"These writers (with others like them) are the aristocrats of the game, the old serpents, the gambit-devisers and trap-baiters whose strokes of ingenuity make the game worth playing at all."- John Dickson Carr ("The Grandest Game in the World," from The Door to Doom and Other Detections, 1980)
In late June of this year, John Pugmire's Locked Room International published a translation of a landmark mystery novel from the land of the rising sun, Yukito Ayatsuji's, Jukkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987), which is credited with launching the neo-orthodox (shinhonkaku) movement – and putting an end to the dominance of the socially conscious crime novel. If only that would happen over here in the West.
The Decagon House Murders was translated by our very own tour guide through the largely uncharted territory of the Japanese mystery novel, Ho-Ling Wong, who also wrote a postscript on the Kyoto University Mystery Club. They stood at the cradle of this movement and a thinly disguised version of the club (and its members) figure prominently in the book.
A short introduction on the neo-orthodox movement was penned by Soji Shimada, author of that bloody tour-de-force known as Senseijutsu satsujinjiken (The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, 1981), and sandwiched between the introduction and after word is the answer to an all-important, but rarely posed, question: what do you get when you populate Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939) with the type of characters from Peter Lovesey's Bloodhounds (1996)?
Tsunojima is a small, deserted island off the coast of Japan and would've simply been one of the many, undistinguished rocks in the island nation if it weren't for the burned down ruins of a mansion and decagon-shaped house – which where the scene of a gruesome, quadruple murder case less than a year before the opening of the story.
So it goes without saying that the island is the perfect location for an excursion for the members of a certain university mystery club.
The club-members are known throughout a majority of the story by their adopted nicknames: "Agatha," "Carr," "Van Dine," "Ellery," "Leroux," "Orczy" and "Poe," which are, of course, names of famous mystery writers from the past – primarily from our Golden Age. One of them was exposed in the prologue to harbor plans to commit a small-scale massacre on the island, but the letter promising five victims, a detective and a killer at the end of their stay is taken as a joke or attempt at setting up a murder game.
There are also letters circulated to club members on the mainland, which pertain to tragedy that took place on the island several month ago and a death related to the mystery club itself.
From this point on, the narrative alternates between the mainland investigation into the past murders and the rising body count on the island in the present. The former poses some interesting questions: why did the murder take several days to murder three or four people? Why was the hand of one of the victims severed? Where's the gardener who disappeared after the murders? Why do the current series of murders on the island tend to mimic the ones from the past?
My exposure to Japanese mysteries have mainly come from comics (manga) and some cartoons (anime), such as Case Closed and The Kindaichi Case Files, but you can easily see how the neo-orthodox movement influenced even that specific branch of mystery fiction. There's the cast of high-school or university students in a remote, isolated location with a dark crime in the past and a murderous avenger in the present, which is also pretty much a basic plot synopsis of every Kindaichi story. Perhaps the best example comes from an animated series, Detective Academy Q, which has several episodes forming The Kamikakushi Murder Case and has arguably the best use of bizarre architecture – alongside several seemingly impossible disappearances. I should re-watch those episodes one of these days and review them here. They were really clever.
However, as interesting and gratifying as the unapologetic attitude as an anti-modern crime novel might be, The Decagon House Murders has one or two flaws that you might expect from a debut novel – even from a (re)debut of an entire genre.
The plot is furnished with all the classic trappings of a Golden Age mystery, but the clueing is sparse and you need experience, combined with some intuition, to make a stab in the right direction. You can't really play the clever and smug armchair detective, as the story begins to unravel, but the only real drawback for me was that the story lacked an impossible crime! There were none! Absolutely zero! And this book was published by Locked Room International! Shocking, Watson! Shocking!
Anyhow... considering what The Decagon House Murders has done for my beloved, classically-styled detective stories in the East, as well as being an incredibly fun book to read, I was more than willing to look pass these minor flaws. And I'm very grateful to both Ho-Ling and Pugmire for tossing this one over the language barrier. May it be the first in a long row!
Finally, the legacy of The Decagon House Murders gives me an opportunity to say to (the memory of) Julian Symons what should've been said a long, long time ago: in your face, you dry-mouthed fairy!
Thanks for the review; I read the novel in Chinese, and regretted not knowing that an English translation was in the pipeline! I do hope that Ho-Ling works on the subsequent novels, so that I can read more of Ayatsuji in English. I read the 'Maze House Murders' in Chinese as well, and I had the same impression of it as I had of 'Decagon House Murders': enjoyable, fair, but slightly thin on clues.ReplyDelete
Interestingly enough, I would actually label 'Decagon House Murders' as a 'retrospective locked room/ impossible mystery'. But only in retrospect - and subtly so for only certain parts of the narrative...!
Technically speaking, you could label this story as a retrospective locked room mystery, but it really shouldn't be put in the category of impossible crime stories for the same reason Christie's Death on the Nile isn't considered a locked room/impossible crime story. Because it really isn't.Delete
I hope Ho-Ling finds an ingenious locked room mystery in style of "The Lure of the Green Door" for his next translation. That or I'll (badly) write one myself.
Thanks for reading & the review!ReplyDelete
One problem TDHM has is that while it is overpopulated with characters who /think/ they're a detective, the narrative actually lacks a real detective figure. The way the crimes are explained at the end is similar to the conclusion of ATTWN, but whereas most mystery novels end with a recap by the detective of all the hints, TDHM does not do that, despite it actually being reasonably clued (see the ravings/post on clues on my blog today), which is actually a shame. This is because the puzzle is not meant to be solved by the detective figures, but by the reader: in fact, only the all-knowing reader could (logically) deduce the identity of the murderer. I think Ayatsuji mentioned in an essay that's why TDHM is quite different from the rest of the series, because it was not designed as a series from the start.
Random story about translating: you wouldn't believe how much trouble I had to go through to get "the sentence" exactly on the very final line of the left page, so the impact would be saved for last. By the way, I think "the sentence" is still one of the most brilliant sentences in all of detective fiction, as you basically go "Oh, so that's how they did it!" and "But that's impossible!' at the same time.
About further translations: more like nothing here to comment ATM rather than no comment. I do have to note that for obvious reasons, I can't just post random translations of any story I like on my blog anymore. Unless the copyright expired.
I remember reading how the French translator of Carr's The Burning Court had a similar struggle in carrying over the full-impact of The Burning Court from English, which he managed to by switching two sections and it ended up being an improvement of the plot. I section were never switched in the original English editions, but Carr reportedly agreed that the change was an improvement on the original.Delete
Aren't most of Kido's (earlier) Hanshichi stories in the public domain?!
That's funny, I could have sorn there was an impossible poisoning involving some decagonal teacupsReplyDelete
Locked Room International
That one poisoning with the decagonal cup appeared semi-impossible, but I couldn't mark it as an impossible crime because...Delete
(SPOILER, SPOILER, SPOILER, SPOILER)
...there wasn't a specific target for that one poisoning (shades of Christie’s Three Act Tragedy) and there weren't any clues as to how the murderer was able to identify the poisoned cup.
So, no, not really an impossible crime novel, but still very grateful that you published it.
How embarrassing then, sending Ho Ling a message to notify him about him this release only later to realize he was the translator.ReplyDelete
Now that long-since comment he made on one of your articles about sending you 'something' all makes sense.
Great job TanteiKid on making dreams reality!
And old acquaintance,
Good to see you still hanging around in the mystery sphere, Origami, but did Ho-Ling send me anything? I don't remember that post at all.Delete
Hahah it was in this comment section:ReplyDelete
Also funny that you mentioned the Kamikakushi Village murder case as I have rewatched it twice in the past 3 months. One viewing for the sake of returning to a mystery that I remember so fondly and it has been a long time since I watched it the first time. A subsequent viewing to show it to a friend of mine who is not that into mysteries but could really appreciate the ingenuity of the twist.ReplyDelete
To me that story is a small masterpiece with its six episode structure the first one serving as a kind of prologue mystery to set up and familiarize the watcher with the upcoming bigger mystery, the last episode serving as an epiloque where smaller questions are answered and the story gets worked towards a bittersweet ending.
Great pacing, atmosphere etc.
Still anticipating the day my Japanese becomes good enough so that a purchase of the manga would make sense.
"and has arguably the best use of bizarre architecture"
It is kind of disappointing to read this, as I have felt I have read so few titles in the mystery genre but already encountered some of its 'best-of' titles.
"It is kind of disappointing to read this, as I have felt I have read so few titles in the mystery genre but already encountered some of its 'best-of' titles."Delete
Don't worry. I have read very little compared to my fellow bloggers such as Curt Evans (The Passing Tramp) and John Norris (Pretty Sinister Books) or professional fans boys such as Bill Pronzini and the late Derek Smith. My opinion isn't the final word on these matters.