My reading intentions got all turned around, having read a few not-particularly-blog-worthy books and discovered some new ones that I was keen to get on to. So as, apparently, I can’t stick to a theme for a whole month, I’m going with ‘pic-and-mix’ for November.
And, yes, I know, you’ve blogged this one, your mother’s aunt’s blogged this one, even the cat has had a go. But it’s a damn good book.
Seven students, all members of a mystery club celebrating detective fiction, visit a mysterious
deathtrap isolated island, on which a mysterious massacre recently took place. They smoke for a bit. There is no source of exit from the island or emergency assistance, bar Olympic-level swimming; jury-rigging a microlight from spit, hope and cigarettes; or the dubious power of prayer.
The students take up temporary residence in a mysterious decagonal shaped house and soon, mysteriously, some cards appear suggesting that they will shortly be starring in a murder mystery of their own. The smoking becomes pensive.
Meanwhile, on the mainland, mysterious letters have mysteriously been sent. Two students belonging to the mystery club, along with the mysterious son of a Buddhist, investigate. And smoke.
This is a very deliberate homage to the Golden Age in general and to And Then There Were None in particular. The prologue makes this explicit and the stall is further set out in chapter one, in Ellery’s opening monologue:
“In my opinion, mystery fiction is, at the core, a kind of intellectual game.
…what mystery novels need are… a great detective, a mansion, its shady residents, bloody murders, impossible crimes and never-before-seen-tricks played by the murderer.”
All of the students are nicknamed after detective and mystery writers, like Carr, Leroux, Van Dine and Agatha Christie. Baroness Orczy seems an odd choice but may possibly reflect the character’s status within the group as a less regarded figure. Or perhaps she’s more popular in Japan?
With all this homage and the introduction’s emphasis on the writing being deliberately spare and the characterisation minimal, I went in with some caution. As someone who (heretically) will often give a less-than-stellar puzzle a pass if the writing and characters are good, I wasn’t sure if this would be my thing. In fact – possibly due to this scepticism – I thoroughly enjoyed the book. The style, on the whole, suited the substance perfectly and, despite the odd clunky bit of exposition – explaining who was in what year, doing what, for example – it was quite enjoyable – a very good translation. There was more subtlety and slightly more depth to the characters than I was expecting, as well. While certainly no deep psychological study, there were nice touches, such as Orczy’s self-esteem issues, with hints that in fact with her painting skills and erudition, she has a lot more going for her than she thinks (or anyone tells her). And Ellery’s reaction when it is suggested that he is “…lacking something human…” is small but suggestive.
Puzzles riddle the book – including jigsaws and actual riddles – and, given the deliberately contrived nature of the set up, this all adds to the atmosphere nicely. I also enjoyed the little touches of Japanese culture, the poetry references and myths, that were casually mentioned.
As for the central puzzle – I did have some suspicions of the murderer but not for many of the right reasons. And the moment of realisation is really beautifully done and completely unexpected.
I liked, too, the ending, which brought everything neatly and poetically back to the beginning. Man is not a god, but he may be an author and authors are allowed symmetry and a neat, constructed world: while gods, slatternly creatures that they are, scarcely seem to bother to make the beds.
I will definitely be looking out for more by Yukito Ayatsuji, if and when translations are available.
Any Other Business
As suggested in the summary, there is a lot of smoking in this book. Almost all the characters smoke to some extent and most of them do it a lot.
Being woefully ignorant in general, I am not sure how far this simply reflects the culture and the time period and how far this is a deliberate emphasis. There is one small plot element related to smoking and it’s also used, quite neatly, in small moments of character delineation: Shimada ascetically limiting himself to one a day, Agatha not usually smoking in public, Poe smoking Lark cigarettes (“Not a brand for the intelligentsia.”) while Ellery smokes menthols – possibly a type for the overly-intelligentsia.
In any case, this should probably come with a health warning.
Another culture/era element is the consigning of Agatha and Orczy to the kitchen. Agatha jokingly protests this early on but makes no attempt at actual rebellion. I did wonder at one point, however, if all the murders were really her attempt to illustrate that the men should make their own bloody coffee, once in a while.