“Come to think of it, I was on my way to deliver the contents to Kunagisa. But this lady really figured that out just from this bag? She was like . . . like one of those famous books of yore. Like . . .
Like a detective.”
-“I,” The Kubikiri Cycle (the first novel in the Zaregoto series by Nisio Isin)
In storytelling there are three basic beings responsible for the dispensation of the story: the author, the audience, and the narrator, with the latter often serving to bridge the gap between the author and the audience. When this occurs with a first-person narrator, they become our window or entry point into the story. This means that, especially in mysteries, the narrator is someone easily identifiable; someone who one can see themselves as in order to insert themselves into the thick of solving the mystery; a viewpoint character.
At first blush, our narrator for Nisio Isin’s Zaregoto series, who refers to himself only as “ぼく” or “I,” appears to be the perfect viewpoint narrator. Surrounded by geniuses of all types, he constantly reaffirms the fact that (although intelligent) he is not a genius like his peers, especially his best friend Tomo Kunagisa. He is not a detective. He is not a genius. He is not a complex or complicated man.
Or at least, that’s what he says.
The first novel in the Zaregoto series, The Kubikiri Cycle, establishes “I” as the narrator. He becomes our viewpoint into a closed circle of geniuses where the murder mystery is taking place. Establishing “I” as the Doctor Watson of the story is natural and seamless. When “I” does show a flash of deductive prowess at the end, he is shortly brought down several pegs by “private contractor” Jun Aikawa who re-solves the mystery for him. “I” is the textbook viewpoint by the end of this book; prodding the intellectually superior characters into spilling out exposition so that we, the audience, can better grasp the mystery.
This is crucial for his characterization going into the second novel, The Kubishime Romanticist, when “I” is thrust into a rash of serial killings in the more familiar environment of Kyoto. Opening with the most humdrum of meetings in a university cafeteria, the book establishes a backdrop of normalcy before one of the murders hits closely to “I” in proximity. Running parallel to this is the secondary plot of “I” coming into a shaky friendship with the serial killer himself, Hitoshiki Zerozaki. Shedding his role as an insert for the audience, “I” takes an active step in elevating his intelligence while affirming a disassociation with typical emotional responses and bonds.
In other words, he crosses the line between the Doctor Watson viewpoint into the dispassionate, arrogant demeanor of Sherlock Holmes.
By casting “I’s” previous perpective into doubt, The Kubishime Romanticist changes the narrative fabric of both novels. “I” is now an unreliable narrator. In an expositive passage, much like the one in the previous novel, “I” reveals the mystery, this time through a discussion with Zerozaki. Zerozaki prods “I” for information, acting as a momentary viewpoint character for us, the deceived audience. In the following scene, Jun Aikawa shows up to once again fit the final pieces of the story together, only this time she speaks with “I” on much more familiar and equal terms.
“The details of this string of incidents,” she eventually said.
“You mean you’re not satisfied with my reasoning again?”
“No, I’ve got no problem with your reasoning. It’s you I’m not satisfied with. At all.”
-An exchange between Jun Aikawa and “I” in the closing chapter of The Kubishime Romanticist.
Following the first two novels in this series of nine, it would be fascinating to chronicle “I’s” role as a narrator throughout the series. Does he return to being a viewpoint for the audience? Could he possibly, after what we learn in The Kubishime Romanticist? Or does he elevate his status to the genius level, in spite of his assertions to the contrary, leaving the audience in his doubtful wake? Unfortunately, I am ill-equipped to answer these questions, as only the first two novels of this series have been released in English.
Further Reading: Who Murdered Detective Fictions?– Yi takes a look at the simplicity of mystery stories within the Gosick anime series.