Having read the Decagon House Murders and loved it, it seemed rude not to go on to the Moai Island puzzle: another shin honkaku with certain similarities but a rather different style.
Three students, all members of a mystery club celebrating detective fiction, visit a mysterious and isolated island, where a mysterious death recently took place. They aim to solve a puzzle involving the moai-style statues on the island – a puzzle leading to a hidden treasure stash of diamonds. But a more tragic puzzle soon presents itself…
The story is narrated by Alice Arisugawa – named after the author in an Ellery Queenish homage, though, as the introduction says, he does not take the Great Detective role here but that of Watson. Alice has a not-very-hidden crush on fellow student Maria and a tendency to worry which he is somewhat teased about (though his fear of snakes, given that the ones they encounter are pretty seriously venomous, seems perfectly reasonable to me). I’m not so keen on his slangy asides which jar a little.
The detective role is taken by older student Jiro Egami whose main claim to personality lies in his long, wavy hair; although there are hints that there’s a story behind his having been stuck so long in academia. He spends much of the time thinking, being phlegmatic and doing jigsaw puzzles.
Maria is the third student and she is likeable enough though, alas, like all the other female characters, gets coffee and cookery duty again.
The book is stuffed with great puzzles, including a locked room murder, a dying clue and the elaborate ‘evolving puzzle’ of the treasure map (there’s a nice little Darwin joke in the prologue). The cluing seemed fair to me and not too obvious, though I picked out the murderer, not by the careful chain of reasoning that Egami uses but by less intellectual methods (SPOILER: once the truth behind Hideto’s death was clear, there was one person who had the most obvious motive).
Altogether, I enjoyed it a lot.
Any Other Business
Having read this immediately after the Decagon House murders, comparisons kept leaping at me and licking my face like a puppy.
The leads are members of a student mystery club. They visit an isolated island with a tragic history. Structure is emphasised – the Decagon-shaped almost everything in the Decagon House Murders; the peculiar shape of the island as well as certain other plot-relevant details in this book. Jigsaw puzzles play a role. There is excessive drinking and a fair amount of smoking (though to a much less lung-strangling extent in this one).
The differences, though, are quite big enough to avoid any sense of déjà vu. This book has a much greater emphasis on character background and motivation. The style of narration is distinctly different and it is much more in the classic ‘detective follows clues to logical conclusion’ mode, while Decagon was a clear-cut homage to ‘And Then There Were None’.
I don’t know whether Islands of Grisly Death are much of a sub-genre in shin honkaku outside of these two books, but on this evidence there is plenty of invention to go around.