#91: The Moai Island Puzzle (1989) by Alice Arisugawa [trans. Ho-Ling Wong 2016]

Disclosure: I proof-read this book for Locked Room International in March 2016

Moai Island PuzzleChildren, incarnations of The Doctor, phases of the moon…generally I try not to play favourites.  But if I had to pick one crime fiction conceit above all others it would undoubtedly be a group of people on an island getting killed off one by one.  Sure, isolate them in some ancestral mansion via thunderstorm or on a train via unexpected snow and the effect is arguably the same, but there’s something about the island in itself that renders the idea all the more thrilling to my senses.  And so this Japanese island-set puzzle, the second collaboration between Locked Room International’s John Pugmire and translator and crime fiction blogger Ho-Ling Wong after last year’s excellent The Decagon House Murders, would be just what the doctor ordered if the medical profession ever thought of prescribing books for those of us with the thrill of fictional murder in our hearts.

You’re promised a puzzle up front, and boy do you get puzzles: literal jigsaw puzzles, an island-based treasure hunt puzzle, a ‘four years previously’ family tragedy puzzle, and – hooray! – the locked room murder of two of those gathered on the horseshoe-shaped island of Kashikijima.  There’s even a combination of puzzles within puzzles where the scattering of jigsaw pieces appears to indicate a dying message that no-one can interpret.  Suffice to say, this isn’t a character study, and anyone hoping for such is in the wrong place.  A superbly long run-in to the first crime is, however, really quite enjoyable for the rising expectation – you know something is coming, of course, and the wait is cleverly used to play out the threads that will pay off later – and the revelation of that first crime has an aspect of retrospective analysis that is all the more enjoyable for having been staring you in the face.  And from that point on…well, prepare yourself…

What is particularly impressive for me about this is how cleanly the lines of each plot strand intersect each other.  Even now, having proof-read this a couple of months ago, I still have a very clear idea of how everything fits and the book is remarkably uncluttered considering how much is going on.  It’s not an overly long book by any means, but still practically every element is given the required time to build and pay off; in fact, the only aspect of it that felt rushed to me – concerning, let’s say, some element of the murderer’s motive – actually makes sense when done in that way rather than being dragged out interminably to fit the other aspects of pacing.

Alice Arisugawa – to my understanding, this is his first work translated into English – has done a superb job keeping the fifteen characters involved distinct and clear in their roles and actions.  His first-person narrator is 18 year-old university student…Alice Arisugawa (there’s an Ellery Queen name check early on) but the main brunt of the detection falls to college senior Jiro Egami.  If you’re able to solve the Moai statue puzzle – think the Easter Island statues writ small – you’re a better reader than I, and mainly that thread should be treated as just a hugely inventive bit of fun.  Maps in several different forms are provided to help in understanding – it’s not difficult to follow the reasoning once it’s explained – and this kind of ‘sit back and watch’ element feels like a bonus on top of the solution to the murders themselves.

Because the solution to murders is an entirely different prospect.  Several aspects play into the solution overall, but chiefly there is one superb piece of extended ratiocination from Egami that ties everything together and really has to be seen to be believed…and has a beautifully simple origin that I’d hate to say anything about and possibly spoil even a tiny bit.  I’m not going to make favourable Ellery Queen comparisons based on this one book vs the however many Queens I’ve read, but it really is the kind of sequence you can see Ellery sitting everyone down to listen to while his father sits in the corner and beams with pride.  For a book that is so obviously about the puzzles, and for puzzles in this form to be all about their solutions, this is a solution that does not disappoint.

Massive kudos to everyone involved in bringing this to us: obviously Arisugawa for dreaming it up, but also Ho-Ling Wong for the on-point and accessible translation and John Pugmire for publishing it through LRI.  If you’re a puzzle fan, my advice is to get hold of it before reading too many reviews so that you get to enjoy it fresh.  And let’s hope hope hope that more shin honkaku novels of the quality of this and The Decagon House Murders are on the way…

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstar filled

36 thoughts on “#91: The Moai Island Puzzle (1989) by Alice Arisugawa [trans. Ho-Ling Wong 2016]

  1. Thanks for the review, and I’m glad you’ve finally hit upon a novel that’s not just good, but great, this year. 🙂 I think I know what you mean by “one superb piece of extended ratiocination” – while I wasn’t thrilled by the solutions to the statue puzzle and the locked room scenario, the “extended ratiocination” alone was worth the price of the novel.

    I see you’ll be tackling ‘Death in Five Boxes’ next, which has been one of the big regrets of my book purchasing experiences. I missed out on buying a cheap second-hand copy at my neighbouring bookshop… 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, it’s a superb piece of work that plays almost perfectly into what I want from a puzzle novel…if there are other Arisugawa novels of this standard, I demand they be translated right now!

      DiFB is rather superb so far (about halfway through). I’m sorry to say that I may end up making you regret not buying it even more than you do already…


  2. I think this is my favourite crime fiction conceit too. Have you read “The Frankenstein Factory” by Edward D. Hoch? It’s a fun homage to And Then There Were None.

    I am not familiar with The Decagon House Murders, but I didn’t care much for Shimada’s “The Tokyo Zodiac Murders”, so I’m not sure I would enjoy this type of Japanese crime fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do not know The Frankenstein Factory, no – shall check it out, especially as I’m starting to warm more to Hoch, many thanks.

      I wasn’t a huge fan of Tokyo Zodiac Murders as my review on this blog attests, but I’d say this is superior in terms of how it unfolds. This is, om balance, a better book than Decagon House Murders, too, so if you find yourself moved to try any more Japanese crime fiction I’d say this is the place to start.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You mentioned this book in an earlier blog, but checking it out I find it isn’t available, although it says it was published in March. I assume it was delayed . . .?

    I, too, enjoyed The Decagon House Murders, and it’s interesting to me that I had much less trouble with its utter lack of characterization than I do with Halter. If you say this was even better than Decagon, I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. People trapped on an island are a favorite of mine as well. I’m struggling a bit with The Invisible Circle, but so far I like it more than the other two Halters I’ve read.


    • Interesting, I didn’t think I’d mentioned it on here before because I’m not sure how much secrecy surrounds this kind of thing…but I’ll trust ya! It’s definitely available in the UK, so maybe the US rainforest-named purveyor of all things is taking longer for it to show up Over There.

      Sorry to hear that TIC isn’t working out for you, too, and that in failing to excite it still represents progress. Maybe it’s time to accept that – gulp – Halter just ain’t your thing…


    • Hi Brad,

      I think we started reading ‘The Invisible Circle’ about the same time; I had the luxury of a long plane ride to complete the novel. I’m glad you’re enjoying it better than the two other Halter titles you’ve read – do remind me which two you’ve read? Personally, I found ‘The Invisible Circle’ somewhat middling in relation to the other Halter titles I’ve read: better than ‘The Crimson Fog’, but not as good as ‘Death Invites You’, and definitely not as good as the magisterial ‘Seventh Hypothesis’.

      Liked by 2 people

      • My problem is that I keep getting interrupted in my reading, and that is not something that one wants to have happen when one is trying to read Halter! The first book I read is The Fourth Door, and then I read The Demon of Dartmoor. I enjoyed the second more than the first, but I keep struggling with this author due to his almost sole focus on puzzle over every other aspect of writing.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’d agree that DoD is a superior book to TFD, and also that both don’t quite show Halter at his (translated) best. They do each have utterly wonderful impossibilities in them (I’m thinking of the body-swap in TFD), both of which are so staisfyingly resolved that, yeah, the actual character-work does have to take a bit of a backseat. I’m something of a fool for a devious enough puzzle, it’s true, but I do think overall Halter does a lot more with characters than he seems to get credit for (as I’ve already said elsewhere, I think he has this in common with Christie). But, well, diff’rent strokes…

          One of these days, Brad, I’m going to introduce you to a puzzle that has the characters you need. In fact, that’s the excuse I’m going to predicate all my book-buying on now: it’s research for Brad… 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • Thanks for looking out for me, pal! You DID introduce me to Norman Berrow, the second title of which is calling to me from my TBR shelf! At least his writing had wit and, I thought, some good character sketches. But I am always willing to be someone’s “project” . . . 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for your review!

    I think you make a very good point about how all the plotlines fits together. I also noticed during the translation process how everything clicked neatly together like puzzle pieces. Reading the last chapter, and then going back really has you thinking “Oh yeah, this happens because then this will happen, which proves that… etc.

    Liked by 2 people

    • De nada, thank-you so much for your far greater efforts in translating this…encore, encore!

      As a piece of puzzle plotting, it’s remarkably well-defined, with everything fitting in absolutely brilliantly – which is a large part of why I like it so much. I remember thinking it back over after I’d finished and finding that it all just fit without any excess or waste…which is very rare indeed. It’s an absolutely awesome performance, and a wonderful surprise read since I doubt many non-Japanese speakers would have even heard of it.


  5. Just ordered it and, rather unfairly, it will go at the top of my TBR! I love how Japan loves Ellery Queen, so you had me at “dying message.” Thanks, Ho Ling, for both the shin honkaku novels I’ve read, and I echo JJ when I say I really hope we see more translations into English soon! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Yes, this is a superb book, much, much better than The Decagon House Murders. It fully deserves the rating of 5 stars.
    The only niggle is that the reason for the locked room is a bit unbelievable.


    • Glad you agree, Santosh. There’s one particular aspect of the locked room – possibly the one you’re referring to – that I absolutely love because of how it is treated in the narrative. To say more would constitute spoilers of a magnitude that I’m keen to avoid, however 🙂



    After drawing lines on the map, they get 11 closed surfaces of which 9 are triangles. The remaining 2 are referred to as squares but from the diagram we see that these are quadrilaterals, not squares !


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  15. This was a long drawn out read, not because it was a substandard one but because, as alluded to elsewhere, I became and remain hopelessly hooked on the game of Bridge (thanks, “Cards on the Table”) soon after starting.

    Different to the other shin honkaku I’ve read, this felt as much Enid Blyton-esque adventure as it did murder puzzle, what with all the cycling around the island, swimming, hilltop discourse and of course treasure hunting. It’s a stellar title to be sure, the solution to the evolving puzzle works well and the chain of reasoning leading to the killer’s identity is something to behold. My only knock would be realising at the end, once all is known, that none of the murders were especially creative or awesomely clever. The locked room for instance was wholly original in a way that left a bad taste. The others, too, are disappointingly straightforward. Still, another author whose other works I am keen to have translated.

    Going to try and go cold turkey (scuse the pun) on Bridge, with a view to squeezing one more book into what remains of 2020. Now I’m 99% sure I’ve dropped enough hints to be gifted “The Decagon House Murders” for Christmas, in which case that’ll be the one, but will begin rereading “And Then There Were None” just in case I don’t. Not the worst plan B there’s ever been.


    • The Enid Blyton comparison is spot on — there’s distinctly something Famous Five Find-Outers about all the cycling and youthful shenanigans.

      The murders…I dunno. I really liked how the locked room murder has a very key element to it that is dismissed right in front of your nose and then turns out to be the key piece of important information. And the lead up to that death, where it turns out they may have overheard it but dismissed that noise as something else, is the kind of detail that I enjoy.

      The dying message is tricky because of the linguistic barrier, but I can believe — from the academic credentials I gained reading Detective Conan — that it’s a clever idea in Japanese. That language seems to be custom-made for brilliantly baffling linguistic clues.

      Enjoy your reading whatever you end up with. I’m currently debating whether to make The Inugami Curse my final read of 2020 for review next Thursday….


  16. Spoilers

    Not sure if you mean that the plot establishes the daughter as intending to obtain finance from her father for the sake of her failing businessman husband, as foreshadowing why the room would be locked. From that perspective it’s outside-the-box and creditable, I’ll grant you. But to me it’s always a let down when the culprit has no hand in the creation of his locked room, and was instead the beneficiary of luck and circumstance. Here, the plan was simply to rock up to the bedroom, push open the door and shoot, flee, and hope the banging door was sufficient in screening the crime. Similarly, the dying message is fine, but its subtlety naturally can’t be attributed to the culprit. Again, the plan was to just rock up, shoot and flee. They even bungled the fake suicide, with the second shot demonstrably having taken place post-mortem.


    Sorry if I sound harsh. I just like my murderers to be of the fiendishly clever variety 😀


    • Spoilers Stated Vaguely But Still Spoilers So Be Wary:

      I’m referring to the way that the staging of the bodies in the room makes someone go “Oh, well, clearly Thing X must have happened…” when Thing X didn’t happen but was the exact impression someone wanted to give.

      End Vague Spoilers

      And, hey, there’s nothing wrong with wanting perfection. I’m a “fiendishly involved murder plot” reader myself, but I’m happy if someone gets it this right and only a tiny bit wrong. Many authors go a whole career without getting this close 🙂


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