Monday, July 29, 2019

Death in the House of Rain (2006/2017) by Szu-Yen Lin

Rain, rain, go away.

After going from France to Japan, we now continue my new multicultural focus with a Chinese mystery novel. Death in the House of Rain is author Szu-Yen Lin’s first English-language novel after having two short stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The intro for the book goes into detail about the history of the locked room mystery in China, showing both that that history is shorter than one would think, and that China has some of the battiest locked room ideas (a story from the point of view of a fly! Twenty tape tricks in one story! Teleporting locked rooms!). But on to the book at hand.

The story is set in the titular house, so named because it looks like the Chinese character for rain when seen from above. Some years ago, the house was the scene of a vicious family slaughter. A couple and their daughter were found dead in the house, and while the police determined that the wife was killed by the husband, he and their daughter were killed by an unknown, who they identify as Weiqun Yang. Yang admits to having an affair with the wife and raping the dead girl’s corpse(!!!) but denies actually killing anyone. This is about as convincing as it reads, and he kills himself in the detention center.

Cut to the present where Renze Bai, the brother of the husband of the murdered couple is sent a bizarre email containing photos of the crime scene, along with a string of numbers. Bai has concerns about Yang’s guilt and decides to invite philosopher Ruoping Lin to the House of Rain to investigate. His daughter, Lingsha, also has some classmates over at the house, completing the ensemble of victims. Because a lot of people die in this book.

Decapitation in a locked and watched room! Strangulation in a locked and watched room with no footprints in the mud outside! This is just the first two deaths, and it gives the book a nice pace to it, something is always happening. The problem is that this leaves us with little time to get to know the victims, who end up being cardboard at best, actively unlikable at worst. We’re in near-slasher movie territory here, which fits with the overall dark tone of the book, but makes it hard to get invested at times. It suffers from the same dryness that hampered The Ginza Ghost, mixed with a very terse style that makes it a little too easy to skim-read.

The pacing also suffers a bit. While the murders keep coming, Rupong doesn’t do much effective investigating until very late in the book. The actual murder method is absurd yet excellent, one of those solutions that sounds hilarious on paper but actually works well and is justified in the book. I do think that it is a little unlikely that no one would have stumbled onto it before now, but I accept it, even the desperate waving of Poe around as a shield for how everything unfolded. What I am less fond of is how the people responsible for the whole mess get let off rather lightly, considering what they did to cause it. The fourth death also breaks from the simplicity of the previous deaths for a more technically complex and less interesting solution, although the provided diagrams make the broad strokes of what happened clear. But the solution for the past murders is disappointing, very little cluing and it feels completely tacked on.

All in all I admit this is mainly of interest to pure locked room fans. There just isn’t a whole lot of meat here for fans of more “traditional” mysteries to chew on. The dark tone doesn’t make it a good intro to the genre either. If you’re a fan of locked rooms and don’t mind a bit of the Grand Guignol in your mysteries, then this is a good read. But if not, you’d be better off with something else from LRI’s catalog.

See TomCat, JJ, Brad, and Aiden for more positive takes.

Monday, July 8, 2019

The Ginza Ghost (2017) by Keikichi Osaka

I confess, I confess--I don’t have a good intro here.

Normally us mystery fans are familiar with the idea that Japan gets all the good stuff. They have the best mysteries, all our obscure authors get translated and end up there long before we ever get them, and we’re stuck reading about them in a form of literary torture. This time, we all get to share in an obscure and talented author with Keikichi Osaka’s The Ginza Ghost.

The opening by Taku Ashibe gives a good summary of the life and works of Osaka, from his first stories to his sadly premature death during World War II. He also looks at the works in this collection, and while he doesn’t trip the spoiler alert for all of them, he comes very close in a few cases, so you might want to read this one last.

I’ll also say that Osaka is as dry as the Sahara during a drought. This didn’t bother me too much, but I admit trying to read too many at once can be a little draining. It’s not bad writing, but it makes one skim a bit. But that’s enough of that. On to the stories.

We kick off with “The Hangman of the Department Store” the first of many stories starring Osaka’s detective Kyosuke Aoyama...and his first of two appearances here. The case at hand is about a department store employee who’s been strangled and hurled off the roof of the store with unnatural force, along with a robbery at said store. This is less a fair impossible crime to be solved and more a chance to sit back and watch Aoyama unravel everything in minutes, exposing one of the more creatively terrible deaths in mystery fiction.

Aoyama stars again in “The Phantasm of the Stone Wall.” A woman is found stabbed to death outside a small mansion, and two figures are seen walking away from the scene...but a witness at the other end of the road saw no one. The killers are identified as twins at the mansion, but that’s not the end of strange events on that quiet road. I can’t really call this “fair play,” and I find it unlikely that no one ever noticed this happening before, but it’s still a good story.

“The Mourning Locomotive” beyond having one of the better titles in the collection, presents one of its most unusual stories. The titular locomotive is a train that has become infamous for the accidents it’s been involved in, to the point that the drivers have gotten in the habit of hanging a wreath whenever someone dies. Now, it seems someone is setting up pigs to be run over by the locomotive, but why? The answer disappointed at first, but after musing on it, I’ve gained an appreciation for how simple it is.

Next up is the pulpy “The Monster of the Lighthouse.” This story has one of the most audacious murders in mystery fiction: a lighthouse keeper is crushed beneath a rock seemingly flung from the island below, as a “monster” is seen fleeing the scene. Again, this is more about discovery than deduction, since there are only so many ways to explain this type of situation. But it is well-done, and the explanation for what the “monster” is is suitably gross and yet tragic.

“The Phantom Wife” is, based on other reviews I’ve read, widely considered to be the weak link in the collection. I am glad to announce my conformity and agree. The story revolves around a schoolteacher with a seemingly happy marriage with his wife when the wife dies after sinking into a deep depression for reasons unknown. Soon after, the man becomes increasingly fearful and paranoid, and is found murdered in his home, the bars on the windows ripped off by an inhuman force. All well and good, but the solution is as flat as possible. When you better understand the context of the story, it works slightly better, but even then it’s flawed. We just don’t get enough details about the husband’s actions to feel like his fate was deserved.

Next up is “The Mesmerising Light,” which takes on that rare impossible problem: the vanishing car. Lawyer Otsuki and his driver are zooming down a winding and dark mountain road when they stumble on a man clinging to life after being hit by another car that broke through one of the road’s checkpoints. The two don’t recall seeing one, but ring the checkpoint at the other end of the road to keep an eye out for the reckless driver. Minutes pass and the guards confirm that no car went by, even though there’s nowhere for it to go.

On the one hand, I’m not overly fond of the solution here, which is pretty much the obvious answer with some window dressing. But the deductions Otsuki makes from a knife the reckless driver used in a murder begins to show a shift in the stories. Up until now, most of Osaka’s stories have been more about watching the detective unravel events you personally have very little chance of solving. But now, we see a simple but clever double-bluff that shows a shift towards more orthodox detection that will only become stronger as the collection goes on.

The next story, “The Cold’s Night’s Clearing,” was my introduction to Osaka in the Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine issue that published it. The titular clearing is a place which is often coated in snow in the winter months, and when the clouds clear, the moon and night sky can be clearly seen. It is over this field that a man escapes after murdering a woman and her bodyguard, taking the woman’s son with him. The tracks from his skis can clearly be seen...but fade away in the middle of the snowy field. The solution is simple in the best possible way: When you learn what exactly happened that night, you’ll probably be tempted to smack your forehead in frustration that you missed it (unless I’m just projecting). It’s an elegant, totally fair solution, and honestly probably made me hold this collection to a higher standard then I normally would. The only real sticking point is the rather somber ending, but I did not find it an issue.

Christian Henriksson did bring to my attention a “cheat” of sorts in the story. It’s in the comments (also read his review for a slightly less rosy view of this collection).

“The Three Madman” is even more orthodox, being a Queen-style “which of the three did it?” story. The three in question are the titular madmen, the last three patients of a cash-strapped asylum. Diva sings and dances endlessly, Knock-Knock kicks the wall with his foot, and the Injured picks at his face, but all three appear harmless...until the doctors show up to find the hospital’s director dead, his brains scooped out, and the patients gone.

This story sets itself up as more of a manhunt story than a mystery, but it’s pretty obvious where it’s going, especially to the experienced mystery fan. But it’s still a dark, tense, almost creepy story that continues to show Osaka’s move towards the orthodox.

Next on the list is “The Guardian of the Lighthouse,” which once again features the impossible occurring at a lighthouse. The keeper is forced to leave his son on the island alone during a raging storm, but is pleased to see the lighthouse working through the night. But when he returns to the island, his son has vanished into thin air.

This wasn’t published in a mystery magazine, so we have more of a return to the early stories, less deduction that you can solve in advance and more gradual discovery. The discovery is genuinely horrifying, and the whole story almost reminded me of one of those “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” collections, only slightly less mean-spirited and more touching. It also has one of my favorite types of horror, the type where things seem scary until the reveal, and then they get even worse.

“The Demon in the Mine” is the longest story in the collection, and one of the highlights (Sorry JJ!). The story is set in a mine, and Osaka's style can't blunt the brutal nature of life in the mines. I had to wonder while reading if Osaka wasn’t writing from personal experience. The mine is brutal to the workers and the only comfort workers O-Shina and the ironically named Minekeichi have is each other. Unfortunately, this tale of love ends in a massive explosion and fire that leaves Minekeichi sealed behind a massive door, doomed to die either from the flames or the toxic air. At least, that’s what people think before the murders begin.

The men involved in sealing Minekeichi behind the door start turning up bludgeoned to death. At first, suspicion falls on the dead man’s family, but that have alibis for the murders. The other miners have no reason to kill on the behalf of the dead man. Could Minekeichi have survived?

This is very well done, honestly. Perhaps a bit too long, but the atmosphere of desolation in the mine is brutal, and the mystery at the center is very well done. You honestly don’t know which direction Osaka will go here, or if he’ll pull out a third path. The trick is familiar but the misdirection will keep you (it did me) from suspecting it until it’s too late. I do think Osaka doesn’t play fair at an early part of the story, which is quite galling, as he could have played a genius deception that would have put this story on the level of “The Cold Night’s Clearing.” As it is, it falls a little short.

We now have a light comedy story, “The Hungry Letter-Box.” Toki is lovestruck man who posts a letter to his sweetheart, but is horrified to discover, while trying to get a stamp onto it, that the letter has vanished from the solidly locked letterbox. This is probably the lightest story in the collection, and good fun. I do think that the trick could have been better hinted at, but that’s a minor gripe.

The collection ends with “The Ginza Ghost,” which takes place on the modern (at the time of writing) streets of Ginza, a place of coffee shops and nightclubs, and a place where something anti-modern stalks in the alleys and under the bright lights. A young woman is seen being killed inside a tobacco shop, and the body of another woman is found strangled upstairs. At first the police assume that the latter killed the former before taking her own life, since she was wearing the same clothes as the killer, but the evidence shows that she died over an hour before “her” victim! And there is no way for an outsider Did a ghost do it?

No. Of course not. This is a good little story with a simple but plausible solution. TomCat compares it to a Hoch story and I agree...but Hoch would have trimmed the explanation by a few paragraphs, since as it is the whole thing gets bogged down in people repeating themselves.

All in all, an interesting but flawed collection of stories. The main issue is how stoic the narration is in the stories. In the early stories especially it makes for some tedious reading, but it soon picks up with more interesting situations and solutions. And reading it gives one a good overview of the development of the detective story in Japan. All in all, Recommended, with caveats.