SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: I’M MOVING TO JAPAN!!!

Okay, I’m not moving to Japan! That was what we writers call a tease. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. Ever.

Trust me.

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!

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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:

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“. . . 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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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20 thoughts on “SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: I’M MOVING TO JAPAN!!!

  1. Great review! I liked it more than you but I can’t disagree with the problems you had with it. The motivation of the killer is lacking and I do think that undermines the satisfaction of the ending. I also feel that unlike those other architectural delights you reference, the importance of the shape of the building (highlighted in the opening narration) serves to highlight the solution to the first murder.

    The translation is superb though and I think the way the second killing happens is really cleverly handled. I liked it a lot and can’t wait to see what LRI lines up next for us.

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  2. I absolutely agree, Aidan, that the architecture becomes important to the solution, but the house never came to life for me in the way the other houses did. Does that distinction mke sense?

    And yes, I would rather this book be translated and made available than not and hope my gratitude to LRI for doing so was clear. I dream of having more and more opportunities to read books like these in the future!

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    1. I agree! I think part of it is that I am not as struck by the strangeness of the figure 8 shape as say the decagon with the decagon-shaped cutlery and so on. It is quirky, sure, but it wouldn’t get under your skin quite like it does there.

      I recently began learning Japanese with the express intention of someday being able to read some of these for myself. Given that I can only write hello, goodbye, thank you, yes and no so far though I think it may be a while before I am ready to tackle a puzzle mystery in the original Japanese…

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  3. Thanks, Brad, for such a detailed and thoughtful review. I’m sorry to hear there were things about this one that disappointed you. But I have to admit, I like reading crime fiction from cultures I don’t know well, even if I don’t fall in love with the books. I like the different perspectives, and the way people from different places present crime fiction.

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    1. I agree, Margot, but this felt like the least culturally specific shin honkaku of all that I’ve read so far. Aside from the comic book feel of the humorous sections, which resembled the manga I’ve read, the atmosphere here was pretty generic.

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  4. Thanks for the review!

    Trying to comment as simply a reader of the work here, even at the risk of sounding like an apologist (insert obvious disclosure warning here, though I want to say I knew the book some years before I ever got to work on it): I really like the tone of the book. The banter between the Hayamis is really funny (I LOVE Ichio), and while I admit Kinoshita’s antics are a bit cartoon-esque, Abiko actually does a good job at hiding hints in the comedy. Kinoshita’s going through A LOT, but for example his first painful ordeal might seem just like some physical comedy act, but it is in fact an important hint to the whereabouts of X that only comes back much later in the novel. So the comedy isn’t just there for fun.

    With the motive, I think it works considering the context. Would it’ve worked in a GAD novel that’s really out of the GAD period? No. Does it work in some decades later, written by and for GAD fans whos first cravings are more locked room murders and other impossible mysteries? Yep. The prologue is voiced by the culprit, but it is in fact what Abiko himself says: Why did the murder had to happen the way it happened? Because that’s what we want.

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    1. I’m honored by your explanation. I purposely did not want to go into the plot details above, mindful that so many of my friends here love impossible crimes and want to read it unblemished by reviews. But here are some thoughts in response to you:

      1) I liked Ichio, too! I hope it came across that I liked the three siblings together and would enjoy a series of mysteries featuring them.

      2) it’s not Kinoshita’s fault! I liked when he helped Kyozo and was trying to be a good detective. The pattern of comedy Abiko used here is all too familiar to me, so I knew exactly where this was going right till the end. It’s a slapstick comedy of cruelty, and I am sure many English readers will love it – it’s just not my thing.

      3) It wasn’t the motive in and of itself that I had problems with; it was the problem of motivation being tacked on at the end. X being laughed at for loving Y; Z angry by a previously unmentioned affair. Even the false solution was problematical because of a total lack of motive. While I get that the focus is on the mechanics of the crime – which worked just fine – a total absence of motives and an utter disregard for who the victim was (honestly, the dead man is nothing but a name until the finale) weakened, at least for me, the drama when the killer is exposed.

      4) That said, you’re absolutely correct here, and it makes me realize that as much as I celebrate here a modern country embracing classic mystery tropes, I’m holding this to classic standards. I’m not sure if I can help this, but it is good to have that pointed out to me. These were, after all, young men in the 1980’s with entirely different sensibilities from Carr, Queen, and especially Christie. I did enjoy Decagon and Moai Island much more because I think they stuck better to the classic GAD sensibilities and yet felt utterly Eastern in many ways. There’s nothing wrong with a more modern take, as Abiko did here, and I loved the referencing to classic books (although they reading those books earlier pointed me directly to the mechanism for the first murder).

      I’ve gone on too long, but I really appreciate your response, Ho-Ling. Your translation here was spot on. Each new publication leaves me hungry for more. It’s hard for me sometimes to read your blog because of all the tempting marvels you write about that I may never be able to read!

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      1. Hey, I thought I was doing good the last few months, with about a third of the book reviews of books that are either originally written in English or available in translation 😉

        There are two other novels featuring the Hayamis, but as they aren’t impossible crimes per se, I can’t see LRI going after them. An anthology was released last year to celebrate thirty years shin honkaku, and while writers like Arisugawa and Norizuki used their series detectives (as it was supposed to be celebration), Abiko sadly enough opted not to go for a fourth short adventure with the Hayamis, as he felt too much time had passed since he last spent time with them.

        I admit the motive feels very much like an afterthought in this novel, though I can’t say it bothers me very much. I touch upon it on my short story VS novel post earlier in the week, but I usually focus mostly on the core mystery plot, and in most mystery novels, motive has _very_ little to do with the core mystery plot (i.e. there’s no synergy between motive and murder method/the whodunnit/etc, and one could easily swap things without much trouble arising).

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  5. Thanks for the review, Brad.

    I’m still looking forward to reading this. The complaints you have about too little characterisation and a poor motive are relatively minor things to me, while you seem to have appreciated the impossible situations, which are much more important to me. There’s a surprise!

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    1. The book focuses purely on the “how” throughout, Christian, as it is meant to do, and it does so in a breezy, fast-paced style. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. I enjoyed those parts, too. I just felt that the other shin honkaku I’ve read gave me more of what I like in a mystery, too. We will hopefully talk more after you’ve read it.

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  6. “…this is the first time I have felt the immaturity of the author’s voice”

    Did you read Moai Island Puzzle? That book is so juvenile I couldn’t finish it. And the translation was really frustrating. (I think I’m the only one carping on that.) I’m not sure I can handle another one of these books where the college students seem like they’re still in junior high school. Plenty of books have been written by men and women still in college years that are sophisticated, fascinating and readable. What’s with these youthful Japanese mystery writers who can’t be bothered with creating real people in their books? There’s a puzzle worth solving!

    BTW, who is reviewing the Locked Room International books at Publishers Weekly? The review blurb for this book is such a hyperbolic rave I’d expect it to have been lifted from amazon.com. “…one of the funniest and cleverest novels of its type to hit the English-language market in years.” Seriously? Even I don’t write reviews like that on my blog and I’m a self-confessed hyperbole user.

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    1. I liked Moai Island more than you did. I think because the focus was on the houseguests instead of a policeman, we got to know the characters better. I have been prepared when reading Japanese mysteries that lack of characterization is a foregone conclusion. I still felt I knew the people in the other books better than here.

      But there’s no part in going on about this, John! When you say I’m not sure I can handle another one of these books where the college students seem like they’re still in junior high school, I know that my response to you must be: “Don’t read this book.”

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    2. “BTW, who is reviewing the Locked Room International books at Publishers Weekly?”
      Yes, I also find their reviews rubbish. For example, in respect of The Double Alibi by Noel Vindry, they say, “…offers a tantalizing set-up… Impossible crime fans will be intrigued.” I found that the impossible crime aspect is resolved within the first 20% of the book followed by 80% of sheer boredom.

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  7. Great review, Brad, which has me adding this one to my wish-list. I love translations (especially if done well) and despite your reservations, I’m sure this one will still be a thoroughly enjoyable read. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Yup, my reservations have to do with my own personal preferences in mysteries, Alex. It’s exciting whenever we can read another culture’s take on the classic style. One thing this book makes clear is that there is no “one size fits all” pattern to shin honkaku!!

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  8. To Ho-Ling:

    “I usually focus mostly on the core mystery plot, and in most mystery novels, motive has _very_ little to do with the core mystery plot (i.e. there’s no synergy between motive and murder method/the whodunnit/etc, and one could easily swap things without much trouble arising).”

    Wow! I get what you’re saying, and it really made me think about what I myself look for and like in a mystery . . . and it’s different from what you’re saying here! It really clarifies something that I love about Agatha Christie. I think I feel a post coming on . . . 🙂

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    1. I’m probably an outlier in this regard. I mean, Ellery could reveal the murderer was the friendly neighborhood butcher from page 9 who killed the victim only because he stole some pork chop last week, and I’d still be content as long as we see Ellery build a logical prison around the murder by proving a whole list of characteristics the murderer must answer to like being lefthanded or that they needed to have known the victim would be having venison for dinner before Tuesday 07:00 when the victim posted the dinner invitations etc., and showing that only the butcher answers to the list of characteristics.

      And I know most people would absolutely hate these kinds of detective stories 😛

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