Japanese crime fiction has a long and distinguished history. One of the things that stands out is their love of the golden age and the fair play mystery and they constantly work with the tropes and rules of the genre to produce new and original stories. Japanese writers like Ayatsuji have reinvented the locked room mystery, the impossible problem and the savant detective, paying homage to earlier western writers but very much making these tropes their own. This exceptional debut from 1987 is puzzle within a puzzle, a proper brainteaser workout for the reader in love with figuring out how the impossible could be achieved. The denouement is clever, entirely plausible and not far short of poetic. Ayatsuji likes to lay out the clues early, inviting the reader into the game, these only hint at the direction the mystery is going, their significance will not home later. It’s layered and nuanced and a tremendous amount of fun. Ayatsuji was a member of the Kyoto University Mystery Club, a group dedicated to golden age of crime fiction and that clearly gave him the idea for his first novel. The Decagon House Murders is loosely based on And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, (with a chunk of Holmes thrown in), a group of students from the K-University Mystery Club find themselves on a secluded island attempting to solve a gruesome series of murders that happened there the previous year. Naturally, they have stumbled into their own nightmare.
The novel opens with a murderer troubled by what he is about to do. Aware it will seem insane to the world, in fact he knows himself that it is insane. But if they come, if they step into the Decagon House their fate will be sealed. They will die one by one. He tossed a bottle into the sea, it doesn’t matter to him who finds, or whether someone finds, the letter and a brief justification. So it begins.
Each of the six members of the Mystery Club has adopted an author’s name; Carr, Leroux, Orczy, Agatha, Poe and Ellery. Ellery explains the group are not interested in social realism, or murders inspired by political crimes or the stress of the modern world. They believe in the great detective, a lonely mansion, shady residents, bloody murder and impossible mysteries unseen before. The group bemoan the age of forensic analysis and solid police work that renders the intuit detective redundant. Be careful what you wish for!
The group are delivered to Tsunojima island, there is only one way on, an inlet, as there are cliffs on all sides. The Decagon House, an annex, sits atop the cliffs, the only building left since the Blue Mansion, the main residence, burned down and the four residents were murdered last year. Nakamura Seiji, his wife and the two servants, curiously, the gardener went missing, could he be the killer? The group are met by one other student, Van Dine, he helps them settle in to the ten sided house, each has a room; as the night progresses small signs of tension emerge.
On the mainland a former member of the Mystery Club gets a letter stating that the members were responsible for the murder of Seiji’s daughter Chiori. The girl died after a party, her heart gave out, she was very drunk, no one assumed it was murder until now. Until Seiji seems to have come back from the dead to threaten revenge, could it be a hoax? Meanwhile on the island the first victim is killed, it won’t end there, not by a long way…
The Decagon House Murders is sharp and witty and very much in the spirit of the golden age mystery; superbly plotted and wickedly entertaining. Pushkin Press is to be congratulated on bringing us some of the best, so far unseen in English, Japanese mysteries. More and more please.
Review by Paul Burke
Translated by Ho-Ling Wong
Pushkin Press, paperback, ISBN 9781782276350, 3/12/20