Only a few days ago, I wrote about finding it difficult to engage with Japanese fiction. Clearly I only had to wait for the right book, because Yukito Ayatsuji’s cult mystery novel has had me absolutely hooked. Seven students head off to spend a week on a remote island, intrigued by a tragic murder committed there six months before. They believe, as members of the K-University Mystery Club, that they might just have the deductive skills to solve the crime. As a local fishermen ferries them out, they discuss the problem with modern crime fiction. It doesn’t allow enough scope for deduction, one of them complains. ‘What mystery novels need,’ he argues, ‘are… a great detective, a mansion, a shady cast of residents, bloody murders, impossible crimes and never-before-seen tricks played by the murderer.’ Best of all is the ‘chalet in a snowstorm‘ model, where characters are cut off from the outside world. Little do they realise that, soon, they will be in that very same situation, trapped on an island with no means of escape. And then, one by one, they will begin to die. Someone on that island is a murderer. But who? Intricately plotted, this stonking novel challenges the reader to use her ‘little grey cells‘ to solve the mystery before the grand denouement. All the clues are there. But can you work out the solution? (Spoiler: I didn’t!)
The rather ‘meta’ discussion about detective fiction doesn’t just introduce us to our characters. It also explains Ayatsuji’s own beliefs, foreshadowing the manifesto of the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan, of which Ayatsuji was a founder member in 2000. The point of a honkaku (i.e. ‘authentic’) mystery is that it offers fair play to the reader. You won’t end up finding out that the murderer is someone introduced in the penultimate chapter, or that a key clue was missing. All the evidence is there in front of you, as it is in the best Golden Age crime novels. All you need is a mind sharp and observant enough to figure it all out. (I’m amused to see that The Honjin Murders is considered to be honkaku, because the solution in that novel is so convoluted and so off-the-wall that surely no sane person could possibly come up with it!) As an author, Ayatsuji is paying homage to the Golden Age greats – most notably, in this case, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None – while his characters, who are equally keen on classic crime, take on Mystery Club pseudonyms based on the names of famous authors. That’s why, to my initial befuddlement, we’re introduced to characters who call themselves Ellery (Queen), Carr (John Dickson), Poe (Edgar Allan), Orczy (Baroness, for her Old Man in the Corner stories), Agatha (Christie), Van (Dine) and Leroux (Gaston).
Six months ago, on the island of Tsunojima, the isolated Blue Mansion went up in flames. Four bodies were found there, three of whom had been murdered in advance: the reclusive architect Nakamura Seiji, his wife Kazue, and their two servants. The main suspect? The gardener Yoshikawa, who hasn’t been seen since. People say that lights have been seen on the island, and whisper about ghosts, but the Mystery Club members think there’s more to it. Fortunately, the Nakamura family have recently sold the island to Van’s uncle, an estate agent, who has arranged for the students to stay in the mansion’s intact summer-house. This is the Decagon House, a peculiar ten-sided structure in which everything is dominated by decagons. On first glance, the students find it quirky. But later, as they’re picked off one by one, the architecture seems oppressive, twisted, almost evil: a setting designed to baffle the senses.
Meanwhile, on the mainland, the student Kawaminami receives a troubling letter. He used to be a member of the Mystery Club as well, but left last year after a tragic accident which led to the death of a junior member. Her name? Nakamura Chiori. Now Kawaminami has received a typewritten letter, accusing him of murder and threatening revenge – and he’s not the only one. Identical letters have been sent to all members of the Mystery Club who were present on the day Chiori died (although, unfortunately, they only arrived after the Club’s core officials headed off for their break on Tsunojima). But the most unsettling thing is the signature: the letters are all signed by Chiori’s father – the very same Nakamura Seiji who died six months before. Kawaminami is determined to figure out what’s going on and, as he embarks on his investigation, he has two key assistants: Morisu, his bright former colleague in the Mystery Club, and Shimada, an unlikely companion driven by an enthusiasm for detective fiction. Kawaminami has no idea that, as he delves into the mysterious letters, their promised revenge is already being enacted upon his friends.
I’ve noticed some reviews which complain that this book is too similar to And Then There Were None. They share a basic premise, of course, but I didn’t find that this undermined my enjoyment in any way (probably because I’ve never actually read the Christie novel; I’ve only seen the recent TV adaptation). Ayatsuji’s book is an intellectual game, ferociously plotted and carried off with the same sleight of hand that Ellery uses for his card tricks: it’s thoroughly enjoyable. As I said earlier, I had absolutely no idea who the murderer was, though I suspected everyone in turn during the course of the book.
I should point out that much of the enjoyment derives from the wonderfully fluid translation by Ho-Ling Wong who, like Ayatsuji, belongs to the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan and, also like Ayatsuji, once belonged to the Kyoto University Mystery Club, on which the club in this novel is based. (‘He did not,’ his bio wryly states, ‘commit any murders on Mystery Club excursions’. You can also read his article about the real Mystery Club here.) For both author and translator, this novel was clearly a labour of love and it shows: it’s sprightly, fun, fast-paced and full of allusions to classic crime fiction. I’m definitely keen to read more honkaku, so I think The Tokyo Zodiac Murders might well be one of my next stops in this genre. And, of course, I’d love to read more of Ayatsuji’s novels, so fingers crossed that Pushkin Vertigo (and Wong) have more in the pipeline.
Genuinely, one of the most enjoyable murder mysteries I’ve read. Highly recommended!
In a final bizarre P.S. (which could only happen in Japan), it turns out that Ayatsuji has an alternative existence as a detective in the Bungo Stray Dogs manga series.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review