Originally published in 1987 as 十角館の殺人
English translation first published in 2015
Taking its cues from Agatha Christie’s locked-room classic And Then There Were None, the setup is this: The members of a university detective-fiction club, each nicknamed for a favorite crime writer (Poe, Carr, Orczy, Van Queen, Leroux and — yes — Christie), spend a week on remote Tsunojima Island, attracted to the place, and its eerie 10-sided house, because of a spate of murders that transpired the year before. That collective curiosity will, of course, be their undoing.
As the students approach Tsunojima in a hired fishing boat, ‘the sunlight shining down turned the rippling waves to silver. The island lay ahead of them, wrapped in a misty veil of dust,’ its sheer, dark cliffs rising straight out of the sea, accessible by one small inlet. There is no electricity on the island, and no telephones, either.
A fresh round of violent deaths begins, and Ayatsuji’s skillful, furious pacing propels the narrative. As the students are picked off one by one, he weaves in the story of the mainland investigation of the earlier murders. This is a homage to Golden Age detective fiction, but it’s also unabashed entertainment.Cover and blurb from 2021 Pushkin Vertigo reprint
Today’s post is going to be rather special as it will be my five hundredth book review on this blog. As this struck me as a pretty significant milestone, I wanted to be sure to mark the occasion with a book review of a title that mattered to me.
I mulled over a number of titles before finally settling on Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders. There were a couple of reasons for my selection. One is that it was relatively recently reissued in a very handsome new edition by Pushkin Vertigo which is pictured above. The other is that this is one of a handful of titles that caused my interest in mystery fiction to blossom, leading me to discover some of my favorite detective fiction blogs and eventually, a couple of years later, to start my own.
The story takes inspiration from the premise of one of the most famous works of mystery fiction, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. As with that story a group of people arrive on a remote island to spend time together in a house. They settle down to enjoy themselves, only to find that they begin to get picked off one-by-one.
The Decagon House Murders is hardly the first example of a mystery novel to take inspiration from that story. Look back over my previous 499 book reviews and you will find at least a couple of overt homages, not to mention a handful of stories that less directly reference it. What I think elevates this effort and helps to make it a masterpiece of impossible crime fiction is that the characters are aware of that work, directly referencing it at points in the narrative, and that it uses it as the basis for a fascinating exploration of detective fiction as a genre.
The group of characters who find their way to Tsunojima Island are all members of a university detective-fiction club. Each of the members has adopted the name of a classic crime writer – Carr, Christie, Leroux, Orczy, Poe, Queen and Van Dine – and they refer to each other by those pseudonyms. I loved that idea on my initial read but I have only come to appreciate it more having returned to it with significantly more knowledge of some of those writers. Part of the fun for me was observing the similarities between the student and their namesakes, particularly in the case of Ellery Queen whose insistence on treating the whole thing like an intellectual exercise feels absolutely in keeping with the character of Ellery from the books.
Soji Shimada’s introduction to the Locked Room International edition mentions that when the book was first published, some critics found the characters a little shallow. I can understand why some might feel that way as the game always comes first for Ayatsuji and we get minimal details of the lives these people lived outside of the club beyond a few details about the subjects they study. In this case however I think that a lack of detail about their background does not equate to a lack of a personality. Each of the people on the island, as well as those on the mainland, possess striking and identifiable personalities. The interactions between members of the group can be quite dramatic, particularly as tempers flare and those differences in approach come to the fore.
Ayatsuji tells their story quickly, rattling through a number of the deaths in quick succession. That will also play into that sense that we are not really invested in the group as human beings and yet I think that is part of the point of what is being done here. Several of these mystery enthusiasts are responding by indulging in playing detective, indulging their egos with the notion that they might somehow solve this crime themselves.
In spite of the speed at which the bodies pile up, I feel that the deaths are impactful. That reflects in part that Ayatsuji employs a nice variety of methods so the killings never feel repetitive. I think it is also elevated by the idea that the killer surely lies within this group which seems so close-knit. With each new death the monstrousness of what is being done only seems to become more apparent.
Each death brings with it questions about how and why the murders were conducted. The answers to those questions are clued pretty effectively. By the time the novel is completed you will both know the solution and what the killer had planned. Some of those explanations will be more surprising than others but I love the way the author walks us through what happened and provides context for why some choices were made.
Another thing that I think the writer does really well is set up a parallel investigation that takes place on the mainland. Several individuals receive suspicious letters and come together to try to work out what they mean and why they had received them. This strand of the story involves investigating the history of the island itself and some grisly murders that had taken place there some time before. I enjoyed discovering how neatly these story strands fit together and felt largely satisfied with the cleverness of the ending.
My complaints with the book are all relatively minor. My biggest is that I think a pronoun choice is made in a chapter near the beginning from the killer’s perspective that helps eliminate some suspects a little early. In practice that will happen anyway as the bodies stack up but I don’t think it would have harmed the story too much to give it an extra suspect.
The Verdict: I had a wonderful time revisiting The Decagon House Murders which is just as entertaining and creative as I recalled it being. It’s a truly clever story and I really hope to discover more soon!