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:
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.
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.
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!
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!