Before we get onto the book itself, it’s worth mentioning that this is the twenty-ninth publication from Locked Room International. Under the stewardship of John Pugmire, we’ve been brought a wonderful mix of classic and modern impossible crime novels and short stories from all corners of the globe, and — given the standard of their recent output — it certainly seems that the best is far from past. I anticipate a great many excellent, obscure, and previously-untranslated works coming our way in the years ahead thanks to LRI, and I wanted to take a moment to recognise the work that goes into making this happen.
Whichever way you choose to read the title — either “8 murders in the mansion” or “Murders in The 8 Mansion” — it’s a title that offers up plenty of potential. It’s the second reading that is correct, and so we can add this to the scores of books in which the building where most of the actions takes place plays almost the role of a character in the narrative, joining such luminaries as fellow LRI translations Death in the House of Rain (2006) and The Decagon House Murders (1987), Carter Dickson’s debut The Plague Court Murders (1934), and the recently-republished works of Roger Scarlett. And, trusting the setup to carry the story, what we get is a simple enough conundrum to begin with: Kikuichirō Hachisuka shot by a crossbow in his family’s eponymous, unusually-shaped mansion (plenty of floorplans to delight in here)…whodunnit?
There are a few wrinkles beyond that — two witnesses see the murder take place, and the obvious culprit, from whose room the shot was fired, denies his involvement — but that’s essentially the setup for the first half of the book: our detective Kyōzō Hayami and his subordinate Kinoshita descend upon the mansion, question the suspects, and stumble upon things that will later turn out to be relevant in true Golden Age style. At about the halfway point a second baffling murder occurs, rendered impossible by the physical evidence, and Kyōzō and Kinoshita — the latter increasingly imperiled by slapstick shenanigans — must untangle the skein…
If the narrative is rather trimmed down, it leaves plenty of space for you to appreciate how this book represents an increasing excitement about the potentiality of the Western-style detective story. Soji Shimada’s introduction superbly supplies the context for the young men and women of the Kyōto University Mystery Club who would meet to discuss classic-era GAD works of fiction and begin to incorporate elements of them into their own writing. Abiko’s narrative explicitly mentions ‘The Border-Line Case’ (1937) by Margery Allingham (alas, with spoilers), The Hollow Man (1935), The Emperor’s Snuff-Box (1942), and The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (1945) by John Dickson Carr, Death from a Top Hat (1938) by Clayton Rawson, genre lynchpin The Big Bow Mystery (1892) by Israel Zangwill, Murder on the Orient Express (1934) by Agatha Christie, and sleuths of the calibre of Ellery Queen, Inspector Joseph French, Gideon Fell, and Henry Merrivale among others, with the author himself providing footnotes on these then-unexplored influences and Ho-Ling Wong’s excellent footnotes filling out many of the Japanese references that would otherwise be lost to Western audiences (The Deduction of Tortoiseshell Cat Holmes, for one, sounds like it could be a blast…).
The whole affair has a sense of voracity about it where paying dues is concerned, extending to the locked room lecture towards the end of the novel that prefaces the eventual solution. You really feel Abiko’s enthusiasm bleeding through, although those of us who have read even generally in the genre will find very little if anything new in that treatise, and may wish for a little more incident between the murders. But this is also has more to it than simply some extended nerd-out over a new and seemingly-bottomless enthusiasm — there are some great moments of dry humour, though the increasingly-ludicrous fates befalling Kinoshita don’t really hurdle the cultural barrier, and off-kilter moments such as Kyōzō’s opinions of people owing a lot to trichology:
Kyōzō’s first impression of Kikuji was that of a smug individual, further confirmed when he noticed the man’s luxuriant black hair.
Well into his forties, he had no facial hair, unlike many of his contemporaries, which for some reason left a good impression on Kyōzō.