Okay, I’m not moving to Japan! That was what we writers call a tease. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. Ever.
However, Soji Shimada’s introduction to Takemaru Abiko’s debut mystery, The 8 Mansion Murders, offers many attractive reasons for me to do so.
First there’s the architecture. According to Zillow.com, the 910-sq.ft. condo I own is presently worth a gazillion dollars. I could sell now, but if want to buy a different home, I would naturally have to leave California. If I move to Japan, I could buy a mansion shaped like a decagon or a snake or, like the one in this novel, the figure eight. Eight happens to be my favorite number. (It has something to do with my OCD, as eight divides symmetrically down to one.) For an extra 10,000 yen, I could locate the house on a deserted island or perched atop a rocky cliff during a tsunami. These are extras you can’t find in the western United States!
As described in the novel’s prologue, mansions like these “are designed without any consideration for efficient use of space or ease of living . . .” They are built to inspire impossible murder plots.
Don’t look at me like that; I’m paraphrasing the murderer’s own words:
“It was the layout of this very mansion that had given me the idea. No, perhaps I wasn’t the first to consider it. The plan might have been waiting all this time for someone to find it. Just like the bottle of liquid that Alice found in Wonderland, it seemed to be saying: “USE ME.
“It had to be destiny. This mansion had been prepared for me, so I could use it for murder. Or perhaps it was I who is being used by the mansion itself . . . “
In America, we hunt for houses with enough closet space or a backyard for the dogs. We clearly don’t know how to shop . . .
Secondly, if I lived in Japan, I would not be the only person living within a thousand mile radius who likes GAD mysteries. According to Shimada, the famed author of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, Japanese universities are teeming with young people who gather in dorm rooms and talk about classic mysteries all – the – time!! S.S. Van Dine is their god, and they not only worship the puzzle-based mansion murders he favored, everyone wants to write like John Dickson Carr or Ellery Queen or Agatha Christie. And the books they write are published, and they become best sellers because – well, let Shimada himself explain it to you:
“. . . the shin honkaku movement managed to pave a way for itself in Japan, perhaps because, with its many set forms and rules, it fits well with the craftsman’s spirit of the Japanese people.”
Translation: While I languish in America, grubbing through used bookstores for a torn, faded copy of Carr’s The Unicorn Murders, young, hip people in Japan have made GAD mysteries their water cooler talk, and they write new books based on the classics, which sell like hottokeki.
Meanwhile, in the U.S. and Great Britain, unless a small print publisher sees fit to re-issue old titles – especially the more rare non-classics – we’re stuck imagining what it would have been like to read these wonderful old puzzles. Kudos, therefore, to John Pugmire of Locked Room International for publishing for a niche market of fans who probably won’t make him rich, even as they snap up each title he issues as quickly as they can. I particularly appreciate his efforts to bring successful shin honkaku titles (modern Japanese mysteries written in the classic style) to English-speaking audiences.
The first example we saw from LRI was The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ajatsuji, who was actually one of the students Shimada hung out with at a Kyoto University Mystery Club to talk about impossible crimes and formulate elaborate plots that would eventually see the light of day. Decagon was published in 1987, and then two of Ajatsuji’s mates released their debut novels in rapid succession: Rintaro Norizuki’s tantalizingly unavailable The Locked Classroom in 1988, and The 8 Mansion Murders in 1989.
By the time Abiko published his book, Shimada explains, the authors of shin honkaku were already lifting ideas and techniques from each other. Shimada suggests that what distinguishes Abiko’s novel from the others is a comic tone that the author lifted from the entertaining discussions he and his chums had at Kyoto University, but which the others do notinject into their work. To be honest, this aspect worried me going in: how often to we come up against the essential untranslatability of one culture’s sense of humor into another? But I loved Decagon, and I loved Alice Arisugawa’s The Moai Island Puzzle (also published in 1989) even more, and I really loved the Chinese mystery Death in the House of Rain – so I snapped this one up as soon as it was available.
I think there is much to enjoy about The 8 Mansion Murders, but granted that all these novels were written by young men fresh out of university, this is the first time I have felt the immaturity of the author’s voice, and to my mind Abiko’s decision to write a mystery-comedy did the book no favors.
The central investigator, a young police inspector named Kyozo Hayami, is a dogged investigator at work but at home possesses the qualities of a hapless high schooler. His inner circle includes a wiseass baby sister, Ichio, and a younger brother named Shinji, both mystery fans, which in the world of shin honkaku, means that both are smarter than Kyozo at solving crimes. Rounding out the team is Detective Kinoshita, a hapless bumbler who is the source of most of the novel’s humor. And I have to say that, in this case, my worst fears are confirmed. Kinoshita’s main role in the story is to act the part of the Coyote in a series of Roadrunner-like cartoons. He reduces the tone of the mystery to manga-like proportions, which makes sense given that Abiko seems to have focused his career on comic books.
The scenes with the Hayami family are also light-hearted, but each of the siblings is charming and at least everyone is focused on crime here. This could easily be the basis for a TV show where each week Kyozo would get a new case, fall in love with a pretty female suspect, nearly get his assistant killed, and flounder with the solution until he is pointed in the right direction by his wiseacre sibs. It poignantly suggests to me an alternate universe where the Golden Age of Detection never faded away – it just kept up with the times.
While the family’s banter feels (conservatively) modern, the mystery itself is pure GAD. The author utilizes all sorts of classic narrative tools and techniques, including providing us with six diagrams of the mansion’s topography: three floors of rooms separated by a yawning courtyard which is, in turn, bisected by a gallery on each floor, creating the figure eight of the title. False solutions are presented before the truth is unveiled, and I would venture to say that in this case the true solution is the most absorbing of the bunch.
Where Abiko falls down for me is in characterization and motivation. He reserves all his character work, such as it is, for the hero and his cohorts. The suspects comprise a list of ciphers, some with quirks (the senescent patriarch, the mute daughter, the victim’s promiscuous lush of a wife) and others merely colorless. Sometimes it works – the interviews with the mute daughter, conducted with her typing into a word processor, move the story forward andcreate a sympathetic character – while other characters don’t fare as well (Kyozo’s interrogation of the drunken daughter-in-law is embarrassingly bad, emphasizing the author’s immaturity when it comes to understanding female characters. Maybe a woman as unhappy as this one is shouldn’t be played for laughs.)
It’s all beside the point: these characters are mere game pieces to be moved around the puzzle board, sometimes literally. The question becomes: is the game worth the effort? I’m not going to give away many plot details, just to say that there are two murders, both of them of the impossible variety, that take place in this oddly shaped house that, unlike the House of Rain or the Decagon mansion, never really comes to life. The investigation and the solutions clearly illustrate Abiko’s love of classic locked room mysteries: numerous titles and authors are referenced throughout, and the fact that I’ve read so many of them might explain why I quickly glommed onto the method for the first mystery. (I’m not sure anyone could figure out the second, relying as it does on so many fortuitous circumstances.)
Unfortunately, I think things fall apart somewhat at the final reveal, largely having to do with the identity of the killer and the fact that Abiko largely ignores the issue of motive here, especially the motivation for the impossible aspect of the crimes. I won’t discuss any of this in detail – it’s a fun read and worth checking out – but I look forward to hashing this one out with others after they have read it.
In the end, The 8 Mansion Murders must rank for me at the bottom of the very small list of shin honkaku titles available in English, but it’s definitely worth reading as further evidence of a nation that still takes classic mysteries seriously. The translation by Ho-Ling Wong is excellent! You never feel like you are reading a translation at all, and Wong excels at something very difficult – the art of conveying the humor of one culture to another. I only wish I had found the comedy more to my taste, but there is still much here to charm the Western reader.