The 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.