Three months ago, John Pugmire of Locked Room International published a landmark anthology, The Realm of the Impossible (2017), that collected 26 impossible crime stories from across the world and one of the eye-catchers was a short story by Szu-Yen Lin, "The Miracle on Christmas Eve," which beautifully captured the spirit of the holidays – as well as whetting the reader's appetite for the then upcoming (English) release of one of his novel-length mysteries. That book was finally released early last month and can tell you that it definitely falls in the category of grand-old locked room mysteries."In investigations such as we are now pursuing, it should not be so much asked 'what has occurred,' as 'what has occurred that has never occurred before.'"– C. Auguste Dupin (Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" originally published in Graham's Magazine, 1841)
Death in the House of Rain (2006) is the second of, so far, eight (locked room) novels by Szu-Yen Lin, who's "one of the rising stars of Taiwanese detective fiction," which began with the tantalizingly titled The Nile Phantom Mystery (2005). I hope his debut will get translated and published by LRI in the future, but his second one was picked on account of it being "the most Carr-like" with strong overtones of Grand Guignol.
The setting for this grandiose tale is "a huge monster," a three-story mansion, which stands atop a mountain in Taiwan and was designed as "a three-dimensional representation" of the Chinese character for "rain" – which is best seen from a bird's-eye view. John Pugmire and Fei Wu note in their afterword that "the peculiar architecture" of the setting places Death in the House of Rain squarely in the Japanese shin honkaku camp.
They also point out that unorthodox architecture is a particular feature of shin honkaku and how "the special structure of the architecture is necessary to the execution of a seemingly impossible murder." Or could serve as a clever red-herring. Some fans, like myself, love the diabolical ingenuity and the vast array of (new) possibilities these architectural marvels have to offer. On the other hands, you have critics who find it unbelievable that anyone would erect such extraordinary dwelling places. However, these eccentric buildings are more credible than they might imagine.
I think credibility largely depends on the character of the person who ordered the construction of such a place and the available resources, which actually has a pretty well-known, real-life precedent – namely Sarah Winchester's Mystery House. I recommend you look into the history of that place, because the House of Rain looks a plain, common-place domicile when compared to the Winchester Mansion!
Jingfu Bai was a renowned entrepreneur and, in life, owned one of the most famous motor companies in Taiwan, which made him a fortune and this allowed him to commission a celebrated architect known for his "unique artistic style." The entrepreneur had intended to spend retirement in his mountain home together with his wife, daughter and sick father, but the latter passed away shortly after they had moved into their newly finished home. The real tragedy occurred when the remaining three residents were brutally murdered.
One year after the murders, Renze Bai, professor of English, takes possession of his late brother's house and moved in there together with his daughter, Lingsha Bai, who studies English literature and two maidservants – Ru and an Indonesian girl, Cindy. Not long after moving into the house, Bai receives an email, head "The Identity of the Real Murderer," which is followed by a coded message and a photograph of his brother's body is attached to the mail.
So he contacts a young assistant professor of philosophy, Ruoping Lin, who is slowly acquiring a reputation as an amateur detective. Lin is not the only guest at the house.
There are classmates of Lingsha, six in total, who were invited to spend the winter holiday at the house, but it quickly becomes apparent that the group of students aren't a close, tightly-knit group of friends. On the contrary. Some of them are positively horrid to each other and then they begin to die, one by one, while they're inside rooms that were either locked or barricaded from the inside. And there are no less than four seemingly impossible murders between the pages of this book!
Xiangya Yue, "a doll-like girl," is the first to go and her death is arguably the most astonishing of all four impossible murders. Yue receives a note from Chengyan Fang, a young man who had asked her out several times, asking her to meet him at the library on the second floor, but there he tried to drug her and she ended up locking herself into an empty storage room – after which she falls completely silent. So they have to take a hatchet to the door and when they finally gained access to the room they make a gruesome discovery: Yue's head had been torn from her shoulders and was nowhere to be found inside the locked room! But it doesn't end there.
A second victim is brutally strangled to death in a changing room and the only unlocked door opened on a tennis court where "the ground of the red clay court was completely intact." Not a single footprint defaced its surface. A third victim, inexplicably, is defenestrated inside a locked room and the last person apparently committed suicide in a bedroom with furniture moved against the inside door.
It has often been remarked that quantity doesn't always mean quality, but the locked rooms here bristle with originality and added a new ideas to the pantheon of impossible crime fiction. My only gripe is that three of the four impossibilities required a stroke of luck to work, which quite an amazing coincidence that it worked three times in a row. However, the author was well aware of this fact and offered a defense for these string of coincidences with the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe acting as a character-witness (see opening-quote).
I also liked how these three impossibilities stand in relation to the fourth and final locked room murder, which has a genuinely clever explanation and provides the book with a tragic who-and whydunit element – which nicely dovetailed with the previous three deaths and the family murders of the preceding year. So I decided to refrain from nitpicking and accept the defense given by Lin.
Death in the House of Rain truly has all the hallmarks of a Japanese shin honkaku mystery novel and stands comparison with its illustrious predecessors such as Soji Shimada's Senseijutsu satsujinjiken (The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, 1981), Yukito Ayatsuji's Jakkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987) and Alice Arisugawa's Koto Pazuru (The Moai Island Puzzle, 1989).
I pointed out in the past how these shin honkaku mystery novels also left an indelible mark on the anime-and manga corner of the mystery genre, which includes such popular and long-running series as Detective Conan, The Kindaichi Case Files and Detective Academy Q, but this time they might also had an influence of a shin honkaku-style author. Not only did this story read like an elaborate Conan or Kindaichi story-arc, but Lin also kept referring to a suicide note as "a death note." I might be sorely mistaken, but I think that's as obvious a reference as referring to the unknown murderer, stalking the twisty corridors and locked rooms of the house, as a hollow man.
So, that's about all I can, or have, to say about the book, because, while Death in the House of Rain, has plot that revolves around four impossible crimes, it's also an incredibly lean story. One that you can blaze through like a short story or novella, which might be the only true weakness of the book. The readers arrives at the final chapter way too fast. Otherwise, this is a dark, moody locked room novel in the grand tradition of John Dickson Carr, Hake Talbot and Paul Halter. Definitely recommended to all of my fellow locked room fanatics!