The Red Locked Room – Tetsuya Ayukawa (2020, trans. Ho-Ling Wong)

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Tesuya Ayukawa was, as the introduction to this collection says, the foremost proponent in his time of the honkaku, or “orthodox” mystery story. These puzzle-centric mysteries were the inspiration for the later stories by Yukito Ayastuji and Taku Ashibe (who wrote the introduction). In fact Ayukawa lived to see the shin honkaku (“new orthodox”) movement begin, and also helped many younger writers make their start.

This selection of short stories – his best ones, apparently – features two very different detectives.

First is the supercilious Ryuzo Hoshikage, who carries a pipe and is a huge jerk to the inspector he is paired with. His other main characteristic is the dropping of cryptic hints to the inspector, knowing that he (and indeed the reader), will never figure out why they are important. Often, hints from detectives in classic mysteries can feel like a cheat when you realise there’s no way they could have known that. It’s a mark of how well the plots are constructed that, on a re-read, I could figure out the clues that might have led him to his conclusions. Hoshikage typically investigates locked rooms, impossible footprints, and other more fantastical kind of crimes. He is an almost parodic figure, and so fits with these stories that happily indulge in the less believable aspects of classic crime fiction.

Next to be introduced is Inspector Onitsura of the Metropolitan Police force. He’s a much more subdued figure, about whom we discover little in this collection. His cases tend to feature alibi cracking, where the killer is known beforehand but their alibi is unassailable. While some of the shenanigans the killers get up to in these stories are as ridiculous as those in Hoshikage’s stories, the urban milieu and more “ordinary” characters mean the crimes feature things like trains and clocks rather than ghosts and killer clowns, giving them a more down-to-earth feel. The Onitsura stories are also more interested in telling a twisty story than presenting you with a fair-play puzzle.

The collection alternates Hoshikage and Onitsura throughout, which I enjoyed. It allows for comparisons between the two styles of story. They are surprisingly similar, as the introduction points out:

“In the eyes of Tetsuya Ayukawa, an alibi is basically a ‘locked room in time.’ A locked room on the other hand is an ‘alibi in space.'”

Taku Ashibe

This means that all the tricks are non-mechanical, what Mike Grost would refer to as “rearrangement of space and time” – the kind of tricks that are easy to grasp but flip your understanding of events upside down. In other words, the good ones. As Hoshikage says in the final story, “…nine out of ten locked room murders involve some form of mechanical trickery, and that I don’t like.”

On balance, and to my surprise, I preferred the alibi-cracking of the Onitsura stories to the “traditional” whodunnit/howdunnit stories of Hoshikage. For the most part the Onitsura stories provide more setting and character, compared to the three coloured locked rooms which are a little thinner.
The introduction, as previously mentioned, is worth reading in its own right as an excellent grounding in the history of Honkaku detective fiction and Tetsuya Arakawa’s place in it. It also mentions that eleven stories were originally shortlisted for inclusion, and even translated. What a tease! Given the quality of these stories, I would love to read another volume containing the rest of those translations.

If you only read one story…

…read The Clown in the Tunnel. It’s tough to do this section for this collection as almost all of the stories are very good!

The White Locked Room

Professor Zama is found murdered the night after challenging a group of mediums to kill him. The snow surrounding his house is marked only by two sets of footprints, corresponding to the two witnesses who discovered the body. Did an ectoplasmic projection really kill the professor, or is there another explanation?
A fine story to open with, since the qualities and quirks of Arakawa’s writing are nicely on display here. After a sardonic opening, he’s quickly able to set up an atmosphere of unease, and the varying reactions of the characters show off their differing personalities. He also makes use of something seen more than once throughout the collection – multiple viewpoints, something that is not always effective in short-story format. It helps that these stories tend to be on the longer side, but this technique, particularly when used in the police procedural stories, really builds the sense of a living world that the stories exist within.
Although the solution contains some aspects I typically dislike, I thought they were used very well here. A very solid start.

Whose Body?

Three artists are the victims of a prank when they are all sent items which appear to be murder weapons. Could this be a prelude to something more serious? I want to spoil little about this story, so I’ll leave the summary there.
Well OK, I can’t really review the story without talking more about it. This story is clearly inspired by its namesake – Dorothy L. Sayers’ first detective novel. It features the same trope as in that novel, what Mike Grost would refer to as the “breakdown of identity” – typically found in writers like Freeman Wills Crofts, contrasting the John Dickson Carr inspirations found in the locked room stories.
A body is indeed discovered, apparently having had the 3 weapons used on it – but who is the corpse? For a short story, this is an absolute whirlwind of great mystery twists and clues. I’ve read entire novels that had less content in them than this short story. I had an inkling of one of the tricks, but there were so many more that passed me by. And don’t think that the amount of mystery content means that the story ignores showing character, either. Probably due to all that, the story is on the longer end, and at the mid point it threatens to lose focus, but it pulls everything back together impressively for the finale. Its stunning complexity makes the story one of my favourites.

The Blue Locked Room

Tensions flare at the private villa of a theatrical troupe, as an actor tries to stab the director, who he claims has stolen his girlfriend. A policeman intervenes, preventing the death of the much-hated director – but the next morning, he’s summoned to the villa again. The director has been found dead in his locked room, and the open window leads to a pristine flowerbed.
Perhaps the least effective of the stories, as the solution stands out more than usual, and is a more prosaic trick. The killer’s motive is also not fairly clued, which is the case for many of the stories in this collection. I didn’t mind too much, but if you want to solve things, you don’t need to consider motive. This may be a spoiler to say, but not appearing to have a motive may be more suspicious; a free-floating motive mentioned earlier in the story will end up attached to someone who doesn’t have one already.

Death in Early Spring

A young man is found dead on a construction site. It’s discovered he travelled from his workplace to meet a female friend in Tokyo, and a prime suspect is also found, a “love rival” who is obviously and overwhelmingly suspicious. But the man has an iron-clad alibi for half the night, and the train timetables don’t allow him and the victim to be in the same place at the same time. Can Inspector Onitsura break the alibi, or might the man really be innocent?
Another excellent story here, with decent characters, good clues, and a strong central trick. I have seen the same trick before in another story, but if you aren’t expecting it, and I wasn’t, it works every time. The opening does promise “dry railway timetables”, but although train timetables are present, the story is not dry at all and requires no scrutinizing. I thought the giveaway clue was also good.

The Clown in the Tunnel

Two reporters for a music newspaper arrive to interview a swing band. Soon after their arrival, they overhear an argument between two of the band members, and then soon after that, the singer of the band is found dead. When the police arrive, they discover that a maid has been tied up in the kitchen, attacked by a mysterious clown. But though she witnessed the clown entering a tunnel away from the property, witnesses at the other end saw nobody exit.
Another impossible crime which plays joyfully with “rearrangement in space and time”. The addition of the clown is an enjoyably outré touch, and I liked the story’s milieu of the jazz band. Actually, Soji Shimada’s The Running Dead also featured a jazz band, and I enjoyed that as well; it seems if a Japanese mystery has a jazz band in it, it may well be a hit with me. The characterization also works well here; I liked the unflappable bassist, quiet pianist, and the clarinettist who appears to make drinks as a nervous tic. The clown itself is also nicely menacing in its actions after tying up the maid.
The solution here is both intricate and also “big”; I was impressed by how it worked and by how aspects of its workings were revealed. For a Hoshikage story, it’s surprisingly similar to something Onistura would tackle.

The Five Clocks

A young woman comes to Inspector Onitsura convinced that her boyfriend cannot have committed the crime he’s suspected of. It seems an open and shut case – except she has the backing of the fraud investigation division of the police, who suspect the victim’s superior at work of killing him before he revealed details of their embezzlement scheme. But the man has a perfect alibi – perhaps perfect enough to make Onitsura suspicious?
An impressively complex story, in which Onitsura’s softer side is shown as well (not that he’s a harsh character normally…). The title comes from the five separate clocks that form the killer’s impregnable alibi. The tricks are actually fairly easy to figure out as they’re presented, though the story is still enjoyable despite that. The intricacies of some of the killer’s actions, and how they led to the tip-off clues, felt like the strongest parts of the story. But even if the tricks individually are quite simple, it is a pleasure to watch them all put together. As with many of the other tricks in the collection, it does seem like it could go wrong incredibly easily, though.

The Red Locked Room

The members of a medical school conclude their dissection of a body and lock up for the night. But when they arrive the next morning, they discover the body of their missing classmate, cut into pieces and left throughout the room. Only one of the students had the keys to the door and the code of the combination lock, but surely the killer must be someone else… making it a locked room dissection.
The title story holds to the standard set before. The story has a number of solid red herrings fitting with the grim setting, and does make good use of that setting in a number of different ways. The central trick, despite being maybe too easily guessable, is an excellent one, including the motive for certain aspects of the setup and locked room scenario. It’s another interesting take on Japanese crime fiction and ROT13: gur pbecfr nf culfvpny bowrpg.
The story ends on an odd note – I like that things cannot be wrapped up totally happily, but some of the sentiments expressed are strange to me – as you would expect given the different time and place, I suppose. Overall a solid closer to an excellent collection.

Other opinions:

Beneath the Stains of Time
Countdown John’s Christie Journal
The Grandest Game in the World
The Invisible Event
Mysteries Ahoy!

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. l. Stump

    I reviewed this collection on my own blog and, like you, thought that the alibi-crackers were stronger than the impossible crimes (which, outside of “Clown in the Tunnel”, I broadly didn’t like). I’m glad to find someone else who loves “Whose Body?”, because its alibi trick is an absolute thumper and a lot of the reviews of that story have (unfairly) dismissed it, I feel. Definitely one of my favorite alibi tricks, period; it’s such an elegant piece of misdirection too.

    1. Velleic

      The trick is an excellent one, though when I thought back on it I felt like it would have been so easy for it to have gone wrong. But it’s not just the one clever trick, there are so many of them, combined! That’s what got me. I had it as joint “If you read one story…” for a while before I decided that that was kind of against the point of that section. 😛

  2. thegreencapsule

    I’ve brought this collection on numerous trips as my “if I finish the other books” backup, but never actually gotten around to reading it. Based on your and JJ’s reviews I finally jumped right in with The Clown in the Tunnel. The opening was a bit more muddled and open ended than I had anticipated from several reviews I’ve read, which tended to focus on the whole “clown in the tunnel” puzzle, rather than the details of the actual crime. Too many characters thrown at you in too small of a space, and I struggled a bit with keeping track of who everyone was, even though this only runs a few dozen pages. The solution is simple and brilliant, and I’ll be high on it for a few days. A masterclass in misdirection.

    1. Velleic

      I’m glad it impressed you in the end!
      Yeah, I think that is one thing about this collection – the short stories are not very short-story-ish. They’re not pared back to their essentials in the way I expect short stories to be usually.

  3. JJ

    Like you, I think the alibi-breaking stories are the stronger ones here — ‘The Five Wrong Clocks’ should be at least twice as long, because it’s an ingenious idea and deserves to be fleshed out into a full Croftian case.

    1. Velleic

      Ooh, yeah! If we got to actually see Onitsura’s interviews in The Five Clocks… they might need more fleshing out to be of interest though.
      Whose Body? has enough twists to fill a novel, too. And the other “detective” character would work much much better if we were allowed to spend more time with her.

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