- The Tokyo Zodiac Murders — 2. Murder in the Crooked House — 3. The Decagon House Murders
I hadn’t been aware of the popularity of murder mysteries by Japanese authors until now. So I read three in a row. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders and Murder in the Crooked House are by Soji Shimada, while The Decagon House Murders is by Yukito Ayatsuji. (Interestingly, this last one was later published as a manga! I suppose it’s a great idea, given the plan of the house, maps, sketches, etc that were included in the original book.) All three were, of course, translated into English.
Why review all three together? Well, for a start, they are definitely in a category separate from what I should call the Western world’s murder mysteries, born from Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, and Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, and exemplified by Gaston Leroux’s Le Mystere de la Chambre Jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room) which is the prototype of the “locked room murder”; Agatha Christie’s many masterpieces which launched several sub-genres — the detective is the murderer; the narrator is the murderer; every suspect is the murderer– and so on. I’ll refrain from boring my readers with a history of the genre.
At first, Japanese murder mysteries feel strange. I soon realized that the three books — or maybe Japanese modern novels in general? — do not follow the general “Point of View” pattern of western novels. Books in English (or French) are written in the third person limited or omniscient point of view, or in the first person. If mixed, it’s done in such a way the reader can clearly tell there is a shift. I realized that the Japanese books’ shifting points of view were throwing me off-kilter a bit.
The next point that disoriented me at first was that it wasn’t clear who was the detective who would solve the mystery. In the Decagon House Murders for example, almost everyone takes turns trying to analyze and figure out who is the murderer. It really throws me off, because suddenly someone who is trying to solve it gets killed, and you wonder, so who will solve it now? In the Crooked House, everyone was also trying to be the detective in the first 2/3 of the book, until the great detective walked in in the final section. Good thing I read the Tokyo Zodiac book first, so I was already acquainted with him and felt on solid ground, knowing he was not involved in the background story and would lead the reader to a satisfying resolution.
The third alien facet of these Japanese murder mysteries is that the plot is built in a very outlandish way, just so it would create a mystery. The back story behind the motive is sometimes hard to swallow, as in the Crooked House. Then, the author intrudes into the story, taking a break and telling you, OK, all the clues are here already. Can you solve it? Try solving it before reading on. In other words, it’s an exquisite brain gymnastic exercise, though very loosely based on reality.
Before any fan of Japanese mysteries jump on my back, let me assert that yes, the authors do try to sketch out and build up the characters, definitely, but the psychology behind the killer’s motive, or any of the other movers and shakers’ actions, is not convincing. Agatha Christie was certainly a master at digging into people’s psychology, which is why her murders were accepted as possible by her readers. The Japanese mysteries make no effort to pass the stories off as realistic. They openly present themselves as challenges to the amateur mystery solver.
Well, I have a clue to offer! The title usually holds the first clue. Why a decagon-shaped house? Why a Crooked House? Why a note written by a crazy artist announcing his plan to murder six girls according to a convoluted zodiac pattern? The author builds his impossible murders — yes, there’s always more than one — based on a weird artifact. There’s at least one locked-room-murder, maybe a series of murders, maybe the typical suspects-stranded-in-one-place setup, which allows the amateur sleuth reader to enjoy solving several mysteries, not just one.
So, did I enjoy them? Yes. Despite the initial feeling of imbalance, I managed to adapt myself to the unusual story-telling manner, and accept the challenge from the authors.