Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Moai Island Puzzle (1989) by Alice Arisugawa

I still blame Ellery Queen for starting the trend of self-insertion in mysteries.

After more or less being French Locked Room International for quite some time, LRI has been branching out to include impossibilities from the wider globe from Swedish to Chinese to Japanese--the latter of which is the target of this review. Alice Arisugawa’s The Moai Island Puzzle was translated by blogger Ho-Ling, who did an excellent job of bringing this classic-styled mystery over for the enjoyment of us lesser beings.

Narrator Alice is part of a five member mystery club that includes him; senior Jirou Egami, a brilliant man who’s still on his fourth year; and Maria Arima, the girl of the group. It’s the latter that kickstarts the plot, inviting Alice and Egami to a family reunion on an isolated, horseshoe-shaped island. Maria’s grandfather was a lover of puzzles who left behind a fortune in diamonds, and like all rich puzzle lovers in mysteries, willed that whoever could solve the puzzle could keep the diamonds. Maria’s cousin Hideo tried but ended up drowning, and she’s hoping that her friends will succeed.

Of course, Alice is nervous. After all, once they get on the island, the boat won’t be coming back for six days, and communication with the outside world will be limited. The mystery fan senses are tingling. Everyone assures him that nothing will go wrong. And indeed, it doesn’t.

Until the 80 page mark or so.
With most of the cast lying in a drunken stupor and distracted by the constant bangs of a loose door in a storm, no one hears the twin shots the leave a father and daughter dead behind the rusty-locked door of a bedroom. The blurb boasts of this locked room being worthy of Carr himself, but it’s not. It’s a small portion of the plot, and Egami’s attitude towards it will insult locked room purists, but his conclusions about what happened behind the door are plausible and unique.

Obviously, there’s more death to come, and we’re promised that we can deduce everything logically. I would argue that this is true; while there’s only one real clue, once you have that and realize what it means, it’s possible to follow the chain of deduction to see what the killer must have done, why they did it, and even to follow it back to who the killer must have been, thought this last part requires a small leap. I didn’t solve it (well, I correctly guessed the culprit, but that was a guess), but I didn’t feel like I had been bested because I didn’t have enough information, or because the author was writing something you’d need to be a genius to solve. I felt like that if I’d thought about it a tad more, I could have solved it. This mainly applies to the actual murders; the treasure hunt is nice and complex, and I'm sure it's quite solvable with enough effort, but most readers won't be able to puzzle it all out without some level of getting out a sheet of paper and writing it all out. It's not needed to solve the mystery per se, so the more intellectually lazy among us can consider it a bonus challenge.

Where the mystery suffers is in the cast. While Arisugawa is kind enough to bump a good chunk of them off over the course of the story, you’ll need the dramatis persona at the beginning to tell one name from another. I also have to gripe about the blurb on another point, as it commits the dread sin of “I know the summary is bad/cliché,” which is something that even fanfiction writers know/are warned to stay away from. It also makes mention of a dying message on par with Ellery Queen, but this too, means nothing. There is a dying message, but it has little impact on the plot.

But in the end, any complaints are minor. While it’s not as exciting and super fast as, say, Death Invites You, it’s more competent, more thoroughly thought out, and even manages to reach a bit of melodramatic pathos at the finale. Recommended.


  1. You're absolutely right that the synopsis gave too much weight to the locked room and dying message, but was spot on about the impressive chain of deductions. Something that was closer to EQ than the dying message, which was not even essential to the plot. I also appreciated the strong and original motivation behind the simplistic locked room murders.

    So I hope more of them will follow in the future, because, in the end, this was a great piece of detective fiction.

    And four posts in three months? Your blog almost looks like it's really becoming active this time!

    1. I laugh because it hurts, and it hurts because it's true.

      I do have an actual backlog of posts to draw from now, so hopefully I can have actual semi-regular content.

      And same, I want more of these! Based on what Ho-Ling has posted, ideally more of the "Student Alice" stories. "Castle of the Queendom" and "The Insight of Egami Jirou" sounded good, but it's been a while since I read the reviews.

  2. Thanks for the review, and I am completely innocent in regards to the blurbs :P

    The Moai Island Puzzle is a personal favorite. I am a big fan of the early Queens, but Arisugawa really outdoes Queen at his own game, with a brilliant chain of deductions that has such a humble starting point. Arisugawa is also very fair, stating in his Challenge that there are enough clues that, once followed to their logical conclusion, lead to the identity of the murderer, but not to the truth of other side issues per se.

    1. This reminds me that I need to read Queen sometime.

      It is a really good logic chain, and like I said I felt that I could have figured it out, which isn't always a feeling I get from mysteries. I'm sure you can nitpick it, but it felt pretty tight to me.