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.