When I think of modern day novels brimming with audacious impossible crimes, my mind immediately goes to either French author Paul Halter or the honkaku style of Japan. Apparently China should be just as much in the running. Szu Yen Lin’s Death in the House of Rain may be the most balls to the wall effort I’ve read to date.
I coincidentally read a short story by Szu Yen Lin a few weeks ago. The Miracle on Christmas Eve, collected in The Realm of the Impossible, seemed like a reasonable winter read and delivered a heartwarming twist on the locked room. Well, Death in the House of Rain is The Miracle on Christmas Eve’s sadistic cousin. It’s a dark tale boasting no less than seven victims, and the means they are dispatched in are more brutal (although not necessarily graphic) than your standard GAD-style fare. Top that off with four locked room murders, and this is a breathtaking read.
The story takes its name from the House of Rain, an architectural monstrosity fitting the form of Chinese character for rain. The house boasts roughly 60 rooms across three stories, and the floor plans – which take up three pages – are overwhelming, although you’ll consult them numerous times. A haphazard cast is brought together for no particular reason – there’s a bit of fate involved I suppose – and provides ample suspects once the killing starts. Start it does indeed, with a woman locking herself in a room whose only exit was under constant observation, only to be found decapitated once the door is broken down. If that isn’t strange enough, her head is nowhere to be found.
From that point forward, things spiral out of control, with the bodies and impossible situations stacking up. A woman strangled in a locked room with one door watched by multiple witnesses and the other door leading out to a field of untouched mud; another body in a locked room that appears to have fallen from a great height; an apparent suicide in a locked room with the sole door barricaded from the inside and the windows taped shut. These are really some of the most stupefying set ups that I’ve read.
It’s tons of fun, although I had the bad luck of figuring it out: the who, the how, and the why. There’s a scene midway through where a character stumbles upon a bit of evidence – one of those typical realization moments where the reader will have to wait until the end to be equally clued in – and the solution clicked for me immediately. No matter though, as there’s a ton happening in the story, with various characters having agendas to unravel. Plus, there’s a fourth impossible crime that I didn’t have an answer for.
I have to love how much of the answer to the puzzles is hiding in plain sight. Once you get what’s going on, you can see all of these fair play clues that Szu Yen Lin made plain as day, but you just didn’t know how to interpret them. There’s also a nice touch in terms of how rain comes to play a part in things, but not in any way that I would have ever expected.
Death in the House of Rain is a quick, furious read, and it leaves me questioning how I let Locked Room International books like this sit on the shelf for so long. Well, they’re great to squirrel away to follow up a bad read, as you’re guaranteed to be puzzled and delighted. Plus, we need more books by these authors! The forward by Fei Wu teases with mentions of numerous impossible crime authors from China and Taiwan. The afterward by Fei Wu and John Pugmire lists off seven other novels by Szu Yen Lin, including such tantalizing titles as The Ice Mirror House Murders and The Tear Collector. Come on John! We need at least one of these a year. At least!