The 8 Mansion Murders – Takemaru Abiko (1989)

I have this whole stack of Japanese locked room mysteries published by the likes of Locked Room International and Pushkin Vertigo, and it’s a wonder that I’m not burning through them.  I manage to abstain though, because – like a Paul Halter novel – the honkaku mysteries I’ve encountered are impossible crime on steroids, and I like to space them out so I can savor them between less sure-fire reads.  When dealing with a title brought forward by Locked Room International in particular, you know you’re going to get something crazy – mind boggling impossibilities, a high body count, and some sort of unique hook.

In some ways then, The 8 Mansion Murders might be the most conventional mystery of this sort.  We have a fairly straight forward murder – a man shot with a crossbow, with both the killer and victim in full view of two witnesses – followed by a detective interviewing a closed circle of suspects one by one until they’re all gathered together to expose the killer.  Set that in an English country house in 1935 and you have your traditional Golden Age mystery.  It’s that traditional setup though that makes The 8 Mansion Murders so delightful, and we’re able to see what author Takemaru Abiko is able to paint within such confines.

To correct myself, The 8 Mansion Murders couldn’t take place in an English country house, because the setting of the house (named The 8 Mansion if you didn’t guess, and shaped like the number eight if you didn’t further guess) is so central to the puzzle.  The author even openly states this on the opening page, with the anonymous killer voicing their inspiration for a crime that “one would call a work of art.”

“It was the layout of this very mansion that had given me the idea…”

Ok, well that’s a solid hook.  We can sense that the crime must be more sophisticated than what the two witnesses saw, and the numerous floor plans provided throughout the pages tease us to figure out how the layout of the mansion plays into things.  That’s what I love about these honkaku books: the puzzle.  Yeah, people talk about the early Ellery Queen novels as being puzzles, but not in this way at all.  With novels like The 8 Mansion Murders or The Moai Island Puzzle, the reader can see exactly what sort of puzzle is being put in front of them – almost a sort of math problem – and yet the solution remains frustratingly out of reach.  That I love.

If you’d consider The 8 Mansion Murder a locked room mystery, it’s sort of an inside out locked room.  Two witnesses plainly saw the murder take place, and if we buy the proposition that the accused is in fact innocent (there’s a bit of a Judas Window thing going on here), then it does seem impossible.  That’s because the man accused of committing the murder was sleeping in a room that was locked, and there’s no way that a killer could have gained access and fired the fatal bolt out the open window.  So, in a sense, we don’t have a victim in a locked room, but instead a killer who was in a locked room… but couldn’t have been.

There’s a second murder later in the book that involves another victim shot with a crossbow, this time in a locked room… and again an open window comes into play.  The open window leans me towards disqualifying this as a locked room mystery, but that’s a nit, and Takemaru Abiko has all sorts of fun with his detectives theorizing how the killer could have gained access through said window.

While this might not be the most bonkers novel in the Locked Room International catalogue, it earns its stripes with some thoroughly enjoyable solutions.  Man, I thought I had the first crime figured out – although my solution would have been a bit disappointing – and then the real solution comes and I’m like “how obvious!”  And then there’s the solution to the second murder, which is even more memorable.  There’s such a delightfully subtle clue placed in the book, and the second you realize the trick you’re going to scramble back trough the pages to take a look.  I guarantee it.

What’s so interesting about the solution though is that even when the detectives uncover the ‘how’, it doesn’t actually give away the ‘who’.  The denouement turns into a delightful Christianna Brand-esque state of affairs as solutions are provided and dissolved in rapid succession.  In fact, I had a completely different solution that I think still holds weight.  I realize I’m going to get shredded for this, but I’ll hang my solution out there because I’m still high off the reading experience.  You can copy the encrypted text below and paste it into rot13.com if you want to see my take on things.  But obviously only do that if you’ve read the book.  If you choose to mock me for my solution in the comments, please have the courtesy of using rot13 as well so we don’t spoil anything for anyone. Here goes…

Vg’f rfgnoyvfurq va bar bs gur snyfr fbyhgvbaf gung gur frpergnel Xnmhb Fnrxv unq gur bccbeghavgl gb pbzzvg obgu pevzrf, ohg guvf vf hygvzngryl qvfzvffrq orpnhfr uvf novyvgl gb pbzzvg gur frpbaq pevzr vf dhrfgvbanoyr. Ohg jung vs ur bayl pbzzvggrq gur svefg pevzr? Jryy, gung cebonoyl fbhaqf yvxr abafrafr, orpnhfr Zvgfhxb (gur frpbaq ivpgvz) boivbhfyl qvqa’g xvyy urefrys, evtug? Jryy, gur guvat gung fgevxrf zr vf gung gur ragver genva bs ybtvp ng gur raq bs gur obbx vf cerqvpngrq ba gur snpg gung Zvgfhxb jnf gur nppbzcyvpr. Ohg erzrzore, Lhxvr (gur ybir vagrerfg) unq n pbzcyrgryl rdhny bccbeghavgl gb or gur nppbzcyvpr. Vg nyy pbzrf qbja gb arrqvat fbzrbar gb bcra gur phegnva ng gur evtug gvzr qhevat gur svefg zheqre. Naq erzrzore, gurer’f n qvfchgr nf gb juvpu bs gur jbzra bcrarq gur phegnva.
Jung vs Lhxvr unq orra gur nppbzcyvpr? Fur jbhyq unir unq tbbq ernfba gb qvfcngpu Zvgfhxb, jub pbhyq cbffvoyl erirny gur gehgu nobhg jub unq bcrarq gur phegnva. Fb Fnrxv pbzzvgf gur svefg zheqre, naq Lhxvr pbzzvgf gur frpbaq. V znl or ba guva tebhaq gurer orpnhfr Lhxvr jbhyq unir unq gb eha gur nebhaq gur ragver sybbe gb trg gb jurer fur znxrf ure nccrnenapr ng gur pevzr fprar, ohg gung frrzf cresrpgyl ernyvfgvp.
Bs pbhefr, Lhfnxh Lnab nqzvgf gb gur pevzr ng gur raq, ohg V jnf ubcvat gung guvf jnf tbvat gb or orpnhfr ur fnj guebhtu jung Lhxvr zhfg unir qbar, naq vg jnf uvf jnl bs cebgrpgvat ure. Gung pbhyq unir yrq gb n ovg bs n unhagvat raqvat, rfcrpvnyyl jura jr yrnea gung Fnrxv naq Lhxvr ner trggvat zneevrq. Naq znlor va gung svany cntr vg pbhyq unir pyvpxrq va qrgrpgvir Xlbmb Unlnzv’f zvaq.
Naljnl, gung’f jung’f fb sha nobhg guvf obbx. Gur syrkvovyvgl ng gur raqvat, naq gung V srry yvxr V unq n tbbq fbyhgvba rira nsgre gur gehgu jnf bhg gurer.

16 thoughts on “The 8 Mansion Murders – Takemaru Abiko (1989)”

  1. I’m pleased you finally picked this up and had a good time of it. This was my second honkaku after the outstanding Death in the House of Rain got me yearning for more of the same. As I commented on Brad’s blog post on Death Among the Undead (contender for best LRI release to date) I quickly realised that I had found my niche in the Japanese school of puzzle plotting, favouring closed circle situations in distinctively designed settings as they do, and my brain consistently finds joy in tropes like the cast of characters which neatly delineates the ensemble before their formal introduction, the detailed floorplans which really fire my imagination and, being a visual person, the diagrams used to illustrate the more mechanical locked room tricks. The easy prose makes it so that the books practically read themselves without ever becoming a chore, you can never accuse the clewing of being too subtle or scanty and the level of ratiocination far exceeds the standard in a lot of western GAD. What sets 8 mansion apart in particular is its humour. So many unexpectedly laugh out loud moments laced throughout the investigation. And the second impossibility would definitely crack my top ten locked room solutions. Admirably original.

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  2. I have this whole stack of Japanese locked room mysteries. . . “ Some people are really living the life! For me, honkaku novels are like potato chips: I can’t eat just one. I read them as soon as I get them, and I read them fast. As ab says above, the writing style lens itself to a quick read. This means that, several years later, I have forgotten the great deal of the solution, so I won’t read your rot-13 alternative just yet.

    What might keep me from rereading this one just yet is the humor, which ab found so delightful and which set my teeth grating. It’s part anime, part Three Stooges; I swear I could hear mean little children giggling and that irritating Saturday-morning cartoon music acting as a soundtrack in my head. It almost ruined this for me. A similar thing happened with Lending the Key to the Locked Room, where the “comedy” is a shade less obnoxious but the mystery is less clever. Here, the mystery is quite good, as I recall. One element reminds me of a very very very very famous Carr.

    A stack, you say . . . Which comes next?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I can totally see how one could easily blow through the available honkaku translations, and the potato chip analogy is a perfect description. And yet it’s nice to have a stash of unread Halter and honkaku novels for when you want to pick up a read that is guaranteed to give you something over the top. We’ve both read a decent swath of the better Golden Age mysteries, and it become much less of a sure thing that even a well reviewed book is really going to offer something interesting.

      The comedy in The 8 Mansion Murders definitely had an anime feel to it, but I enjoyed it. It provided a bit of a break in the series of interviews that take up the bulk of the novel. What I enjoyed more though were the sibling amateur detectives that grow from background characters into the central sleuths.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, listen, don’t get me wrong! I quite get the notion of savoring something. A few years ago, I looked on to a cheap lot of Carter Dickson novels on eBay. I think there were sixteen titles included, a clear majority of the Merrivale canon. I spent a couple of months searching a

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      2. Sorry, fat fingers!!!

        . . . searching around to complete The collection, and then I began my Carter Dickson celebration. Several years later, I have only completed nine of the books. (Well, ten, since I read She Died a Lady out of order.) I’m certainly not in any hurry, and I do understand that things get dicey or toward the end of the series. But of course, this sort of thing was meant to be savored. So take all the time with honkaku that you want; you have a lot of pleasures ahead of you.)

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    2. I think the detective duo’s antics were more Laurel and Hardy-esque than Three Stooges, myself 😉 of course humour is very subjective – for example a lot of Fell and Merrivale’s intended-to-be-amusing behaviour and language makes me roll my eyes – and in hindsight it’s quite possible it was the surprise of finding these elements of humour here at all (again coming off the back of Death in the House of Rain which was quite atmospheric and tense) that inclined me to find them funnier than I otherwise would have. Sadly I’ve already burned through Death Among the Undead so that level of delight will elude me until LRI’s next shin honkaku, the wait for which I’m hoping will be mercifully short.

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        1. Didn’t love Yokomizo’s debut, The Honjin Murders, as much as I expected to. Far from it, actually. Which cooled my enthusiasm to go read The Inugami Curse. So not exactly jumping for joy at this news, however, must be thankful for the option at least.

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          1. There’s definitely a different pace and feel to period honkaku than its modern counterpart. I think I liked Inugami much more than Honjin, but it definitely doesn’t have the lighter tone of shin honkaku.

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  3. Sounds really good. Funny, I just read another Japanese mystery with the number 8 in it!: The Village of Eight Graves, by Seishi Yokomizohttps://wordsandpeace.com/2021/09/05/sunday-post-45-9-5-2021/
    Thanks also for introducing me to rot13, yours is the first review I see it used, so fun!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m looking forward to the upcoming release of The Village of Eight Graves. I like the cover style that Pushkin Vertigo is using consistently for the Yokomizo novels. Now I need to actually read one…

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  4. The first murder here is very good, the second is exceptional. Reading your rot13 comments made me realise how little of this I actually remember — no surprise there — but the two murders really stand out.

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    1. The second murder really is exceptional, and kind of reminds me of the second murder in Whistle Up the Devil. No spoilers there – I’m not saying the techniques are similar – but it’s the way that the reader is trying to solve the wrong problem. If midway through the read someone asked you to write down on a piece of paper what puzzle was, you’d realize later that you had described it incorrectly.

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