The Moai Island Puzzle by Alice Arisugawa, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

The Moai Island Puzzle
Alice Arisugawa
Originally Published 1989

Three students from a university mystery club travel to an island where a cache of diamonds had been hidden several years before. Wooden moai statues were placed around the island, seemingly at random, and may be linked in some way to the location of the loot.

Alice intends to set his mind to solving this puzzle but before he and his friends can get to work a terrible storm strikes the island. After the storm passes, two bodies are found in a locked room and the group soon realizes that someone in their number is a killer.

The Moai Island Puzzle is a novel that I have been eagerly anticipating reading since it was published in translation last year by Locked Room International. The Moai statue element of the story appealed to my imagination and I will admit to being a sucker for stories where groups of people are stranded on an island together, slowly being picked off. Throw in a locked room and this really seemed to be my deal.

No doubt the word ‘seemed’ will have tipped you off that the novel did not quite match my sky high hopes for it, although I still had a very good time with it. Before I tackle the meat of the story I will say that I felt that the locked room element really was less of a factor in the story than it is built up to be by the blurb on the back cover. Those expecting Carrian ingenuity are more likely to be struck with incredulity about some aspects of the proposed solution and I certainly would not suggest reading the novel just for the locked room.

Nor was the Moai statue puzzle, or at least the part of it that the reader is capable of solving, so challenging that you could imagine it stumping these characters for as long as it does. It is certainly fun to work through though and I felt the section of the book dealing with solving the puzzle made for an enjoyable interlude from the murder mystery parts of the story.

These murders are in fact the meat of the story and here the book is on much more solid ground. Arisugawa crafts an intriguing adventure in which there does not seem to be anything approaching a solid motive for the killings and where our suspects all lack alibis and all had the capability of acquiring the means.

Towards the end of the story in Ellery Queen style, the author issues a challenge to the reader informing them that they have all of the information they need to deduce the killer. I was stumped and, upon reading the solution, really quite impressed by the meticulous reasoning of the sleuth and how neatly everything fit together. I felt it played fair and although I had to reread a couple of points to make sure I was grasping the reasoning, I thought it made excellent sense.

So, if I was entertained by the Moai puzzle and thought the solution to the murders was quite good, why was I also a little underwhelmed?

I think a large part of the answer to that lies in the question of style and here I will fully acknowledge that what may not have worked for me could be entirely your cup of tea! While I found the mystery itself interesting, the manner in which we go through characters’ movements and try to pin down the details of each crime felt dry and became quite tedious to work through. As the crimes mount up, this process seems to become more and more repetitive.

The other significant issue is that Alice is just not a particularly dynamic protagonist. The part of his story that I was most interested in, his relationship with Maria, is barely broached except to be met by immediate denials.

Though not perfect, I think if you are able to look past its sometimes dull protagonist and investigative procedure, there is some excellent material here. While I was not wowed by this book the way I was when I finally put down the excellent Decagon House Murder, I did find this quite enjoyable in parts.

7 thoughts on “The Moai Island Puzzle by Alice Arisugawa, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

    1. I found TDHM to be quite dry and stilted and the characters were quite thin but I felt that it was necessary for the puzzle to work and I really enjoyed the solution to that one. Here, the prose is fuller and the characters more developed but that almost makes the sections where information is being laid out feel more unnatural and noticeable.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. There’s definitely a better sense of character here than in TDHM, I’d agree, but I’d equally argue that that’s sort of the point of TDHM. I shall say no more since spoilers lurk that way, but the richer array or people on display here is, I reckon, down to a conscious choice by Yukito Ayatsuji in that other book.

    And I for one actually enjoy the slightly stilted language of these shin honkaku translations; it’s not distracting, it’s just written in a different idiom, and there’s something about that which focusses my mind rather intently. Maybe it’s because everything feels like it has significance when it’s written in this way, rather than the research or clues standing out a mile — if everything is vying for your attention then nothing jumps out. Hmm, I need to think this through some more.

    Anyway, I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy this as much as I did. Possibly having been told how amazing it is wasn’t the best preparation. I was lucky — I got to proof-read it before anyone had any idea what it was, so I got taken doubly by surprise!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I absolutely agree with what you say about TDHM and while I think that the prose there is awkward, it is clearly intentional and works very well.

      I do want to be clear that I did enjoy this novel a lot too in spite of my grumbling about the prose style. I almost wish that the text had been more functional the whole way through though – then the shift to the puzzle and clue elements would feel less abrupt. I would be curious to find out whether the book reads similarly in Japanese or if some of this is the approach of the translator. Sadly, not being able to read Japanese, I have no way of investigating this myself.

      I would definitely be interested to read more by the author though and I am really happy that LRI is making works like these available in English.


  2. I’m a little late to the party, but wanted to let you know that I updated my blogroll and added yours to the list. Always glad to see fellow zealots spreading the word of the classics. 🙂

    On The Moai Island Puzzle, the most impressive part is definitely the reasoning and clueing of the overall plot. You might come away a little bit disappointed if you picked this one up solely for the locked room/dying message combination. Although the motivation behind the impossibility was pretty clever and original.

    I mentioned in my review Sir Henry Merrivale lectures on all the possible motives for creating a locked room situation, which can be found in The White Priory Murders and The Peacock Feather Murders, but this motive was not among them. So that was something novel deserving a nob of acknowledgment.

    Like JJ, I probably enjoyed this one a little more than you did.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks TomCat. One of the things I didn’t mention in my review but which I did enjoy was the lecture on different dying messages which was a nice nod to Fell and Merrivale.

      I did think that the clueing and reasoning was generally very good and I did enjoy the explanation of how the conclusion was reached.


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