#354: Death in the House of Rain (2006) by Szu-Yen Lin [trans. ibid 2017]

Death in the House of Rainstar filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars
Gather everyone together in a closed, isolated location, then kill ’em off one by one.  Yup, at heart Death in the House of Rain (2006) is simply a marvellous instauration of this most spavined of classic detective fiction framings.  The ingredients are familiar — take a remote mansion of obscure design, a landslide, a rain storm, and ten near-strangers, then add some baffling murders and stir — and this familiarity is invested with the vim and vigour that continues to breathe new life into the possibilities these recurrent trappings allow.  In short, it is superb; chalk up another win for Locked Room International and fans of impossible crimes.

The only difficulty is how to write about it without giving too much away, because the plot here works in some very nimble wrinkles on the expected order of things.  The House of Rain, for one, with its footprint based around the Chinese character for that word, makes an uncommonly thrilling setting — the maps of all three floors at the start of the book will definitely help, but given the clarity of what unfolds you should be able to keep track of what is where pretty quickly.  The character list at the start is another piece of familiar framing, but I’d advise skipping it at first and coming back to it about a third of the way through, for reasons that will become clear once you get there.

The setup and the crimes, too, are at once familiar and new.  There has been death in this house before, but it’s enriched (if that’s the right word…) with a brutality and grotesquery that seems to be the distinct calling-card of Eastern writers.  And when murder raises its head again, the prospect of links to the past won’t surprise anyone, nor will some of the ways this plays out, but equally there’s one key aspect of how these events are connected that takes the expectations inevitably raised and approaches them in an uncommon manner.

“This house is cursed.  A lot of people have died here, and I have a hunch that more are going to die soon.  There’s a rainstorm and we’re stuck here.  We might all die…it’s like the end of the world.  Why not do something we’ve been wanting to do before we perish?”

The murders and the impossibilities will be the focus for a majority of readers, however, and all the great work being done around the deaths counts for very little if the answers given don’t satisfy.  Well, worry not.  What you have here is a number of deaths that fulfil the requirements of rigour and wonderful ingenuity, and do so while also keeping an eye firmly on the history of the genre.  Yes, aspects of modern technology are present in the framing (DVDs, a video camera proves important, etc), but the solutions offered would work as brilliantly in anything by Hake Talbot or John Dickson Carr as they do here.  In fact, I’ve seen one of the core principles of this employed in a broadly-similar way in a book from the 1930s, and found that far less believable than I do this, so if anything Lin is improving upon history.

If we wish to have gripes, there are a few minor ones.  I’m fine with characters not really emerging as the most finely-delineated cross-section of motivations and humanity — and, in truth, there’s some good background to a few of them — but, dude, his male characters do not emerge well from this.  I’ll say no more at this point, but holy crap are these men…problematic.  And from an explanations perspective, one death has a lot of very technical “then this was done here and pushed out through there and looped around and weighed down and there were four of these so that two of them wouldn’t be needed” shenanigans that recalled for me the excess of you-can’t-hope-to-follow-this from The Chinese Orange Mystery…which isn’t ideal, though is thankfully a minor aspect of the whole enterprise.

Impossible crime fans, though, can rejoice.  Not only is this a tremendously satisfying and extremely fast read, it’s also an indication of the burgeoning impossibility scene in Taiwan and surrounds.  And the afterword informs us that Lin has written other novels (not all impossibilities, alas) and short stories, with indications that his detective Ruoping Lin has the classic amateur sleuth’s habit of wandering into baffling, seemingly-inexplicable crimes.  I’d read another 20 of these right now, so here’s hoping this isn’t the last we see of Szu-Yen Lin in English.

~

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Chinese Jar Mystery from last week because — with incessant fog there and endless rain here — both occur against a background of inclement weather.

29 thoughts on “#354: Death in the House of Rain (2006) by Szu-Yen Lin [trans. ibid 2017]

  1. Yup, if LRI is willing – and folks like Ho-Ling can find the time – I’d like to see them move away from France for a while and focus on bringing us more shin-honkaku and other Asian delectables! I actually found the mixture of classic tone and modern technologies fascinating here . . . and definitely put to good use. I have to agree about the characters though, and it’s made rougher by my difficulty at differentiating names.

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    • I’d like to see them move away from France for a while…

      With Pierre Very, and Marcel Lanteaume, and Pierre Boileau, and Tomas Narcejac, and Stanislas-Andre Steeman, and Pierre Sinac, and yet more Noel Vindry all untranslated?! Good heavens, sir, you forget yourself!

      Though, yeah, in all seriousness, there’s clearly some amazing work being done in the genre from points East…holy hell, just think of the unknown pleasures that could be unveiled in the years ahead…

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      • “With Pierre Very, and Marcel Lanteaume, and Pierre Boileau, and Tomas Narcejac, and Stanislas-Andre Steeman, and Pierre Sinac, and yet more Noel Vindry all untranslated?!”
        Also, the remaining novels of Paul Halter ! 🙂

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        • I’m probably going to come across like a greedy, spoiled brat over here, but I want more shin honkaku without LRI moving away from either France or the occasional rare, long out-of-print locked room title. Sadly, I don’t see that happening as long as Pugmire is the only one who really specializes in these kind of publications. What we need is a second publisher, who focuses on Asia, while Pugmire continues to concentrate on France. That way we could get more of both.

          Anyway, I knew you couldn’t possibly open this review with a devastating one-star rating! Glad you liked it.

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          • Well, hell, no-one’s going to argue against getting both…I guess it’s just a matter of whether there’s another dedicate out there willing to put the time in to make it happen, or whether any mainstream publisher is willing to be the first to commit fully to such an undertaking. In both cases the answer still seems to be “No”. In starting LRI John Pugmire has shown that there’s more than enough of this kind of thing to go around — he’s put out 30 books, for pity’s sake, and that’s barely scratching the surface! — but at present none of them feature middle class amnesiac women as protagonists and so the mainstream is proving resistant…

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  2. Character issues and writing style meant that this one wasn’t a favourite but ingenuity is certainly not lacking. Perhaps a team of infinite monkeys needs to be set to work on translating works from all corners of the globe.

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    • It’s definitely more of an atmosphere and ingenuity piece than it is a character study of the ilk of, say, Anthony Rolls’ Family Matters. However, my reading is a broad church and I love em all — when a book doea something this well, whatever it is, I’ll welcome it with open arms.

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  3. As someone who knows absolutely nothing about and has had no exposure to any Asian detective fiction, I find all this quite interesting. This probably sounds awful, but a bit like Brad mentioned above, I could see myself getting lost over the names – unfamiliar names are hard enough for me to remember even when the characters are distinct and memorable, and I get the impression that may not be the case here?

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    • For myself, I didn’t have that problem…but then I typically don’t in books (reality is another matter…probably because it matters less who is who…!). The cast is approximately equivalent to And Then There Were None, and starts dying about as quickly, so you’re probably okay. And, full credit to Lin, there are some very nice touches to help distinguish some of the characters who might be a bit too similar if anyone wasn’t paying attention.

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      • Thanks.. I’m certainly going to keep the book in mind as the premise sounds very attractive, and I’m well aware that I may be anticipating difficulties that may never actually appear as such.

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  4. Thanks for reviewing this one. 🙂 I think I’ll be keeping this to be the final Szu-Yen Lin novel I read – it seems to be one of his strongest works. I’ve read ‘Haunted Badminton Court’, ‘Death in the Fog Shadow Villa’ and ‘Death in the Ice Mirror Mansion’ – and I’ve ‘Ghost of Nile’ and ‘Blood Curse in Pattaya’ waiting for me on the shelf.

    “And from an explanations perspective, one death has a lot of very technical “then this was done here and pushed out through there and looped around and weighed down and there were four of these so that two of them wouldn’t be needed” shenanigans that recalled for me the excess of you-can’t-hope-to-follow-this from The Chinese Orange Mystery…”

    Could I just say, the central aspect to the solution of ‘Death in the Ice Mirror Mansion’ brought a new meaning to the word convoluted (required 8 floor-plans and diagrams and even then I had to stop and think hard). Even the Japanese critics assessing the novel for a Shin Honkaku award felt so. I can’t believe that the solution in ‘Death in the House of Rain’ could be even more convoluted… But let me not tempt fate!

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    • required 8 floor-plans and diagrams and even then I had to stop and think hard…

      See, now that actually sounds sort of wonderful. Yes, I’m aware this assertion makes little or no sense in light of my complaint above, but, man, eight floorplans?! Oh, boy, do I eant to read that book now…!

      The use of it here is simply a bit strikingly out fo tkeeping with the story and solutions elsewhere. I can’t complain that it’s not made clear — a mere two diagrams support it — but the subtlety on show elsewhere stands out starkly against the “Insert rope A into pillar B” technicality of this one aspect. But, as I say, only a minor part of the overall scheme. A fuller commitment — eight diagrams!! — should horrify me, but it sounds amazing.

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      • “Oh, boy, do I want to read that book now…!”

        Szu-Yen Lin writes in Chinese – so you would either need to pick up the language or find more Chinese translators for LRI! If I’m not wrong, didn’t the author himself come up with the translation for ‘Death in the House of Rain’?

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        • I wouldn’t be surprised if the author himself balks at the prospect of translating his extensive explanations featuring 8 floorplans… >.< To be fair, 8 is a rough number – the book is sitting somewhere in my boxes and I can't retrieve it easily to be exact. If you can find 'Haunted Badminton Court' in translation – and I believe it was submitted in English in EQMM? – it's worth reading.

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  5. Pingback: #434: Locked Room International is 30 – My Favourite 15 Books | The Invisible Event

  6. God I loved this book. If all his works are this masterful, and chances are they’re not, I would give up Carr, Halter and company and read Szu-Yen Lin exclusively.

    Great translation, too. This is how I like my fair play mysteries to read; lean and focussed, with the prose just flowing and propelling you through the narrative. I was in rapture at seeing the floor plans at the start and diagrams near the end; there is no more pleasing sight for me in this type of story.

    The trick was great, well clued and I figured it out around the 100 page mark, same with the “murderer”, as well as the truth behind what happened a year earlier. In fact the very technical murder you alluded to was right up my street and one of my favourite bits, and again something I was able to cotton on to early thanks to what S.S. Van Dine and Carr had shown me to be possible.

    That feeling when the penny drops, making you rise up suddenly in triumph exclaiming at the cleverness of it all, and your spouse gives you a whack for startling them. Can’t beat it. But yeah, this was sublime and I doff my hat to you once again for the reading tip.

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    • Well done for solving it — good grief, I was so caught up in the wildness of it, the notion of sparing any brain cells to actually explain it seemed entirely beyond me 🙂

      Based on this and his short ‘The Ghost of the Badminton Court’, Lin has a real affinity for odd setups and entertaining solutions. Rumours have swirled of more translations coming, but I’ve not yet seen or heard anything definite…I live in hope, though, because it’s infuriating to imagine what other brilliance he may have cooked up that’s sitting quietly inaccaessible on the other side of the language wall.

      It’s so wonderful to get these comments on these older posts and to be reminded of what I loved about these books when I was experiencing them. Keep up the excellent reading choices, and keep me appraised of your progress!

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      • Oh I dearly hope we soon receive confirmation of upcoming translations of his other works. From reading earlier comments on this post, an English translation of ‘Death in the Ice Mirror Mansion’ sounds like it would be nirvanic bliss for me.

        I appreciate you taking the time to reply to new comments on very old posts and that they evoke memories of pleasant reading. I’m sure I’m one of many; some who post, some who don’t; that benefit from and value the great work you do in bringing these books to the attention of a wider audience, even if you simply see it as pursuing a long-time passion.

        I think next will be The Moai Island Puzzle, then potentially The 8 Mansion Murders. Would have been Decagon House but the LRI print is out of stock and I’m having to wait for the Pushkin Vertigo release in early December. At any rate, will let you know my thoughts. Each sounds marvellous on paper.

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        • I really enjoy comments cropping up on older posts — I think there’s sometimes the perception that any more than X months old should be ignored, but I enjoy blogging because of the chance to engage with people who have the same enthusiasm as me. If you came to that enthusiasm a year or two later, so what? It’s lovely to think there’s still more to discuss, even if all we end up doing is agreeing with each other about how fabulous something is 🙂

          Decagon House, 8 Mansion, and Moai Island are all very good in their own ways, so you’ve got much to enjoy ahead of you whatever you read. My personal favourite of those three is possibly Moai Island, but Decagon House was the fist shin honkaku I read from LRI — I proof-read that one, in fact — and it will always have a place in my heart for how striking it was, how unexpectedly surprising and shocking. Now we see a shin honkaku from LRI and just expect it to be amazing, but back in those days it was still a surprise 😆

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          • Given that we both have an acute predilection for locked room mysteries and more broadly speaking the puzzle-centric plot, where all other elements are (and should be) ancillary to the essential game played between reader and writer, that core value we share in common means it’s a good bet that we’ll find ourselves frequently in agreement and that our exchanges often will amount to waxing lyrical about the title in question, only perhaps to differing degrees 🙂

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            • Well, after TomCat gets it wrong so much of the time, I look forward to discussing these books with someone who has some taste 😄

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