Nisioisin has a palindromic name, and a mind that also seems to double back on itself in one knotty convolution after another. He writes novels that have elements of mysteries, thrillers, surreal comedies and what Japanese sometimes call “erotic grotesque nonsense” — three-way mixes of sex, violence and absurdity. The audacity of the whole thing is at least as important as any of the other elements, to say nothing of the plot.
I was not thinking of the plot a great deal during Death Note: Another Note, if only because the conventions of murder mysteries guarantee that their plots only exist as a framework for authorial witchcraft of one kind or another. They’re as ultimately unimportant to the story as the color of the tarmac at the Indy 500, which in turn only exists to give the cars something to run on really fast. But unimportant doesn’t mean useless, and so novel murder weapons and bizarre ways of obtaining (or obscuring) clues are part of the author’s showmanship. This is a big part of how Nisioisin’s Zaregoto and Anotherholic worked: they were arenas in which the author could get away with hitching together the most improbable and colorful of elements. That was part of the fun. We know the story’s a contrivance with all the “reality” of the patter a stage magician tells us when he’s doing a card trick, so why get hung up about it? Isn’t all this stuff about consenting to have our legs pulled in a creative way?
Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I know of no one who turns down a good time when offered in the guise of exactly that and nothing more. No, in the sense that once you realize it’s nothing but a stunt, the whole thing becomes hollow. Monotonous, too. If an acrobat can stand on one finger, it’s impressive when done once as a crowning moment. When it becomes the whole of his act, he needs to come up with better material.
That’s part of why I felt like I myself was standing on one finger to admire Another Note. The most impressive thing about it is the juggling act, and the way it uses the Death Note universe and a couple of key characters from it as the objects juggled. It fills in a small but intriguing bit of backstory in the Death Note universe: how L and FBI agent Misora collaborated, a few years before the events in the main storyline of Death Note, to solve a serial-murder case in Los Angeles. Beyond that simple description lies a story so odd, so contrived and stilted that I was positive it was all by design. Nisioisin did the exact same thing with his other novels, so at least it’s not like I walked in unawares.
And indeed, once I got into the homestretch with Another Note, I found I was right: it was indeed all by design. From the outset, the book seems as though it has not been written with any degree of verisimilitude about Los Angeles, police procedure, serial murder, or even many of the specific details of its own story — especially not the names of the victims, which go down in history as the most glorious absurdities ever put on paper in the name of Japanese popular culture: “Backyard Bottomslash” and “Quarter Queen”, to name two. The details of how Misora and L meet up, share evidence, examine crime scenes, share theories and derive what might be facts from what seem like absurdity, are all ludicrous. Maybe delirious would be a better word, since what matters is not the elements themselves but the way they’re made to get up and dance, change partners at random and do backbreaking gymnastics. Those of you coming in from more straightlaced detective / mystery / thriller fiction — Dennis Lehane, say — are going to be either laughing hysterically all the way through or will jump ship by the end of the second chapter.
There’s nothing here that deserves comparison with that variety of work, though, because that’s not what’s being aimed for. Vampire Hunter D isn’t really about the showdowns and fights between D and his adversaries, but about the screwloose, nightmarish world they all inhabit. If the world of the D books is really the main character, with D just our tour guide, then the main character of Nisioisin’s books is not any one person in it, but rather the author’s propensity for creating and talking about the most patently absurd situations with a straight face. And in the end he makes that pay off, to some degree, by letting us in on how we've been had and to what degree. Detective fiction all works like that anyway, so why not have some fun with the process while we're at it?
What works no matter what you think of the plotting is the way Nisioisin comfortably inhabits these familiar characters and puppet-masters them through situations that, however absurd they are, do complement their respective natures. L loves nothing more than a mystery to sink his teeth into, and he gets one — one so contrived I half-expected the climax of the story to involve him deducing he was a character in a detective novel. Where else would you find something this consistently off the (fourth) wall?
What also works is how the author — or, specifically, the narrator — sustains his tone of amused detachment about all these things. There’s more than one attempt to wink at the reader, to admit all this stuff really is as outlandish as it seems, to hang a lampshade on it and call it a lampshade and nothing more. At first I assumed that was simply the author being himself. Then I realized he might well have been banking on that exact expectation to mislead us, and if nothing else Another Note is a cleverly-constructed example of how to feed an audience almost nothing but a diet of red herrings. You pays your money and you takes your aesthetics.