Stories were collected and published in English in 2020
Few writers of detective fiction can match both John Dickson Carr and Freeman Wills Crofts at their own game. Included in this superb collection by Tetsuya Ayukawa, recognized as the doyen of the honkaku mystery, are four impossible crime stories and three unbreakable alibi tales. The final story “The Red Locked Room” can lay claim to be one of the finest ever written in the genre. Judge for yourself.
For the first three months of the year I have tried to post a weekly review of a Japanese crime or mystery novel as part of my participation in the Japanese Literature Challenge. This week’s post will be the final one in that series, though of course my TBR pile still contains plenty more Japanese mystery books to read. It is also something of a transition to my next weekly post theme but there will be more on that in a moment!
An excellent introduction from Taku Ashibe provides some background both about Ayukawa and how the stories he wrote fit into the general development of the honkaku mystery. It discusses his two series detectives Chief Inspector Onitsura and the gifted amateur Ryūzō Hoshikage, both represented in this collection, and outlines the differences between them. Essentially the latter’s stories tended to be howdunnit tales while the former blends elements of the police procedural and the puzzle plot, typically focusing on breaking alibis.
There were seven stories selected for this collection – four featuring Hoshikage and three Onitsura and they are alternated which does help to make the stories here feel more balanced between the different styles which is to be welcomed.
The quality of the stories on offer is generally very high and there is no failure in the collection. Even the weakest stories (which I felt were The White Locked Room and The Five Clocks) still had points of interest and each story felt well clued with solid and detailed explanations.
The best stories on the other hand are quite exceptional. The Clown in the Tunnel is a wonderfully worked story where a killer appears to have disappeared while escaping in a short tunnel that was observed at either end. The author is meticulous in charting out the various movements of the characters throughout the house and I appreciated the clever solution.
The other story that really grabbed me was the preceding one – Death in Early Spring. This story about a man found murdered in a construction site is similarly very cleverly timed, presenting a wonderful unbreakable alibi scenario. Ayukawa’s plotting here is really quite ingenious and everything is very fairly clued.
It is a really strong collection that I think should be of interest to anyone who enjoys Japanese puzzle plot mysteries. I hope that further Ayukawa follows in translation as I was very impressed with this sampler of his work. For those interested in more detailed thoughts on the stories contained in this collection be sure to read the second page of this review!
Finally, as I trailed at the start of this post my Monday posts will have a different theme for at least the next two months. After throwing out some suggestions for themes to that small but brave band of folk who follow me on Twitter I can announce that in April and May #mondaysareimpossible as I post about locked room and impossible crime novels. Is there a better way to start the week?
The Verdict: A very strong collection of locked room and unbreakable alibi stories. Based on this sampler let’s hope more Ayukawa will follow!
I strongly recommend checking out this review from TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time who was similarly very impressed with the collection but has some different preferences as to what he considers the best stories.
Also check out Nick’s review @ The Grandest Game in the World for his thoughts on each of the stories here.
The White Locked Room
A professor is found stabbed to death in his home but the absence of the knife seems to preclude suicide. The snow surrounding the home only shows two sets of footprints – the man who discovered him and a student of his both of whom are on the scene.
Not the flashiest start to the collection but a solid tale with a well-worked snow problem. The investigators do get remarkably far on some tiny bits of evidence and supposition but the conclusion is fine.
Three artists each receive packages containing different items: a gun that shows signs of having been fired recently, some rope and an empty bottle of acid. The person identified as the sender claims to have no knowledge of these parcels. Then a few days later a headless body with its fingers burned with acid to obliterate its fingerprints is discovered in the basement of a building and it seems that the items received in those parcels had been used to carry out the murder.
Though this second story initially appears quite simple and straightforward appearances are deceptive. There are some great ideas at play here and while the tricks used are not unique to this story, the way it is executed is absolutely superb.
The Blue Locked Room
This story begins with a fight between members of a theatrical troupe. Fuyuto Shinano, an actor, has discovered that his director, Katsuhiko Kashimura, has seduced his wife and threatens to stab him – only being stopped when a Police officer arrives and steps in to intervene. When the director cannot be roused the next morning the Police officer is fetched to investigate and when the locked door to his room is opened they find him murdered. The door was locked from the inside and the only other exit to the room is a window but beneath it is a flowerbed that has no signs of footprints.
I have somewhat mixed feelings about this one. A theatrical setting always holds a strong appeal for me and this is no exception. The characters make strong impressions in just a few pages and the circumstances of the locked room are solid and well described. On the other hand, the ideas here are pretty familiar and I had little problem working out the solutions as to who had done the crime and how they pulled it off early in the story.
Death in Early Spring
This story concerns the murder of a young man in a construction site at the exact same spot a woman had been murdered several months earlier. Suspicion falls upon the man’s rival but he seems to have an unbreakable alibi for the time that the murder took place.
Opening with the statement that to understand an unbreakable alibi we are going to need to ‘examine a dry series of railway timetables’ is a bold way to start a story. Happily I think the word ‘dry’ is an overstatement and while the timetables are very important, the story is far richer than the first paragraph makes it seem. It is a really bold and creative take on the unbreakable alibi story and, for me, one of the best stories in the collection.
The Clown in the Tunnel
A newspaper reporter and photographer arrive at a jazz band’s lodgings to conduct interviews to prepare a feature on them for publication. While they are talking with the band leader a woman interupts and the pair step outside to briefly argue before he returns a few moments later to explain that was the group’s vocalist and to apologize for the interuption. Other members of the group arrive but when the time comes to take a group photograph the vocalist is found stabbed to death in the bathroom in a tub filled with water and no sign of the murder weapon.
The group all wait together for the police to arrive. When they investigate they find the maid tied up and gagged in the kitchen and learn from her that she was attacked by a clown who escaped down a tunnel leading to a back alley. It seems however that he vanished at some point however as witnesses say he never emerged from the other end.
I adored this story which is a triumph of both concept and structure and also contains a really exceptional hook in the idea of a murderous clown – the stuff that horror stories are made of. As with the previous story, I think it works because Ayukawa tells his story with great economy, packing a considerable amount of detail into a relatively short page count. The tricks used here are very clever and the plotting seems to hold up well to scrutiny, making this one of the most striking criminous short stories I have read in recent years.
The Five Clocks
A young accountant had agreed to give evidence of his own involvement in embezzling funds but before he could deliver it he is found murdered in his apartment. Though there is an obvious suspect the evidence connecting them seems too neatly arranged and the Police consider another man to have a much better motive – the assistant division chief in his company that he would have implicated in the embezzlement scam. The problem is that man seems to have a cast-iron alibi for the entire evening of the murder as he spent almost the entire evening with a coworker with timings confirmed with five different clocks including the witness’ own wristwatch.
Any story was going to struggle to follow The Clown in the Tunnel and perhaps the placement of The Five Clocks doesn’t do it justice; both stories involve matters of timing and while this has more elements to it, it lacks the previous story’s elegance. Instead of delivering one trick brilliantly it tries to give us five at once. While impressive in combination, viewed individually each trick is pretty straightforward and none feel quite so striking as those in the two preceding stories. Still, this is quite readable and while I wasn’t blown away in the way I had hoped, I did enjoy the story.
The Red Locked Room
The body of a medical student is discovered by two of their colleagues in the dissection room of a mortuary. The corpse had been cut into pieces with several already wrapped up in packaging as though preparing them to be mailed to a recipient. The room had been secured with a combination lock that only one person knew the combination to and a key that the same person carried.
The final story in the collection represents the best example of a locked room story in the collection. It not only boasts a pretty conclusively locked room – always a good start – but I really liked the setting the author chose as well which only adds to the ghoulishness of the piece.
As with the best locked room stories, the solution to this one is pretty simple but it is superbly executed with clear explanations and several clever uses of misdirection.