Thursday, May 18, 2023

The Red Locked Room (2020) by Tetsuya Ayukawa (translated by Ho-Ling Wong, edited by Taku Ashibe and Ho-Ling Wong)

Tetsuya Ayukawa was one of the leading lights of honkaku mystery fiction, and a man who could bedubbed “the Japanese mystery story” in the same way that Anthony Boucher dubbed Ellery Queen the American mystery story. However, his work has long remained unavailable to an English-speaking audience. I’m pleased to say that Locked Room International has provided us with a curated collection of Ayukawa’s mystery fiction, The Red Locked Room.

The collection alternates detectives: Ryuzo Hoshikage is “a caricature of the classic great detective,” who solves bizarre impossible crimes. Inspector Onitsura is a “rational and cool-headed police detective” who breaks impossible alibis with old-fashioned police work and a little bit of logic. Both of them have very good showings in this collection.

Hoshikage opens up with “The White Locked Room.” A student goes to visit the house of her professor, only to find a strange man in the house, an editor who moderated a debate between the professor and a psychic and a spirit medium, and the professor dead of a stab wound. And of course, the house was surrounded by snow, and the only footprints in it were the editor’s, who has no motive for the murder. I admit I didn’t find the explanation to be all that impressive; I’ve seen the solution before, and there are a bunch of weird complications. Hoshikage doesn’t appear to solve the crime by logic, but by going, “This is my guess about how the crime was done, now here are some random questions that prove my theory.” I’ll concede that, “There’s really only one way this could be done” is a perfectly fine deduction, but I’d like the story to make it clear that it’s doing that, instead of leaving me to (possibly incorrectly) infer it. However, there was one element that stood out as more clever to me when I reread it.

“Whose Body?” is a Freeman Wills Crofts-style story about an unidentified corpse. The story opens with an arresting incident: three artists receive packages, one containing a bottle of acid, one a rope, and one a fired revolver. At first, it seems like a macabre prank, but a week later, a headless corpse is discovered in the cellar of a burnt-down building, strangled, shot with the revolver from the package, and its hands burnt with acid! This is the longest story in the collection, and is mostly about trying to identify the corpse and his murderer with some solid police work. We also get snippets from a young woman investigating the crime as well. It’s a pretty well-done story once everything is worked out, with a neat bit of logic from Onitsura. The biggest issue with the story is that a very important plot point happens entirely off-screen. I’m not talking about a clue that Ayukawa couldn’t show without giving things away, I’m talking about a reveal that changes the investigation but that is never shown on the page and is only mentioned retrospectively. It threw me off the first time I read this.

Next up is “The Blue Locked Room.” The victim is an arrogant director/actor whose cruelty towards women has given everyone in his troupe a reason to kill him. The story even starts with one member trying to kill him for raping the man’s girlfriend! The fight is broken up and the victim is led back to his room, but come morning he’s unresponsive. The door to his room is locked, and while the window is open, there’s no disturbance in the flower bed outside. But somehow, he’s been strangled to death. (The title comes from the blue light the victim insisted on having in his room.) This story didn’t appeal to me. Part of it is because the solution is pretty simple, and not in the good way, like the later stories in the collection. The other part is that it does something that annoys me in locked room stories: (ROT13: V’yy nqzvg gung, “Qbvat K vf vzcbffvoyr, fb gur xvyyre zhfg unir qbar L,” vf n inyvq qrqhpgvba, ohg vg evatf ubyybj va ybpxrq ebbz fgbevrf jurer gur ragver cbvag vf gung rirelguvat nccrnef vzcbffvoyr. Gurer’f nabgure irel tbbq ybpxrq ebbz fgbel gung qbrf guvf fnzr guvat, naq vg’f ernyyl sehfgengvat. V qba’g zvaq vg jura gur qrgrpgvir svtherf bhg n jnl gung gur pevzr pbhyq unir orra pbzzvggrq, gevrf gb frr vs bgure jnlf ner cbffvoyr, gura pbapyhqrf gung gur svefg jnl vf ubj vg jnf qbar fvapr gur bguref qba’g jbex. Ubjrire, juvyr guvf fgbel pbzrf pybfr gb qbvat gung, vg’f rnfl gb ernq vg nf Ubfuvxntr whfg fnlvat gung K vf ubj gur pevzr jnf pbzzvggrq, bgure fbyhgvbaf arrq abg nccyl.)

“Death in Early Spring” opens with what to some is a warning: “To understand the full detail of what happened, it is unfortunately necessary to examine a dry series of railway timetables.” Thankfully, the story is far from boring. It opens with the discovery of a body in a construction yard, one of two men vying for a woman’s heart. Evidence points at his rival in love, but when a letter the victim wrote on a train surfaces, it creates a baffling problem for the police. It seems to put their victim and killer in two different places, giving the killer a perfect alibi! In spite of the story’s warning, the solution is quite “simple,” but in a good way. It’s the type of solution that makes you smack your head and go, “Oh, of course!” It’s something I’d expect to see in the Ace Attorney series, which is one of the highest compliments I can give. While there is one bit of the story that could be described as “unfair,” it’s not something that you’re expected to deduce before Onitsura does, and I think that some readers might suspect the truth before that. Even those of you who don’t like detailed timetables will enjoy this one.

Hoshikage returns in “The Clown in the Tunnel.” A reporter and his photographer go to interview a jazz band, where they overhear an argument between the bandmaster and the band’s singer. It seems like minor drama, but when the two try and get a group photo of the band, the singer is absent…because someone stabbed her to death. The investigation is quickly complicated when the maid is found tied up in the kitchen, telling a horrifying story of a person dressed in a clown costume tying her up and trying to wash blood off before making an escape down a tunnel between two buildings. It seems like the killer escaped down the tunnel, until the investigators learn that there was a car accident on the other side of the tunnel, and that its exit was constantly watched. And the witnesses saw no one! L. Stump has this on a top ten favorite mysteries list, and I can see why. While I really didn’t like the solution at first, I quickly realized that it was, once again, brilliantly simple. There are two aspects that keep this from being top tier for me: One: The summation is too long. Compare it to a Hoch story, where the detective is able to quickly and succinctly tie all the clues together. Here, the summation keeps going and makes the solution seem more complicated than it actually is. This is an issue throughout this collection, especially in the next story. Two: (ROT13: V qba’g yvxr zlfgrevrf jurer nyzbfg rirel, vs abg rirel fhfcrpg, vf vaibyirq va gur pevzr. Cnegyl orpnhfr V arire guvax bs vg naq nyjnlf srry bhgfznegrq, ohg nyfb orpnhfr vg pna znxr gur fgbel srry purnc jura qbar jebat. Gubhtu guvf fgbel zbfgyl nibvqf gung.) But other than those two issues, this story is excellent.

Onitsura stars in “The Five Clocks,” another masterpiece. An embezzler is found strangled to death in his apartment, and a young man is arrested for the crime. His fiancĂ©e insists on his innocence, and indeed, there is a better suspect, an accomplice to the embezzlement scheme. But the man has a seemingly perfect alibi! He spent the night with a friend who confirms that the killer was with him the entire time, barring a brief window where the killer went to pay back a loan, also confirmed by another witness. The friend also recalls listening to a concert on the radio at a certain time, and the killer’s wife ordered food for the friend and the killer, and the shop also confirms the time. All in all, the killer has an alibi formed from an impenetrable wall of clocks! (The killer’s clock at home, the friend’s wristwatch, the radio concert, the debtor’s clock, and the soba shop’s clock.)

This is another perfectly simplistic story. In some ways, the trick behind this isn’t all that grand, but it’s magnified by the way everything links together. If Ayukawa only used one aspect of the alibi for a story, most would probably see through it and the story would be disappointing. But by combining all those aspects, the true nature of the trick is concealed from even the knowledgeable mystery fan. (ROT13: Vf vg grpuavpnyyl gur fnzr gevpx sebz gur ynfg fgbel? Lrf, ohg Nlhxnjn ryringrf vg jvgu ubj ur qvfthvfrf vg haqre gur gvpxvat bs gur pybpxf.) But like the last story, the summation is too long. Ayukawa spends way too much time elaborating on the simplest part of the scheme.

The collection ends with “The Red Locked Room.” The titular room is a dissection room securely locked behind a door with a bolt and a combination lock, both of which can only be opened by one person. When two medical students enter the room, they’re horrified to discover the dismembered body of another student, the evidence pointing to the killer being interrupted mid-dissection and fleeing. But the only other exit is an air vent too small to escape through! I liked this more than the other two locked rooms; I even came close to figuring it out, but didn’t think it through enough. The solution is very well-done.

While I was nervous after I found “The White Locked Room” and “The Blue Locked Room” to be weak, this collection redeemed itself with some excellent locked rooms and unbreakable alibis. Highly Recommended.

Other Reviews: The Invisible Event, Solving the Mystery of MurderCountdown John's Christie Journal, Beneath the Stains of Time, Mysteries Ahoy! The Grandest Game in the World, Criminal Musings.