BRING IT ON, CHINA: Death in the House of Rain

One of the surer signs that GAD crime fiction is coming back in a big way is the rising availability of detective novels from other lands. And I couldn’t be happier about it! From the British Library’s recent collection Foreign Bodies to the explosion of Scandanavian crime fiction (some of it legit!), we’re starting to see it everywhere. And no publisher is working harder at making world mysteries available than the scrappy Locked Room International, under the auspices of John Pugmire. True, I have given its most popular author, M. Paul Halter, a hard time. But the fact is that the English-speaking world can read Halter and more thanks to Mr. Pugmire’s tireless work.

I am most grateful to LRI for introducing me to the wealth of traditional-style crime fiction coming out of Asia. In Japan, GAD crime authors continue to be revered, while most have been all but forgotten in the US. Imagine a country where every university has a classic mystery club and where emerging writers embrace the stylings of Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen (my three favorite authors) in their work.

If you were lucky enough to read The Decagon House Murders or The Moai Island Puzzle or the story collection The Ginza Ghost – all published by LRI – you were able to learn something about the history of shin honkaku detective fiction in Japan. It turns out that this work has enjoyed great popularity in Taiwan and has prompted a new interest in GAD authors among young Chinese writers. And now LRI is bringing us a fiendishly Carr-like locked room mystery by one of Taiwan’s brightest mystery stars: Szu-Yen Lin’s Death in the House of Rain.

Look at this picture of Szu-Yen Lin:

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He looks like one of my high school sophomores, and yet he is already a renowned philosophy scholar and the author so far of eight mystery novels and three short story collections. Not all of them are impossible crime books, so your guess is as good as mine as to whether we are going to have a chance to read any more of his work. Judging by Rain, I can only hope that we will.

The book begins with an excellent forward by Chinese author Fei Wu that gives us some history of the Chinese movement toward traditional-style mysteries. I’m not sure there is a distinct label for this movement; the closest it comes to is tuili (the Chinese pinyin for “mystery”) and the name of a mystery magazine launched in Beijing in 2006 as a forum for old-style mysteries written by new Chinese authors.

Before the novel begins, the author provides you with a cast of characters and no less than three maps of the extraordinary house that is the setting for our tale. I took pictures; two of them came out okay and I append them here.

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From the start, the influence of shin honkaku is obvious: terrifying past events loom large. Many of the characters are college students. The setting is extremely important to the story, and the characterization is slim. No point complaining here – it’s part of what makes up this genus of crime fiction. Actually, a few of the characters end up having hidden depths, but you read Death in the House of Rain for its pure puzzle plot, not its characters. If you go in with this understanding, you will be just fine.

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I know a lot of my blogging friends have placed this book at the top of their TBR piles, and so I promise no spoilers here. The plot concerns a house of unique proportions, built by an avant-garde architect for a wealthy car dealer and his family. The three-story house is shaped like the Chinese character for rain, for reasons that might strike us as superfluous, but when you’re rich you can afford to be eccentric!

Murderous tragedy strikes and the house changes hands to the entrepreneur’s brother, a professor of English, who moves in with his daughter for a vacation. (No one thinks clearly in this type of mystery!) She invites some of her college friends for the weekend, and Dr. Bai sneaks in Ruoping Lin, a young philosophy professor (just like the author!) who also happens to specialize in impossible crimes. Bai wants Ruoping to sort out, if possible, what happened in that house of death a year earlier.

With the rain pouring down day and night and a landslide occurring on the road to the mansion, the guests find themselves trapped in this maze-like domicile where, one by one, they begin to fall prey to one creepy locked-room mystery after another. It is up to Ruoping to prove what’s behind it all and whether these deaths have anything to do with a year-old tragedy. The prose style matches the action, fast and furious, and I predict readers will race through the book and emerge breathless.

Clearly, the author is extolling the qualities of the finest GAD locked-room authors here – there is mention more than once of “a hollow man” being the killer. And though Szu-Yen Lin also injects a modern aspect to the story – laptops and cell phones figure into the plot, and more than once mention is made of potential death traps! – the feeling is pure 1930’s mansion mystery. Of course, more than one member of the party has ulterior motives for being there – some of them downright creepy – and I have a feeling most readers will be jumping back and forth from the text to the maps to try and gauge where characters are at any given time. (Even more graphs and maps are included during the solution, so stay calm!)

I never really try and figure out a “howdunit” – my mind is not of that bent – but I do want to say that the solution here is, in my humble opinion, ingenious and highly satisfying and, most wonderfully, not something I have ever encountered before. In traditional fashion, the twists keep coming to the final page, but the whole concept of Death in the House of Rain makes you think about a lot of things, including why we love to read books like this! My thanks go to the author, for translating his own novel into English, and to Mr. Pugmire for taking on this project. I hope this is far from the last that the English-speaking world will hear of Szu-Yen Lin!

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This is my 199th post. Give me a week here, and for my 200th I plan a celebration of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Look for an analysis of the novel and a critique of the four film versions, including Mr. Branagh’s. Until then, stay dry everyone!

 

 

 

 

 

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16 thoughts on “BRING IT ON, CHINA: Death in the House of Rain

  1. I couldn’t be happier that the GA and GA-style novel are getting more popular (again). And it’s interesting to see the aspects of that sort of novel that are being explored in contemporary novels, too, Brad. It’s good to see. And I do look forward to your post on Murder on the Orient Express.

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  2. Well, this sounds like a dream come true for an impossible crime lover! I definitely won’t be missing this one.

    I have to say, the notion of a compelling impossible crime novel taking place in the time of cell phones, remote controls, and drones seems a bit strange to me. I’m sure that there are plenty of these mysteries that hit the mark, but as a reader I would think I’d always have some sort of remote electronic solution in the back of my mind. What I love about GAD is that there were well constrained limits to what was possible at the time. That creates a true sense of puzzle, and you know that the author is going to have to pulled a really sneaky trick on you.

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    1. I’m not going to ruin anything for you, Ben, except to say 1) any lack of a sense of old-fashioned times comes not from the inclusion of technology but from the whole milieu of modern China, a bunch of college kids in the mix, and the short paragraphs and breezy style; and 2) I’m pretty sure I can safely say that some version of this solution could have easily shown up in the era of Carr and Talbot and all those fellows. It’s fiendishly clever!! And I’ll say no more.

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  3. Well, hot damn, this sounds rather marvellous. LRI jave uncovered some bleters for us, haven’t they? Anyone yet to read ‘The Lure of the Green Door’ by Rintaro Norizuki in The Realm of the Impossible also has an absolute delight ahead of them. Question is, which one do we want to see again in English first? Argh, the dilemma!!

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    1. TRotI is sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read. Is there a novel by Norizuki down the pike? I know you liked Lin’s Santa Claus story. I have pleasures awaiting me . . .

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      1. News of a Norizuki novel in translation would honestly make me so damn happy — I am super eager to see what that man is like over a broader story. C’mon c’mon c’mon…

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  4. I am probably going to the only naysayer here, but I really didn’t get on with this one and struggled to finish. It’s certainly ingenious, though and full of invention, just something in the style put me off.
    Really looking forward to your celebration of Murder on the Orient Express. Babysitting issues prevent me from seeing the new film (possibly not a bad thing?) but I’ll be interested to see your tale on it.

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    1. I totally get what you mean by the style. I could have turned nitpicker (I do it with Halter every time), but I had to recognize from previous reads the resemblance of Asian mysteries to manga and just go with it. Sometimes this felt like an episode of Case Closed, which doesn’t make it literature but then I thought: Hey, I like Case Closed, so what’s the problem? And the solution surprised me and yet felt simple and right. But don’t you worry about saying “nay” on my page, my friend! I say “nay” all the freaking time!

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      1. 🙂 Then I shall ‘nay’ until the Equine Union sues me for copyright. But, in any case, though this particular book wasn’t for me, it’s a joy to have had the opportunity to read it.

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  5. I know a lot of my blogging friends have placed this book at the top of their TBR piles

    You bet! However, this one is still at the very top of my wish list and probably went get around to adding it to my TBR-pile until next month, because I’m swamped at the moment. A luxury problem that is a side-effect of the blessings of our Renaissance Era. In any case, it is good to know that Death in the House of Rain will be a worthy addition to my modest locked room library.

    By the way, you mention a Chinese movement towards the traditional detective story, but were you (and others) aware that there’s a short story collection available, in English, of actual Chinese Golden Age detective stories?

    The title of this book is Sherlock in Shenghai: Stories of Crime and Detection and the short stories were written by an important figure from this period of the Chinese detective story, Cheng Xiaoqing, who was also famous for his translation of Western mysteries – such as the entire Sherlock Holmes canon. His own series-characters, Huo Sang and Bao Lang, were modeled on Holmes and Dr. Watson. And they operated during a brief period when certain places in China, like Shanghai, were embracing the West.

    Somehow, the book is practically unknown and already forgotten about. Even though it was published in the mid-2000s. If you want a window into how the Chinese detective story was developing, before the Second Sino-Japanese War, than you have to pick up this collection. It also has some great fore-and after words.

    And Brad, you’ll probably love the first story from this book, “The Shoe,” which reads like early Ellery Queen.

    Sorry for the off-topic rambling, but you mentioning the Chinese detective story reminded me of Cheng Xiaoqing. And hope this post gets through.

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    1. Thanks for the heads up about the Chinese Sherlock Holmes, Tomcat. The introduction to this book suggests that the Chinese renaissance in crime fiction is fairly recent. It’s interesting to hear that it began a long time earlier. Believe me, Rain will be a quick read for you when you finally own it!

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  6. Thanks for the review. 🙂 While waiting for ‘Death in the House of Rain’ to be released, I got my hands on another of Szu-Yen Lin’s novels and read it with much enthusiasm. It’s in Chinese, and it’s title translates roughly into ‘Death in the Ice Mirror Mansion’. My suspicion is that ‘House of Rain’ is the superior work – I found the solution to ‘Ice Mirror Mansion’ very clever, but very incredulous too. The novel was submitted for a Soji Shimada award, and the judging panel expressed some reservation at the degree of convolution.

    I think I will try ‘Death in the Fog and Shadow Mansion’ next, and leave ‘House of Rain’ as a final treat…

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