The Red Locked Room by Tetsuya Ayukawa, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

Book Details

Stories were collected and published in English in 2020

The Blurb

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.

The Verdict

A very strong collection of locked room and unbreakable alibi stories. Based on this sampler let’s hope more Ayukawa will follow!

“It can be confidently stated that there is not one writer belonging to the shin honkaku movement who does not hold Tetsuya Ayukawa in the utmost regard.”

Taku Ashibe, Introduction

My Thoughts

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?

Second Opinions

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.

Lending the Key to the Locked Room by Tokuya Higashigawa, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

Book Details

Originally published as Misshitsu No Kagi Kashimasu in 2002
Ikagawa City Series #1

The Blurb

Ryuhei, a would-be film director, has just been dumped by his girl friend and his drunken threats to kill her have made him the prime suspect, as she has just been murdered. 

His alibi is that he was watching a film in his friend’s home movie theatre at the time. Unfortunately, his friend has also been stabbed to death in his bathroom, with the door to the apartment locked with a door chain. 

Worse still, Ryuhei was the only other person in the apartment at the time, and passed out until the following morning after he discovered his friend’s body. Fearing that the police will not believe him, because the door chain can only be locked from the inside, he panics and runs away. Not a good idea. 

Lending the Key to the Locked Room is not only brilliantly clever, it is also genuinely funny.

The Verdict

An excellent example of a lightly comic puzzle mystery with some clever plotting.


My Thoughts

Lending the Key to the Locked Room is an example of the shin honkaku ha (New Orthodox school) of Japanese mystery fiction. Works in this style, which began in the 1980s, hark back to the idea and rules of the fair play puzzle mystery practised by the likes of S. S. van Dine and Ellery Queen. Such works can be regarded as a game or contest of wits where the author promises to give the reader all the clues they need to be able to solve the mystery before the detective if they have the imagination to do so.

This was Tokuya Higashigawa’s first novel and it presents us with a complicated situation in which a man finds himself linked to two murders in bizarre circumstances.

Ryūhei joined the film program at Ikagawa University but as he nears graduation he decides that wants a guaranteed job and so he reaches out to a friend, Kōsaku Moro, who workss at a small film company. The work won’t be lucrative or glamorous but he is glad of the security. His girlfriend is appalled as she does not see her future in Ikegawa and dumps him. A few days later he gets heavily drunk and starts a bar fight screaming his girlfriend’s name and saying he will kill her. This will not look good for Ryūhei…

Ryūhei is invited over to Kōsaku’s home to watch a movie together on his home theater system. After the movie finishes Kōsaku offers to get snacks and drinks, leaving him alone in the house while he runs to the store. When he returns he tells him that he saw a commotion and that he had heard that someone had died from falling from a building which turns out to be the one where Ryūhei’s ex-girlfriend lives. We will later learn that she was murdered.

His friend leaves him alone to take a shower. When he doesn’t emerge after a long period, Ryūhei investigates to find his friend dead of a knife wound. He finds that the door to the apartment had been chained and that no one could have gained access or left through any of the windows. It makes for an intriguing scenario, built around a very solid locked room problem. Not only was he present at one murder in a location that no one else could gain access to, there are clear links between the two crimes such as the weapon used. Given that we have followed Ryūhei throughout the events of that evening we can be confident that he is not responsible for either murder yet it clearly looks bad for him.

I felt pretty confident that I had the answers quite early in the investigation but I quickly realized that the solution could not be quite as simple as I was thinking. Even when an idea appeared that it might fit the facts, some point would be brought up that would make me realize that my ideas would not work. While I would work out a few of the key points by the end of the novel, I have to say I didn’t get close to the details of the actual solution.

The best part of that solution relates to the sequence of events that evening. Towards the end of the novel we are given a detailed, step-by-step explanation which does a superb job of laying out exactly why things happened the way they did. The mechanics of the killer’s plan struck me as quite clever and one aspect of it in particular stood out as quite imaginative and original. I enjoyed it as much for the manner it is revealed by piecing ideas together as the audacity of the concept itself.

I did have an issue with the solution which relates to motive. Being as vague as I can be, I feel that the killer’s motive is rather weak. While I accept that some signs of it are clearer once you know what it is, I am not sure that I think it would push someone to act in the way they do and so I did find that reasoning to be a little unconvincing. I will say though that it has grown on me as I have reflected and thought of the indications in the story that I have missed. There are a few points in that solution that struck me as strange when I first read them but as I thought back through the story I could see the clues that could have led me there.

Though I am a little reluctant to label this as a comic detective story, in part because the humor is not frequent enough to feel like the purpose or focus of the story, Higashigawa does approach telling his story in a rather light-hearted fashion. His narration is peppered with little comments that acknowledge that we are reading a detective story, reflecting on the expected structures and plot developments of such works. They prompted more smiles than laughter for me but I still appreciated their inclusion and felt it fit well with the general craziness of the story’s premise.

Overall, I found Lending the Key to the Locked Room to be an entertaining read. The puzzle has some really clever features and I enjoyed the occasional meta asides in the narration which I found amusing and which gave the piece a rather unique style. I would certainly be willing to read more from this series should others become available.

Further Reading

This release does not have either an introduction or endnotes but the translator, Ho-Ling Wong, recently blogged about the release and had previously offered their thoughts on the book. Both are worth reading.

The 8 Mansion Murders by Takemaru Abiko, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

MansionMurders
The 8 Mansion Murders
Takemaru Abiko
Originally Published 1989

It is the early hours of the morning and Yukie Hachisuka and her sign language teacher are talking when they hear the sound of someone walking and decide to open the curtains to look. When they do they observe Yukie’s father, businessman Kikuichirō Hachisuka, being shot through the heart with a crossbow.

When the two women instinctively leave their room to run down to him they are struck from behind, waking up several hours later. They discover that he is dead but there are signs that the body had been moved. Even more strangely, when the Police investigate they find that the room the murderer used belongs to Yūsaku Yano, the son of the family’s servants, who swears that he was fast asleep and that his door was locked from the inside.

The Police quickly settle on Yano as the only possible suspect they can see and they plan to arrest him but Kyōzō Hayami, an inspector of the Metropolitan Police Department, is persuaded by Yukie to try to find an alternative suspect. The Chief suggests that he might want to take a few days leave to investigate the matter and he and his colleague Kinoshita start to look into events.

The puzzle is a solid one though I was somewhat surprised that I worked out exactly how it was accomplished about two fifths of the way into the book. This is rather baffling to me as it is quite unlike me to have the first clue about solving an impossible crime, let alone getting it done so early in the text. When this sort of thing happens I usually caution that I may just have been lucky but I do think there are several significant details mentioned that may prove suggestive to seasoned readers of the genre.

While I may not have been amazed by the mechanics of how the crime was achieved, I am very happy to say that reaching that solution early did not diminish my enjoyment of the story for several reasons. For one, I could not be entirely certain of the identity of the killer. For another, there are some other aspects of the case that take a little longer to come into clear focus. But perhaps most importantly, I found Takemaru Abiko’s style to be highly entertaining and engaging.

Part of the way Abiko draws the reader in is by presenting us with a very likeable central character in the form of Kyōzō. He is not necessarily the sharpest investigator, nor the most brilliant mind but he possesses a simple charm. One of the things that really sticks out is when we first learn that he is attracted to Yukie and he reflects on how he feels lucky that he would have a successful relationship with her because she is the fiftieth woman he has fallen in love with but there are plenty of other fun details and thoughts within the text.

The other aspect of Abiko’s approach that I think sticks out is the restrained use of humor throughout the story. Combining comedy and crime can be a tricky business and there is always a risk that the jokes will overpower the narrative. Abiko avoids that by picking specific aspects of his story to provide humor while allowing the crime to be taken seriously.

One particularly rich source of humor is Kyōzō’s ability to compel Kinoshita to perform reckless or foolish acts. By the end of the book the reader will be anticipating the punch lines to these interactions but the pleasure comes in seeing just how Kinoshita will find himself injured again. Similarly I appreciated his frustrating interactions with his brother and sister who are both mystery fans and who each take on significant roles in the case, at one point giving their own version of Dr. Fell’s famous locked room lecture.

Though its puzzle may not be quite as ingeniously constructed as either The Moai Island Puzzle or The Decagon House Mystery, other shin honkaku titles published by Locked Room International, I think it is most accessible of the three and it might make a good first step for readers beginning to explore this style of Japanese crime writing. I am excited to see these works being made available in translation and hope that there may be further titles in the offing. Recommended.

The Ginza Ghost and Other Stories by Keikichi Osaka, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

The-Ginza-Ghost
The Ginza Ghost and Other Stories
Keikichi Osaka
Originally Published 2017

The Ginza Ghost is a collection of short crime and detective stories by the writer Keikichi Osaka who, we learn in the introduction, died young and worked primarily in the period in which the puzzle mystery had largely fallen out of fashion in Japan.

This collection contains a mix of styles and subject matters including a few locked rooms but most can be characterized as strange and perplexing crimes.

One of the best examples of this is the story The Mourning Locomotive in which we hear about a heavy locomotive train which is killing pigs on a regular basis, always at the same section of the tracks. It is a strange problem but the answer is really quite logical and can be deduced by the reader. Not that I did.

Another strong example is The Hangman of the Department Store which is a seemingly impossible crime as it takes place on the roof of a fully locked store. And then there is the strange question of the timing of the killing which makes the events seem even more bizarre.

The final story I would highlight is The Guardian of the Lighthouse in which the characters attempt to locate a missing son who seemed to vanish during a shift several days earlier. I felt that story combined a logical mystery with a solid emotional component to strong effect.

While most of the stories feature a striking or ingenious solution, I did find a few of them to be quite dry in the way they were told. Stories such as The Phantasm of the Stone Wall and The Phantom Wife held little interest for me and I never managed to engage with them while others featured ideas that seemed too intricate to be communicated in so few pages.

It may just be that I am not really drawn to short form crime stories. With the exception of an occasional individual story I have never found a collection I have loved and been truly satisfied with. Knowing the importance of the short story to crime fiction, I feel it is important for me to keep trying.

The Ginza Ghost does at least feature a few stories that I feel will stick with me for a while and I could appreciate Osaka’s skill at inventing interesting puzzles to challenge his readers. Unfortunately I found the weaker stories to be a bit of a chore to work through and so I cannot recommend the collection.

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

Moai
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.