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

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

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 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.

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

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.