Monday, July 29, 2019
Death in the House of Rain (2006/2017) by Szu-Yen Lin
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.