Originally published in Japanese in 1976 as Pekin Yūyūkan
English language translation first published in 1986 as Occasional Paper No. 19 by the Center for Asian Studies, University of Arizona
Doi Sakutarō, a young man who is about to finish his apprenticeship in selling art antiques, arrives in Peking with instructions to make contact with a Japanese Foreign Office agent. He is asked to renew his contact with Wen Pao-t’ai, a Chinese expert in inscription rubbings who Doi had studied under a few years earlier. It turns out that Wen has been operating as an intermediary in passing bribes to members of the government and Japan, fearing growing Russian influence, initially wants Doi to get close to him to monitor his old friend’s activities.
Doi’s contact, Nasu Keigo, explains how Japan and Russia each have an interest in steering Chinese policy in relation to Manchuria. Tensions are building between the two countries over the future of the region and war seems inevitable but each side wants it to happen on their terms. Japan favors a quick war to take advantage of Russia’s poor infrastructure while Russia wants to drag the conflict out to give them time to move troops and weapons into the region.
The early chapters of the book, while interesting, are extremely heavy in terms of historical content. Chin Shunshin does explain the most important aspects of the background and I think he does a fine job of explaining the complex political tensions. Personally I found the setting to be quite fascinating but I recognize that for those who have never heard of the Boxer Rebellion or the background to the Russo-Japanese War may find the first dozen pages rather dense and overwhelming.
Readers primarily interested in the mystery aspect of the novel, rather than espionage and political maneuverings, will have to wait until about a third of the way into the novel for those elements to be introduced, though readers will no doubt pay close attention when Wen’s studio is initially described. Access to this small building with its single entrance is restricted to just one servant and Wen routinely engages a heavy deadbolt when inside. In short, we have a promising location for a locked room murder.
Once Japan decides to act, Doi is sent in a small party to deliver the first installment of a bribe. When they come to deliver the second the scene plays out much as before. They leave $250,000 with Wen who locks the door behind them. They are being escorted to the gate when they realize they forgot to ask for a receipt and so return to find that Wen is not responding. Just a few minutes have passed and the lock is still engaged so they decide to look through the window only to see him lying on his inscriptions slab. Forcing the door they find him dead having been stabbed with a poisoned dagger and no sign of the bribe money inside.
I found there was a lot to like about this setup which feels extremely well thought-out. I particularly appreciated that the two strands of the puzzle – the question of what happened to the money and how the murder was done – are solved at quite different points in the novel and not viewed as equally important by each player in the drama.
Of the two questions, the one that appealed most to my imagination was the matter of the vanishing money. The interior of the studio is pretty empty while the incredibly short time frame between Doi leaving and returning makes it hard to see how Wen would have had time to hide it anywhere. While the possible explanations feel pretty limited, that is understandable given the extremely constraining circumstances in which this crime took place. Though the investigation is perhaps a little rushed, the explanation struck me as pretty satisfying.
The other question, the matter of the murder, is both simple and complex. Like the issue of the money, the circumstances are extremely constraining, particularly as suspects are thin on the ground. The question of how the crime was achieved is much tougher however. While I note that the author does take pains to reference all important elements needed for the solution before delivering that to us, I came nowhere near to the solution. On reflection, I think the author does enough for the reader to conclude that they played fair.
Chin does introduce us to a sleuth, Chang Shao-kuang, who has an interesting backstory that reflects some of the themes he is discussing more broadly in this novel. For instance, when he is introduced to us it is as a young man who feels like he belongs to the era to come rather than the one he happens to live in that prizes merit above all else. As it happens his professional qualifications, the law, are of less use to him than you might expect. Rather than feeling born for this type of work, it was the only one he could think of when he made his return to the country after many years away and we learn that he has come to be quite successful.
He is certainly a smart investigator and I did enjoy that he does not necessarily feel that he wishes to share his findings with everyone. This does help differentiate him from other genius sleuths and I enjoyed watching him handle the other investigators with more formal standing to investigate the case. I also really appreciated the epilogue in which, several years later, he explains the things he wouldn’t share with the investigators. That felt both satisfying and in keeping with the character while providing the reader with the appropriate sense of closure.
Of course, one of the disappointments in writing this review is that I know that not many people will get the opportunity to read it. It had been published by an academic press, albeit quite affordably, which does mean there are limited copies kicking about.
While Murder in a Peking Studio may seem a little intimidating, at least to begin with, it is built around a solid locked room puzzle. Though a little dense and dry in places, I enjoyed the exploration of a moment in history which felt pleasantly neutral and felt that the solutions to the puzzles were handled and explained well. With the minor caution that the locked room is not the focus until some way into the book, I would suggest that this is worth a look for fans of the locked room or of this era of history.
The Verdict: The historical details are excellent and do a good job of conveying a sense of place and time. The locked room, while it takes a minute to arrive, is good enough to justify the read on that score alone.