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