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The Decagon House Murders Paperback – Import, 20 Jun 2015
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This novel is perfect for anyone looking for a highly entertaining and intellectual murder mystery. It is a homage to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None and ushered in a Japanese boom in fair-play authentic mystery fiction upon its original publication. The English translation is smooth and succeeds in drawing the reader into the mystery. The parallel plot-lines alternate between the students on the island and the students on the mainland, with both groups trying to solve the current and past murder cases of the island. The plotting is well-paced and the clues are cleverly hidden, yet still detectable to a keen mind. The Decagon House Murders is a masterful combination of deductive logic and out-of-the-box critical thinking, all concluding with what the author calls "a colorful shock."
Several kids sail out to an uninhabited island where a series of grisly murders took place six months previously. They're all members of a detective book club in college, and all of them refer to each other by nicknames referring to famous mystery writers---- Agatha [Christie], [John Dickson] Carr, Ellery [Queen], [Gaston] Leroux, [Emma] Orcsy, [Edgar Allen] Poe, and [S.S.] Van [Dyne]. After their first night, they are greeted at breakfast with seven plates labelled "First Victim", "Second Victim", "Third Victim", "Fourth Victim", "Fifth Victim", "Detective", and "Murderer." It seems like a sick practical joke---until the kids start to die. Meanwhile on the mainland, a former member of the detective book club, Kawaminami receives a mysterious letter from the man who used to own that island and who was murdered six months ago. It read "My daughter was MURDERED by all of you." He contacts his buddy Morisu who has also received a similar letter, and soon the two of them are playing detective to find out who sent the letters and the truth about the murder six months ago. Can they find out who's responsible before their friends are all dead on the island?
Considering how well known this story is, I found myself genuinely surprised at the unique twists taken in this book. It's not a coincidence that one of the kids on the island has the nickname "Ellery Queen", because I believe that his work as much as Agatha Christie specifically influenced this novel. Specifically, The Egyptian Cross Mystery. (When characters talk about "this being your typical 'headless corpse'" they are referring to this book.) Also as in Ellery Queen, things which seem to be the act of a homicidal lunatic actually have a very sane reason behind them. At the end, when the murderer and their plans are finally revealed, I think the reader will be as surprised as I was by why things took place. While this is less of a "whodunit" than "Nine Man's Murder" there are clues left which point in the direction of the killer which the astute reader might be able to catch. (I missed them. :( )
It would not be right for me to overlook the work of translator Ho-Ling Wong. He not only had a steep language barrier to overcome to make this book available for English-language readers, but a cultural one as well. For example, when "Ellery" tells two riddle that rely on knowledge of Japanese "kanji" to get the joke, Wong tells a new joke that relies on English wordplay while explaining the original in footnotes. My only quibble with his translation is his decision to render Japanese names with the surname or family name first. I know this is how names are actually written in Japanese, but unlike China, Japanese people usually reverse the names into Western format whenever the names are written or spoken in English. Still, it's a minor quibble. The revelation of the killer is stunning surprise, and Wong formats the book so that this takes place at the very bottom of a page.
Perhaps the best compliment that I can give is that like ATTWN, I found myself still thinking about this book for several days after I finished reading it. Mystery fans should be grateful to Locked Room International publisher John Pugmire for making this available to English-speaking mystery fans. Although it won't be published by him, because of this book I am looking forward to reading "The Tokyo Zodiac Murders" by Soji Shimada which will be republished in English come September. Shimada wrote the introduction to this book.
The titular Decagon House is, of course, shaped like a decagon, and the island upon which it sits was recently the site of a gruesome series of murders. Naturally, a university’s mystery club (modelled on such a club at Kyoto University) decides the island is a great place for a club excursion. Thus the members meet up, each of them known by a pseudonym taken from one of the great Western Golden Age writers: Agatha, Orczy, Van Dine, Leroux, Ellery, Carr, and Poe. It doesn’t take long for murder to occur, and as the body count rises, the list of suspects gets shorter and shorter…
Locked Room International has become known in recent years for its work in the locked-room/impossible-crime subgenre, especially when it comes to publishing the work of Paul Halter in English. With its publication of Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders, however, LRI has taken a bit of a different step from the usual. The novel was originally published in Japanese in 1987, and was credited with helping to resurrect the Golden-Age style detective story in Japan (the official term for this being "honkaku"). Another book that helped this resurgence was "The Tokyo Zodiac Murders" by Soji Shimada. Shimada played a big role in the success of Ayatsuji’s book – he promoted it upon its initial publication in Japan, and he now has fittingly written the introduction to this English translation.
This translation comes to you courtesy of Ho-Ling Wong, who must be commended for his translation of The Decagon House Murders – it is eminently readable. The prose style is easily digestible, and it made for really compelling, page-turning reading. I was genuinely excited to get further along in the book.
From what I can tell, Yukito Ayatsuji has minimal interest in character development in this book. What propels the book is the plot, and so the characters are drawn in a few hasty brush strokes. Agatha is the popular, pretty girl. Orczy is the not-so-pretty wallflower who likes to retreat into her inner world of fantasy. Ellery has a brilliant intellect, but is extraordinarily pompous (much like the early incarnations of Ellery Queen in that respect!). And so on. When this style works, I really admire this – you get what you need out of characterization, and no more. What fuels interest is the plot.
And boy, oh boy, is this plot ever a sweet one! "The Decagon House Murders" must deal with the example that Agatha Christie left behind. Simply recycling her ending will not do. Ayatsuji found an excellent way of handling this problem. Simply put, this is a stunner of a plot, with an ending which I simply could not believe when it was first revealed. When I put the book down, I realized that I had just read a book which rivals "The Tokyo Zodiac Murders" for sheer audacity and ingenuity.
Indeed, now that I’ve read it, I have to say that "The Decagon House Murders" is a serious contender for my favourite Japanese mystery. It has everything I want in a mystery. It left me satisfied with what I’d read, and eager to read more. I sincerely hope that this publication signals more to come in English from the Japanese honkaku school – you can count on me being at the front of the line waiting for more books like this.