THE DECAGON HOUSE MURDERS

By Yukito Ayatsuji

Locked Room International.

228 pp. Paperback, $19.99

Yukito Ayatsuji’s “The Decagon House Murders” is a terrific mystery, a classic of misdirection very much in the manner of Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr. That means its great appeal isn’t the delineation of character or the depiction of criminal life on big-city mean streets, but rather the working out of an extremely complicated plot. The reader is meant to engage with the book on an intellectual level rather than a visceral or emotional one. As if watching a magic trick, we wonder both what will happen and, then, how it was done.

Excepting Haruki Murakami’s novels, which often include elements of detection as well as the fantastic, this is — hangs head in shame — the first full-length Japanese mystery I’ve read. It is, nonetheless, part of a flourishing school of what are called “honkaku.” As Shimada Soji — a key figure in this movement — writes in an introduction to “The Decagon House Murders,” the term “honkaku ”means “orthodox” and “refers to a form of the detective story that is not only literature but also to a greater or lesser extent a game.” Quoting Golden Age mystery writer S.S. Van Dine, he adds that it invites the reader to employ “a high degree of logical reasoning.”

(Locked Room International)

In a brief outline of the modern Japanese mystery, Shimada Soji explains that early in the 20th century the Western masters of the fair-play whodunit provided models for “honkaku,” but by the 1950s and ’60s a more psychological approach to crime fiction held sway. Its leading voice, Matsumoto Seichi, declared that “the most important elements of the detective novel were the motive that led to the crime and the depiction of the psychology of the criminal.” The “orthodox” approach was consequently disparaged and relatively ignored — until the appearance in 1981 of Shimada Soji’s own masterpiece, “The Tokyo Zodiac Murders.”

In its wake, younger Japanese writers began to invent new twists on traditional murder tropes: the closed circle of suspects, the isolated chalet or island from which there is no escape, the fair presentation of clues. The Kyoto University Mystery Club was founded in 1974, further encouraging study of classic mysteries as well as providing a venue for its members to play various whodunit games. From this club emerged a number of important new writers, among them Yukito Ayatsuji, who brought out “The Decagon House Murders” in 1987.

The book opens with a prologue in which we are privy to the thoughts of an unknown person, standing on a beach. “He has to kill them in order, one by one. Precisely like that story written by the famous British female writer — slowly, one after the other. He shall make them know. The suffering, the sadness, the pain and terror of death.” While the reader won’t recognize it till much later, there is a clue in these emotional sentences. The allusion, of course, is to Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.”

The story proper begins almost as a light-hearted jeu d’esprit. Seven members of a university mystery club are going to spend a week on an isolated island, without contact with the mainland. Rather than use their own Japanese names, the club members have borrowed those of celebrated Western mystery writers: Ellery, Agatha, Carr, Orczy, Leroux, Van and Poe. This may seem a charming conceit, but Ayatsuji makes clever use of it.

Once the Mystery Club members clamber ashore, we begin to learn more about the island’s history and its two main buildings. One is the Blue House, now a burned-out ruin, and the other is the Decagon House, designed with 10 sides surrounding a common room, with 10 identical doors opening off that central area. One of these doors belongs to the entranceway, another to the kitchen and a third to a bathroom. The remaining seven lead into bedrooms, and each member of the club chooses one. As in many older mysteries, we are given a map of the island and a diagram of the Decagon House.

The first night, March 26, 1986, nothing happens.

Meanwhile, back on the mainland, a current and a former member of the Mystery Club receive anonymous letters, both of which read: “My daughter Chiori was murdered by all of you.” It turns out that Chiori was another member of the Club but died, suddenly, the previous year after drinking a lot of whiskey at a party. The envelope bears the name Nakamura Seiji, the architect who designed the two buildings on the island and who himself died recently under mysterious circumstances. His body and that of his wife and two servants were found in the charred remains of the Blue House. The wife’s left hand had been cut off. The murders were never solved.

From this point on, Ayatsuji alternates between events on the island and investigations on the mainland. As the two students, assisted by an older man named Shimada, probe the meaning of the accusatory notes, the club members in the Decagon House awaken to discover that their dining room table has been laid with seven plates, each inscribed with a phrase: “The First Victim,” “The Second Victim” and so forth. The last two are marked “The Detective” and “The Murderer.” Soon thereafter, one by one, these crime-story aficionados begin to die.

If you were to take this novel as a serious social document, you would be appalled at its body count. But Ayatsuji keeps the reader from feeling any serious identification with the victims. They are simply types. Ellery is smart and nonchalant. Agatha is the self-confident beauty of the group, and Orczy the shy wallflower, in whom Chiori had confided. Carr doesn’t like Ellery and once made a pass at Orczy. Van suffers from a cold, Poe is studying medicine and Leroux is portrayed as a bespectacled nerd. Who is the murderer among them? Or could it be someone else?

Ho-Ling Wong’s English translation reads well, the narrative itself being moved along briskly by short paragraphs with lots of conversation among the characters. The final revelations, including the modus operandi of the crimes, will surprise all but the most astute readers. An epilogue brings a further twist.

I’ve been careful not to say too much about the action in “The Decagon House Murders,” but let me stress that this book really is a pleasure for anyone who enjoys locked-room mysteries, impossible crimes or Golden Age “Challenges to the Reader.” Note, too, that its publisher, Locked Room International, has also issued other Japanese mysteries, as well as English translations of Paul Halter, a contemporary French writer likened to the locked-room master John Dickson Carr, and an omnibus of three crime classics by the late Derek Smith, including the dazzling “Whistle Up the Devil.” I myself look forward to discovering more “honkaku” and plan to track down a copy of Shimada Soji’s “The Tokyo Zodiac Murders.” There’s still lots of summer left.

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post on Thursdays.

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