one, “we get real paragraphs and sentences, with a good mix of description, dialogue and action to keep the story moving” instead of the “clipped, telegraphic sentences” characteristic of the Code Geass and Full Metal Panic novels. To be sure, no one will confuse Gosick with the stark lyricism of Snow Country or the biting snarl of Kamikaze Girls, but the prose is adequate to the task at hand. Aside from a few fussy and oft-repeated details about the characters’ appearance, most of the description focuses on the setting and the elaborate death-traps aboard the Queen Berry, keeping the readers’ attention squarely focused on the mayhem.
The plot may disappoint some contemporary mystery buffs; if you’re an ardent fan of Alexander McCall Smith or Tony Hillerman, you may find Gosick‘s parlor-room denouement too pat and old-fashioned to be genuinely satisfying. Readers who enjoyed Case Closed, The Kindachi Case Files, and Higurashi When They Cry, however, will find Gosick‘s exaggerated characters, Baroque murders, and slick illustrations right in their wheelhouse.
This is an expanded version of a review that originally appeared at PopCultureShock on 4/8/08.
GOSISCK, VOL. 1 • STORY BY KAZUKI SAKURABA, ART BY HINAKO HIRATA • TOKYOPOP • 192 pp.