The Moai Island Puzzle – Alice Arisugawa (1989)

MoaiIslandPuzzleThe Moai Island Puzzle is my first foray into honkaku – Japanese puzzle mysteries steeped in the style of the classics of the golden age.  Thanks to Locked Room International, a handful or so are available in English translation, and I’ve had a number kicking around my To Be Read pile for a while.  That I finally read one was on a bit of a whim.  I was looking for an off the wall impossible crime, which naturally meant reaching for a Paul Halter.  I remembered though that JJ at the Invisible Event had ranked The Moai Island Puzzle as his favorite release by Locked Room International, so I decided to go for a new angle.

The book is absolutely loaded with puzzles, with chapter names suggestive of the type of problem within – Locked Room Puzzle, Bicycle Puzzle, Moai Puzzle, Suicide Puzzle, Jigsaw Puzzle…  If you’re a fan of impossible crime fiction because you’re drawn in by the promise of a mystery that’s going to get your mind working, this one’s definitely for you.  Better yet, the novel is fashioned very much in the fashion of a 1930s GAD novel.  We start out with a map and a list of dramatis personae, then end with a challenge to the reader before the denouement.  Very Ellery Queen-esque, at least in the early sense, although I’ll argue much more successful.

The story is framed by another classic trope from the golden age – a group of vacationers trapped on an island, getting picked off one by one.  In this case, we’re focused on the horseshoe-shaped Kashikijima island.  The island is littered with wood replicas of the famous statues of Moai Island, and it’s said that the statues hold the secret of a hidden diamond treasure.  The vacationers have gathered for a treasure hunt, but it’s cut short by a typhoon.  Well, and a double murder in a locked room…

I mean, I’m all in on the set up alone, but these things don’t always play out successfully (I’m looking at you, The Case of the Seven Sneezes).  Rest assured this one does.  The puzzles are masterfully set up, and although they do unfold over somewhat dedicated chapters, it all feels like a seamless story.

The mystery kicks off with the puzzle of the Moai statues.  The statues were built by the previous owner of the island.  Instead of leaving a will, he left a puzzle – whoever can solve the riddle of the statues will find a fortune in diamonds.  This one just teased at the kid in me, and it’s hard not to get your mind obsessing on how the statues are a telltale clue to the location of the treasure.  I immediately caught on to the core concept of the puzzle, but man, I never would have made those final two logical leaps.

The actual crime component kicks off with a double murder in an absolutely locked down room.  A jammed latch rules out any funny business such as the killer rigging the scene from the outside.

The true beauty though is in the so called “bicycle” puzzle.  As I mentioned earlier, the island setting has a distinct horsehoe shape, and the only two dwellings lie at the tip of each point.  It takes 90 minutes to walk from house to house, 30 minutes to ride one of the four bicycles, or 15 minutes to row by the one available boat.  A murder occurs at one house, and we’re thrown into this math permutation problem of how the killer could have possibly pulled it off given the known positions of each bicycle and boat during several time windows.  I was reminded of that puzzle where you need to get a fox, a chicken, and a sack of corn across a river and …eh, I lost you?  Never mind.  This one was pure fun and had me wrongly convinced I knew the identity of the killer.

Ah, but we’re not done yet.  There’s a dying message involving a scattered jigsaw puzzle, plus a tragedy of the past that may somehow be connected to the present day crimes.  Author Alice Arisugawa clearly knows his golden age set ups and executes them well.  Hell, he doesn’t even try to hide his inspiration – the main investigators are college student members of a retro mystery fiction club and throw references out left and right to the likes of Pat McGerr, Dorthy Sayers, Clayton Rawson, John Dickson Carr.

There’s a large cast, but Arisugawa keeps the characters easy to distinguish.  These aren’t Christianna Brand deep characters, but there’s a definite poignancy as things unfold.  In fact, the motives behind everything have a nice little sting to them, and while the ending doesn’t exactly punch you in the gut, there’s a bit of hollowness that you’ll be left with.

There’s a lot of indicators that Arisugawa modeled this after early Ellery Queen.  With the exception of a foreword by JJ McC, you have most of the pieces there.  Arisugawa distinguishes himself from his inspiration in that the book is never dull.  More importantly, when we finally get to the challenge to the reader, Arisugawa drives home a stake of logical artistry that I’ve only ever dreamt of in Queen.  Everything is able to hinge on one delicate point, and when the balance finally gives out, the trail of deduction that follows is pure satisfaction.

I’m hoping that the other Locked Room International honkaku titles that I have on my shelf are this good.  The Moai Island Puzzle provided that type of gluttonous puzzle based mystery that I’ve only really seen before in Paul Halter.  Alice Arisugawa has about twenty other mystery novels from what I can tell, and additional translations from LRI would be a dream come true. 

18 thoughts on “The Moai Island Puzzle – Alice Arisugawa (1989)”

  1. I’m delighted that you enjoyed this so much — I’m with you in that I’d love more Arisugawa to cross the language barrier, the invention here in terms of puzzle and structure is simply magnificent. Sure, the dryness of the characters isn’t for everyone, but you and I seemed to not have a problem with that (it didn’t even occur to me until someone pointed it out…). What this offers is a wonderfully dense puzzle, plenty of cope for intelligent reasoning, a nifty locked room murder, and one of the most hilariously audacious piece of extended reasoning I think I’ve ever encountered…what’s not to love?!

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    1. I didn’t really see the characters as dry – I suppose I just interpreted it as cultural difference compounded by the fact that I was reading a translated work (excellent translation btw). The puzzles are magnificent, in part because the moai and bicycle puzzles feel within reach of anybody to solve.

      That this is Arisugawa’s second work is insane. I just die looking at the list of books he published on wikipedia and knowing that I’ll never read most of them. Locked Room International – our money is here for the taking!

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      1. Also Szu-Yen Lin, don’t forget him! And Takemaru Abiko. And whatever other delight they’re due to bring out way this year.

        Might be better if we somehow hive-mind learn Japanese and Chinese. And French, of course, so I can read Le Tigre Borgne. And Marcel Lanteaume. And Pierre Very. And Pierre Boileau.

        Oh, good heavens…

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  2. Would you say this book had a dry prose style? One of the things which has discouraged from trying more books like this, (having read The Decagon House Mystery), is the dryness of the writing style, which usually emphasises more minimal characterisation.

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    1. Yeah, for all the supposed similarities to Ellery Queen I also found this hugely more readable than the early titles. The two don’t actually bear a huge amount of comparison, I’d say, and the distinct styles make it more than likely that if one appeals to someone then the other likely won’t.

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      1. If this was early Ellery Queen then the search for the rifle would have lasted for 100 pages!

        I thought the logical chaining was done a lot more successfully by Arisugawa than by Queen. With early Queen books like The French Powder Mystery or The Dutch Shoe Mystery, I always got the feeling that the killer could have simply said “nope, I didn’t do it” and pointed out the massive assumptions that Queen makes. There is a lot of “only the killer would do X” that I’m not sure really passes scrutiny. With The Moai Island Puzzle, the logic seemed more natural (not to say that there isn’t some conjecture regarding the specifics of how things played out).

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      2. Is there anything that you find less readable than early Ellery Queen? That would be worth knowing. 😉

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  3. Check out those other honkaku novels posthaste! I think that THE DECAGON HOUSE MURDERS and THE 8 MANSION MURDERS are even better than this. DECAGON in particular has one of the most jaw-dropping twists ever put into a mystery story.

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      1. I would say so! 8 MANSION seems to have gotten the weakest reviews of the three, but I think the solution is clever enough (the who, how, and why are a series of really good small surprises instead of the one *BIG* surprise of DECAGON) that I’d place it above MOAI ISLAND. The only LRI Asian translation which I don’t like is DEATH IN THE HOUSE OF RAIN, which was especially disappointing because Szu-Yen Lin’s “The Miracle on Christmas Eve” is not just one of my favorite mystery short stories but one of my favorite short stories of any genre.

        LRI’s odd habit of slightly changing their books’ titles strikes again–Arisugawa’s and Abiko’s books were simply called THE ISLAND PUZZLE and THE 8 MURDERS in the original Japanese versions.

        Incidentally, I hope all is well over at LRI–their new Paul Halter novel was supposed to come out weeks ago, but there’s no sign of it anywhere and their website hasn’t been updated in quite some time.

        BTW, if you’re open to reading comics and are willing to shell out some money on (occasionally pretty pricey) used books, you might want to check out the honkaku manga series “Kindaichi Case Files,” which features an impossible crime in every story and should be right up the alley of any GAD fan.

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  4. I definitely hope for a lot more shin honkaku to be translated in my lifetime! I agree with Jack that The Decagon Murders is pretty amazing (and I can’t believe, Kate Jackson, that you thought the prose style was dry?!?), but Moai Island might feel a little more . . . oh, I don’t know, “human” then Decagon, which really is pure, PURE puzzle! Read it soon, Ben!!!!!!! 🙂

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  5. I didn’t find this quite so satisfying. I found the psychology unconvincing: the characters are trapped on an island with a serial killer and don’t seem to take the situation as seriously as it deserves. If rich uncle Moneybags has been murdered, it’s reasonable for someone to say, “I haven’t got a bean so there’s no reason for the murderer to go after me next” (even if this is not actually true). But on Moai Island there is no discernible motive and so anyone might be next. The atmosphere needs to be less cozy and more like “And Then There Were None”.

    The other trouble I had is that the puzzles were so far from watertight that it didn’t seem reasonable to build the necessary towers of deduction on such shaky foundations. I’ll give two examples. First, the impossibility of dropping the latch from outside the door depends entirely on the testimony of Kazuto. He could have jiggered the latch in some way and then lied subsequently about how difficult it was to break in. This possibility is raised by Maria and then dismissed by Egami on the basis that “the very fact that he broke the bookmark shows there must have been something on the door that prevented it from opening” which seems inadequate to me. In a more conventional setup where there is an outside or series detective who is not a suspect and is known to be trustworthy, this would work better, but here as far as we know Egami is just as much a suspect as the rest of them and so we have no reason for the reader to trust his deduction here.

    Second, the difficulty of reconstructing the movements of the bicycle depends on it taking “at least thirty minutes each way”. But surely this depends on the level of skill and fitness of the rider? Maria says, “If you wanted to walk between the two capes, it’d take about an hour and a half” so depending on how fast Maria can walk and how rough the terrain is, the two capes are between 6 and 9 km apart. To cycle this distance in half an hour (even on a dirt track at night) would be easy, and an experienced trail rider could do it in half that time. But if someone can make the trip in a quarter of an hour or even twenty minutes then there are many more possible sequences of movement for the bicycle. Maybe none of the suspects has the required level of off-road biking ability, but how do we know that? There is a well known Agatha Christie novel in which someone’s alibi depends on their being unable to cover a certain distance in a certain time, which might be worth comparing.

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    1. Those are definitely all fair points. I think I was able to somewhat relax my scrutiny based on the inclusion of the hidden treasure subplot. It’s enough of a fantasy element that I think I took other elements with a bit of a grain of salt. Take the bicycle puzzle for example – having the hard constraints turns it into a blatant puzzle with clearly defined rules. It does violate reality, but it was also a lot of fun to mull over. I do love your breakdown of the problem though.

      I wish that I hadn’t read the forward before reading the story for a reason that you touch on – it tells you who the detective is. It struck me while reading that I wouldn’t necessarily have anticipated that role for the character with any certainty.

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