Following on the heels of My Dear Detective: Mitsuko’s Case Files into English-language translation, Usotoki Rhetoric once again brings us to the early days of the Showa Era to follow a lady detective. But where the former series is a by-the-(enjoyable)-book tale in the Nancy Drew or Penny Parker vein, Ritsu Miyako‘s story is one with a bit of a gimmick, as well as a more rural setting. Taking place in the small country village of Tsukumaya Town, Miyako’s tale follows sixteen-year-old Kanoko, who has the unusual gift of being able to hear when people are lying.
Set in Showa 1 (1926 by the Western calendar), the story introduces to a Japan on the verge of modernization. There’s maybe one or two cars in the town, most people wear traditional clothing, and superstition still runs high. That last is at least in part responsible for heroine Kanoko’s flight from her home village – her supernatural skill is one that has caused people a lot of torment, and they’re happy to call her cursed and to blame her for their problems. It is, admittedly, an unsettling gift: Kanoko’s talent combined with her youth means that she’s spent a lot of her life thus far inadvertently calling people out over things that they’re either trying to keep hidden out of embarrassment, to keep the peace, or because they don’t want to get in trouble. When she innocently informs others of the lies, she’s breaking the social contract, and that’s making things very uncomfortable for everyone. Her mother tries to hide the townspeople’s dissatisfaction with Kanoko’s knowledge, but once Kanoko figures out that they’re trying to drive her entire family out of town, she decides that the best thing for her to do is just leave.
She washes up in Tsukumaya Town, where she thinks she can get a job as a waitress; when that doesn’t pan out, she’s left high and dry, fighting with a cat over a single small fish. That’s when she meets (or rather, is found by) Soma and Kaoru. Soma’s a private detective looking to get some money knocked off his rent by cleaning an Inari shrine for his landlady, and Kaoru’s his childhood friend, a police detective. When the two discover Kanoko, they bring her to town, get her some food, and offer to help her find a job – and she’s utterly shocked to find out that the two men are both being completely sincere, as is the landlady who feeds her. Whether she’s surprised because people in her hometown were substantially less sincere on a daily basis or because she simply has not met with kindness on her travels is unclear, but she’s cautiously delighted to have found a place where it doesn’t look as if her talent will cause harm.
Except, of course, that no town outside of a fairy tale can be one hundred percent honest all of the time. But what is different about her new acquaintances – and Soma in particular – is that they’re not freaked out by her power. Again, this implies that her hometown was made up of a disproportionate number of dishonest or unpleasant people, but it certainly helps that, for all of his financial mismanagement, Soma is a respected fellow, and if he trusts her, then Kaoru the wealthy scion policeman trusts her, and it’s all smooth sailing from there. And Soma does seem to want to help Kanoko even as he recognizes that he can use her skill in service of his profession; he’s unerringly helpful and kind to her and he sets about helping her to understand that her power isn’t a curse. (Or at least not all of the time.) When he offers her a position as his assistant, he’s genuine, and that’s something Kanoko badly needs in her life.
The mysteries in this volume are decent without being mind-blowing. They’re also very much fair play mysteries, meaning that the clues are all there for the reader to pick up on in order to solve the cases alongside the detective. The depiction of Kanoko’s ability is also smoothly done so that we can use it ourselves – speech bubbles containing lies are patterned and we can see that Kanoko and Soma have worked out a hand signal for when she spots a lie, one that’s subtle but noticeable. This means that the story can shift perspectives, allowing Soma to take the narrative lead at times, which helps to make the storytelling more flexible. Of the two mysteries in this volume, the latter, about an attempted kidnapping, is the more interesting, and it also plays with the idea of detective fiction groupies, which is a fun detail that we don’t always get in mystery fiction.
The historical setting, while not integral to the plot, is a fun addition to the story, and in her sidebars the author lets us know some of the historical detail she researched (and sometimes didn’t end up using), so it’s good to know that the research was carried out. The art is clean and easy to follow in a fairly basic Hana to Yume style, and the translation feels appropriate without anachronistic slang thrown in. All in all, if you’re looking for a light mystery with a heroine on the verge of coming into her own, Usotoki Rhetoric is worth picking up.