Following the hugely enjoyable and terrifyingly ingenious machinations of Szu-Yen Lin’s Death in the House of Rain (2006), published in English last year by Locked Room International, I was delighted to discover that another Lin story was available in English, ‘The Ghost of the Badminton Court’ from the August 2014 edition of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
As the title suggests, this story — approximately 10,000 words, I’d say — concerns some sort of improbable event happening on or around a badminton court; and, indeed, we have a murder in the following environs:
“This murder, which took place one month ago, was committed in the gym. It is a four-storied building whose first floor is occupied by various offices of the Department of Physical Education. On the second floor are the sports halls, all well-equipped. … The basketball hall is magnificent and the school team is quite famous. There’s also a table tennis room and a weight training room that has everything you could possibly think of in it, rather like a Swiss army knife!”
Interestingly, the House of Rain from Lin’s novel also contained a badminton court and a table tennis room. In the same way that we wonder why people in Agatha Christie’s universe (the would-be killers, especially) didn’t cry off sick whenever Jane Marple or Hercule Poirot turned up at a social event, perhaps the denizens of Lin’s fictional universe should be wary of net-centric games whenever Ruoping Lin is in the vicinity…
Because, yes, this is another case for the architecture enthusiast and philosopher-detective who features in Death in the House of Rain. This time he’s in full-blown Armchair Detective mode, not on the scene of the crime but instead visited at home by Captain Jhang who is seeking any clarification on the murder — the body of a young woman found strangled on the badminton court of a university sport facility. In and of itself it doesn’t sound especially baffling, until you learn that the court was occupied until it as locked the previous night — the man who locked it up observed by several witnesses — and the body found upon the doors being opened at 8 o’clock the following morning, despite the door not being hocused and the windows “shut so tightly that you couldn’t have passed a thread between the window and the frame”. So what we have here a reversal of The Problem of the Wire Cage (1939): therein access is easy but the strangling impossible, whereas here the access is the impossible part.
It is rather fabulous.
The problem framed here isn’t as grandiose or as baroque as in Lin’s novel, but it is another piece of glorious and cunning misdirection built very firmly on the foundations of the genre. It’s true, too, that the solution is composed of reworking a handful of classic ideas — something familiar from, among other things, one of fellow LRI stablemate Paul Halter’s impossibilities (I shall decline to say whether in long or short form…), and a very Father Brownian moment in the closing lines, plus a repurposed piece of misdirection that’s as classically old as the hills (and which I have expounded upon at length elsewhere in this blog). But this in no way detracts from the cleverness of what Lin achieves — he scatters clues with all the assurance of a master, and I feel very stupid indeed for missing the point of a wonderful flourish that he adds to the crime scene to mark this out as very much his own spin on things.
Also, there are floorplans! Two floorplans! Man, one of these days I really need to do a post on why I love floorplans so much. They increase my enjoyment of any story by, like, easily 15%.
It’s true that the guilty party does sort of come from nowhere, but it follows some top drawer deductions — issues around timing concerning the most obvious suspect, for instance, given the presence of shuttlecocks on the floor around the body, are expressed with a compactness that this genre really needs to exhibit more — and is itself used to deduce another, wider aspect of the problem (man, it is difficult to talk about these things without spoiling them or hinting too heavily…). And when Jhang is frustrated to remark “This mode of crime is commonly seen in ingenious fictional murders”…well, yeah, I can’t disagree, but it’s also a surprisingly workable scheme given the circumstances.
Looks harmless enough, doesn’t he? Don’t be fooled…!
All told, then, this is yet more evidence of just how much amazing work is being done in the impossible crime in non-English-speaking cultures. I consider myself fortunate that I didn’t read this when it was originally published, because I would have been going crazy waiting for a novel to be translated. I mean, now I’m spinning my wheels waiting for anything else from Lin to eventually make it into English, but if you’ve read Death in the House of Rain and/or ‘Miracle on Christmas Eve’ (and, if you haven’t, you should) and you’ve not read this (and, if you haven’t, you should) it’s something to tide you over until any more news of Szu-Yen Lin comes our way.
So now that I’ve only just gotten used to the idea of being born in the wrong era — what with all the puzzle-heavy books of the 1930s and 40s being my jam — I must instead reconcile myself with also being born in the wrong country. Sigh…