By: Yukito Ayatsuji
Translator: Ho-Ling Wong
Release Date: December 3, 2020
Publisher: Pushkin Vertigo
Author Yukito Ayatsuji is known for supporting a return to classic detective fiction—the sort of fare produced by the likes of Christie and Doyle—and his novel The Decagon House Murders is no exception. In fact, this novel is credited with beginning the shinhonkaku movement, a literary movement in Japan to restore Golden Age mystery novel plotting and style, while at the same time, influencing anime as well.
The tale unfolds in an unnamed prefecture of Japan off the coastline on a tiny island large enough for an odd recluse to have built two houses on and nothing more. This otherwise unassuming island was the site of several murders, an apparent suicide, and a major fire, an event that captured media attention and spawned all sorts of rumors of ghosts and things that go bump in the night. Of course, such a place also makes the perfect getaway for the Mystery Club of a nearby university. After all, what’s better for a nonofficial club activity than visiting the site of a true, and infamous, crime.
The Decagon House Murders features a host of characters, most of whom share the third person point of view the story is written in at one point or another. The majority of our narrators are the main club members, those who hold titles in the club such as President or Secretary, who visit the Decagon House. Each character is referred to by the name of a famous mystery author, a fun club tradition and homage to the real life giants of the genre. More importantly, each of these characters is trapped on an island for an entire week with a murderer who is picking them off one by one.
Murders quickly kick the novel into high gear, though the whys and hows are a total mystery to the club. Though terrified, they are the Mystery Club, and they have a better chance than others to suss out the murderer, their means, and why they are attacking the group…if they aren’t done in first. Pacing moves along quite quickly, falling into a pattern familiar to fans of Golden Age mysteries.
Not every character is especially fleshed out. Of course, not ever character lasts long enough to be very fleshed out. However, each character is memorable, with likes, dislikes, and quirks that make them unique and memorable. On the other hand, the women who find themselves on the island do feel much less fully realized than their male counterparts, something that does pull down the novel slightly and is certain to get on some readers nerves.
The mystery is very naturally built. The suspense and terror of being locked on an island with an unknown murderer is balanced out with the investigation of a current and prior Mystery Club member who received odd letters from a man who should be dead. The two connected mysteries weave in and out of one another before culminating in a conclusion that quite literally had me gasp aloud—no small feat to be sure. The whodunit of the tale is perfectly foreshadowed, very difficult to see coming, and leads to a very satisfying end.
Readers fond of traditional mystery stories will find a lot to love here. Those fond of Japanese mysteries may also find the introduction by powerhouse of an author Soji Shimada interesting itself. In all, this is a very highly recommended novel, one that linger long after the last page.
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