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.