The Japanese cult classic mystery
The lonely, rockbound island of Tsunojima is notorious as the site of a series of bloody unsolved murders. Some even say it’s haunted. One thing’s for sure: it’s the perfect destination for the K-University Mystery Club’s annual trip.
But when the first club member turns up dead, the remaining amateur sleuths realise they will need all of their murder-mystery expertise to get off the island alive.
As the party are picked off one by one, the survivors grow desperate and paranoid, turning on each other. Will anyone be able to untangle the murderer’s fiendish plan before it’s too late?
Originally published in 1987, Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders is considered a cult classic in its native Japan and is credited with reviving interest in the traditional puzzle mystery format, inspiring a new generation of Japanese crime writers.
Now re-issued by Pushkin Vertigo with a translation by Ho-Ling Wong, the novel pays homage to several Golden Age crime classics, most notably Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Despite some misgivings, several of the most prominant members of the K-University Mystery Club head to the now deserted island of Tsunojima in an attempt to solve the myterious triple murder that happened there six months previously. Setting up camp in The Decagon House – the only remamining part of eccentric architect Nakamura Seiji’s Blue Mansion complex – it isn’t long before the group begin to suspect that they may not be as alone on the island as they thought.
Meanwhile, back on the mainland, former club member Kawaminami Taka’aki receives a sinister note signed by Nakamura Seiji – “My daughter Chiori was murdered by you all”. But Nakamura Seiji was one of the Tsunojima victims, and has been dead for six months.
Alternating between Kawaminami’s investigations on the mainland and the increasingly sinister events taking place on the island, The Decagon House Murders offers an homage to Christie’s original whilst creating a uniquely twisty and cleverly plotted mystery all of its own. Replete with references to Christie’s classic – and to the detectives and writers of the wider Golden Age milieu – the novel still manages to innovate and there are a number of intricate twists on well-worn formulas.
I particualrly loved the way that the novel wears its antecedants and inspiration on its sleeve – the writing is incredibly self-aware and delights in being knowingly referential without this ever feeling like a distraction from the plot. Readers familiar with Golden Age crime will delight in picking up on references as much as they’ll enjoy the fiendishly clever mystery that has been created with the bones of the crime fiction it pays homage too.
Because for all its referential playfulness, The Decagon House Murders is a twisty and enjoyable mystery in its own right. With its contained setting and cast, dual narrative and dual timeline, there’s plenty of space for red herrings, plot twists and sudden revelations. Although I did guess the ‘who’, I have to admit the ‘how’ still surprised me – and there was an enjoyable twist at the novel’s close that I did not see coming!
I also really enjoyed getting to know the characters – especially Kawaminami and his fellow ‘detective’ Shimada – and was impressed by how well drawn each of the detective club members felt, despite some of them only being in the story for quite a brief period of time.
If you don’t enjoy classic or ‘Golden Age’ crime, The Decagon House Murders probably isn’t going to convert you – it honours the genre and conforms to many of its tropes, albeit in a knowingly playful way. Fans of the classics of crime fiction will, however, find much to enjoy here and the book makes for a fantastic introduction to Japanese crime fiction, or to crime fiction in translation. As a fan of the genre, I really enjoyed The Decagon House Murders and look forward to reading more of Pushkin’s translated Japanese crime classics very soon!
The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji is published by Pushkin Vertigo and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.
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