LETTER TO TEACHER: Learning About Shin Honkaku

Dear Miss Crabtree,

Here is my twenty five hundred word essay that you are making me write as punishment for not following the instructions of our last assignment properly. the Tuesday Night Bloggers wanted us to write about murders that take place in academia, which means school, and I meant to do that but I got off on a tangent and that means that what I wrote was not exactly on topic but if you really think about it, it sort of does hit the topic, at least a little bit. (Sorry, I think this was a run-on sentence. Usually, my dad reads my essays before I turn them in, but he can’t this time since I’m writing it during after-school detention.)

Can I just say that this is all JJ’s fault? He told me to read this book called The Moai Island Puzzle, and that’s when I got the idea that it might fit into the topic (for reasons which I will explain in this paper). Besides, JJ is never on topic when he writes for the Bloggers, but he doesn’t get detention, and I just want to go on record saying that I don’t think this is fair at all. JJ basically made me do it, and I don’t think I should get in trouble just because I was trying to copy his superior style as a student. Everyone should have a mentor who inspires them, don’t you think? Well, JJ is mine. (After you, of course, Miss Crabtree.)

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So The Moai Island Puzzle is the second book I have read from the shin honkaku type of mysteries. It was written by a girl named Alice Arisugawa, who it turns out is a guy, so I’m thinking maybe the Japanese are more gender fluid than we give them credit for in the States. The first shin honkaku I read was called The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji. Whether Yukito is a girl or a guy is anybody’s guess.

First, I think I should tell you what shin honkaku is. To research this, I used three or more sources and checked their reliability, like you told us to do, so I’m pretty sure this is correct, Miss C. It turns out that in Japan they are much more into classic murder mysteries than we are in America. To tell you the truth, I don’t think this is fair at all. Nobody here is ever interested in the same things I am interested in. I wonder if maybe I have Japanese blood in me. I do eat ramen after school almost every day, and I love sushi (except for uni, which looks like snot). Anyway, modern Western mysteries are usually all about feelings and unreliable narrators. I’ve read a couple of those, and they’re just boring. But the Japanese really value the puzzle mystery, ever since this guy named Edogawa Rampo wrote a bunch of books with puzzles in them and they caught on really big. That craze died out in Japan just like it did here, but it got revived in college campuses in the 1980’s. Did you hear that, Miss Crabtree? College campuses! If that’s not connected to academia, I don’t know what is. In fact, the first thing I noticed about both The Decagon House Murders and The Moai Island Puzzle is that both of them featured members of a university mystery club. These are kids not much older than me who also love classic mysteries. If I went to college in Japan, I would definitely join one of these clubs. I would even change my name to Alice or Yukito, just to fit in.

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Anyway, in Decagon, all the members of the club go by the name of classic mystery writers instead of their real names, and they go to this island and stay in this really weird house with ten sides to it. And then they start dying off one by one and it’s clear that the murderer is on the island with them! Some of the murders were nice and gory, and it got pretty twisted at the end. I didn’t love it, but I liked it very much, and I appreciated how much it tried to fit into the classic kind of mysteries. The first chapter is really cool, where the murderer is standing on the island and imagining the plan that is going to unfold. That reminded me of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Did you read that one, Miss C? It is a true classic, and I highly recommend it. JJ really loves it, too, if his word means more to you than mine. (Which I guess it does, since I’m sitting here in detention and he’s at home watching East Enders.)

The other thing that I noticed was similar between the two books is that they both take place on islands. Now, I’m not sure if that is a requirement for shin honkaku books, since there aren’t a lot of them published in English. But here we have two books with college students leaving their universities to solve mysteries on a mysterious island. Seems like a pattern to me.

One of the things I really liked about this book was that it contained a lot of the things that you find in classic mysteries from the 1920’s and 1930’s, like a cast of characters and maps of houses. If you look at the cast of characters for Moai Island, it has people with names like Hideto, Kazuto, Kango, and Satomi. I have to admit that I went back to this page A LOT while I was reading this book. Shin honkaku mysteries don’t spend too much time on character development, and with the names the way they were, I kept getting a little confused about who was who.

moai_at_rano_raraku_on_easter_island_puzzle-r4402aaf3a8244c3aa409ff04887c5c4d_amb0f_8byvr_324In this story, these three students leave their university to spend a week on Kashikijima Island where one of them, Maria Arima, has a family home. Her grandfather once buried a fortune in jewels on the island and used these cool moai statues to provide a clue to the treasure’s whereabouts. So far, nobody has solved the puzzle, so Maria brings her two friends to the island to do just that. One of these guys is Jiro Egami, and he’s basically the detective on this case. The other one is named Alice Arisugawa! Get it? The character has the same name as the author. This is called meta-fiction, Miss Crabtree. You may already know this, but since you never taught it to us, I thought I would not assume anything. Another writer who does this is Ellery Queen, which is not a fact I’m adding just to show off! No, this will become important later in my paper.

Even though this book was written in 1989, there’s even more that fits the mold of the old-fashioned stories the Tuesday Night Bloggers asked us to write about, making this whole detention completely unfair. For instance, in addition to the cast of characters and the maps I mentioned (see above), the whole book turns out to be a big “country home” mystery with a “closed circle of suspects” (because a typhoon shows up and makes it impossible for anyone to get on or off the island) and it deals with a “family” all trying to solve the “mystery” of the “treasure”. In the middle of this, there is a murder. Actually, it’s a double murder, and considering that there are thirteen people on the island, and they have names like Ryuichi, Yusako, and Itaru, I have to admit I was a little bit relieved when two of them got knocked off at once. It helped me keep track better of the rest of the characters.

06-SojiShimada-TokyoZodiacMurdersSo the way these two people die is what makes this a locked room mystery. Do you know what that is, Miss C? Frankly, I would be very surprised if you didn’t because your pet student, JJ, is crazy about these kinds of stories. It’s locked-room this and impossible crime that for him. I swear, if the story was all about houseflies and one of them was found dead in a pat of butter with no fly prints anywhere around the body, JJ would read it anyway. Anyway, all the characters end up having a really good discussion about this after they find the bodies. They realize that this couldn’t have been suicide, but if it was murder then how the heck did the killer get in and out of the locked room and why for goodness’ sake did the killer kill them this way??? These all seem to me to be good questions, worthy of at least a C on an essay and not a reason to have someone sit in detention and defend himself. But I digress . . .

The three students investigate the crime and try to solve it and then, just like in any good classic mystery, there’s another murder, and this time the victim leaves a dying message, just like in an Ellery Queen mystery. This is why I mentioned this author above and not to pad the word count. Miss Crabtree, I’m also not going to assume that you know what a dying message is, so I’m going to explain it to you. Say a student is wrongly given detention and has to spend the afternoon in class re-writing his paper and he gets so bored that he dies of boredom. He wants to tell the police who caused him to die this way, but there’s nobody there to tell this to except the killer, so he grabs a piece of paper and he wants to write the killer’s name down. But then he figures the killer will see that and throw the paper away, so he leaves a mysterious message like this:

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When the police find this drawing, they can figure out who the killer was and arrest her, send her to trial and execute her. I’m just saying . . .

I liked this book better than The Decagon House Murders. I think the mystery was more exciting and better put together and the characters were better developed, even if they did have names like Tetsunosuke, Toshiyuki and Sumako. It was cool that the detectives were not much older than me, and to tell you the truth, the writing of this book felt like it was written by a college student. The way they describe things wasn’t boring, like the things we read in your class. (Sorry.) Here are some examples:

“The expression on Maria’s face changed, like the transformation scene in a science fiction movie.”

Or

“All was very irritating, like when a piece of thread gets stuck between your teeth.”

See? This is the kind of imagery a student can relate to, Miss Crabtree. You might think about that the next time you assign Moby Dick to an unsuspecting class.

Late in the book, the three students have a really interesting conversation about locked room mysteries. I wonder if JJ noticed this when he read the book. Mr. Egami says,

“A locked room is a sort of utopia within the genre. Even now, I remember the shivers I got when I first read Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. But after that, with the hundreds of locked rooms you come across – some with fantastic solutions, some with bad solutions – the more I read, the more I started to forget about that very first sense of excitement I had. So many writers have opened the locked room again and again, like there’s a revolving door . . . If you really love detective fiction, then it’s alright to say: ‘Maybe we’ve had enough.’”

Mr. Egami says he likes “locked rooms” better than “locked room tricks,” and I tend to agree. I’ve read a lot of books by John Dickson Carr, the master of locked room mysteries, and I enjoy the ones most that don’t make you do math to figure the whole thing out and maybe have some good characters and spooky murders. These characters seemed to grow on me, and I liked how they talked about mystery writers and books as they tried solving the mystery. It made me think that reading mysteries can be a worthy thing to do and not something that gets you thrown into detention.

(By the way, I think I used that quotation really well to prove my point, and since you didn’t ask me to do this in my essay, I was wondering if I could get extra credit.)

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Before we get to the end, there’s another death, which was like a bonus in my opinion, and then the author includes a “Challenge to the Reader,” just like Ellery Queen used to do. I have to admit that at this point I wasn’t sure who the murderer was or how Mr. Egami had figured it out, but he explains it really well in the end. I thought the solution was a good one. Even though the answer wasn’t as much of a surprise as in The Decagon House Murders, it made a lot of sense and it even made me feel bad for everybody a little bit. Reading this book made me wonder why they can’t write more mysteries like this one in the United States. And if they can’t, or won’t, or whatever, how can we get them to translate more of these shin honkaku mysteries into English? Is there somebody I should write? I would appreciate your advice on this after you grade my assignment.

So that’s my paper, and – you know what? I actually enjoyed writing it for you. I liked this book, and I am kind of hoping my paper will make you want to read this book and others like it. It would be even better if you would let us read The Moai Island Puzzle in English class next. After Moby Dick, I feel you owe us.

I also plan to thank JJ for introducing me to this book. At first, I was really mad since I ended up getting detention, but now that I’ve finished writing this, I actually feel bad that I stole JJ’s calculator before the Pre-Calc test we had yesterday. I will return it to him tomorrow and apologize, so you don’t need to go assigning me another detention for it. That, in my opinion, would be overkill.

I hope you enjoyed reading my essay, Miss Crabtree, and that you learned something about shin honkaku novels. Young people are just as capable of solving mysteries as old guys with big moustaches or little old ladies with dirty minds. Just read this book, and I’m sure you will agree with me that this is true. Not only will you enjoy it for its puzzle aspects, but you’ll also get a sense of what it’s like to live in Japan. Plus, as my essay proves, in twenty five hundred words exactly, this was a very, very, very, very good book!

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16 thoughts on “LETTER TO TEACHER: Learning About Shin Honkaku

  1. Even if it isn’t overtly about academic mysteries I enjoyed reading this immensely, laughing out loud a lot (JJ watching EastEnders!). But more importantly you have also made the The Moai Island Puzzle sound like a very tempting book. Glad the narrative style is better than the Decagon House Murders one, as that was fairly dry.

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    1. There’s always a sort of distancing effect that comes from translation, Kate, but Ho Ling translated both and so I think it’s the difference between the authors here that matters. Arisugawa deals with emotions a lot more than Ayatsuji did, and the cumulative effect at the end is less of the arid explanation you find in some pure puzzles and more connected to the feelings of the characters, without sacrificing all the ratiocination of a traditional puzzle. Also, the odd thing about Decagon is that the main detecting is going on outside the whole setting of the crime which made for an oddly disconnected narrative (interesting but odd) while the detectives in this novel are right on the scene, experiencing the events and their emotional impact. It still has a foreign feel to it (things are expressed so differently in Japanese culture sometimes), but I found it fascinating, and I loved the constant references to classic writers and ideas.

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  2. I’m guessing you teach high school students? Because you certainly have their tone and POV and attitude down cold! What a riot! Took me back to my own far-distant adolescence. Most enjoyable!

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  3. I’m very pleased you enjoyed this one, Brad. The characters are a bit functional, but it does what it sets out to do beautifully — I’m in agreement with you there!

    That speech of Egami’s about losing the thrill of locked rooms….yeah, that struck a chord, especially when I started off my “Huh, so impossible crime fiction is a thing” odyssey with Anthony Boucher’s Nine Times Nine and Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit…two of arguably the finest examples produced within the genre. There was a point when I seriously considered limiting my reading of them so that I could drag that feeling out for a bit longer, such was the magic.

    But what I have come to recognise is that it’s just like detective fiction overall — some of it is great, some of it is lousy, most of it is in between. Yes, the losy ones are annoying, or the average ones frustrating, but when I stumble over something like Norman Berrow’s The Footprints of Satan (or even the less baffling but no less joyous The Bishop’s Sword) there is still that thrill of finding something really quite special…and I know it’s is special because I’ve read the average stuff that’s just not quite up to scratch. Thankfully the standard is prety high because they’re hard to write (and I have, it must be said, become a tiny bit selective) and mostly from my era of choice — actually, it’s the modern ones like Bill Pronzini’s Hoodwink and that cod-Mediaeval one I gave up on a few months ago that drag the average down. WHich is why finding something like this — recent and bloody good — is such a delight.

    Also, for our mentoring session this week, some advice: never watch EastEnders. Just….no.

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    1. Okay, my friend, I don’t know why you’re going to spam. I trashed the two little whimpers you sent but at least got the chance to read this. There’s great, so-so, and rotten examples of everything, so I know what you’re talking about. BTW, I’m about 70 pages shy of finishing a Berrow (which is why I won’t have anything for tomorrow’s Bloggers), and I fear I read the wrong one! I should have gone with one of the two you mentioned above, but I wanted to be “different” from you! Jonathan below told me the ending was worth it, but we’ll see if ANY ending can be worth what is amounting to a disappointing read after my first Berrow. (Maybe I am accidentally saving the best for last!)

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      1. Nice to get to the bottom of that mystery, at least. And, hey, any Berrow is the correct Berrow — the man just needs to be read and discussed to get the word out. More coverage is a good thing; I’ve just ordered another one again, so among us all we’ll get the man the credit he deserves!

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  4. As in the case of ‘Decagon House Murders’, I read ‘Moai Island Puzzle’ in Chinese before discovering that an English translation was about to be released. Which made me grumpy as it took quite a bit of effort to source for a Chinese translation, and I probably didn’t understand everything anyway. I liked ‘Moai Island Puzzle’ better than ‘Decagon House Murders’, but I recall that I wasn’t unduly impressed by the solution to the locked-room scenario. Or perhaps that should be attributed to my poor language skills… But I definitely liked the chain of logic pertaining to a certain piece of evidence…

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    1. Jonathan, I am not a locked room aficionado, but I agree that the solution to the locked room was the least thrilling part of this. However, if JJ, who is a big LR fan, admired this book, then I’m not going to complain. I liked how Mr. Egami complained about all the gimmickry of such mysteries and longed for a simpler explanation. Well, he got one! The trickery was grounded in a real life emotional reason rather than on any intent to obfuscate for the sake of dazzling the reader. I like that!

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      1. The locked room wasn’t amazing, but I really liked the way it enforced an assumption that was easily dismissed…that aspect of it alone commends it above the mechanics. And the reason why both of the people killed were killed in that way was a lovely take on the usually very technical explanations… Man it is difficult to talk about these things without being spoilery!

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  5. I think we’re alone here, but I get what you mean. One of the cleverest things in The Three Coffins is that certain things out of the murderer’s control contribute to at least one of the “impossible” circumstances. I think Halter does that in The Fourth Door, too. The fact that something downright human happens in that island room to deepen the mystery certainly works for me on more than one level!

    Did we spoil anything with that?

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