The Decagon House Murders

This was a weird one. I loved it.

The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji is an exemplar of a genre I hadn't known existed: “new orthodox” mysteries, shin honkaku in Japanese — a return to the old rules of the game:

  • Characters introduced fully and fairly
  • A clearly circumscribed stage (think: snowbound chalet)
  • No vital information withheld from the reader

Per the introduction by mystery writer Shimada Soji:

As a result, [Ayatsuji’s] characters act almost like robots, their thoughts depicted only minimally through repetitive phrases. The narration shows no interest in sophisticated writing or a sense of art and is focused solely on telling the story. To readers who were used to American and British detective fiction, The Decagon House Murders was a shock. It was as if they were looking at the raw building plans of a novel.

That reads as much like a warning as a recommendation!

It was a review in the Washington Post that piqued my curiosity. The book that arrived from Amazon was flimsy, with a thick seam of glue — clearly print-on-demand. This endeared me to it instantly. The publisher, Locked Room International, is deeply niche and delightfully specific — the kind of operation that only survives in book publishing. (Some days, I think this kind of operation is what book publishing is for.)

The Decagon House Murders is a weird read, and you should believe Shimada Soji when he tells you the writing is clunky and the characters vacant. But the book presents a fascinating puzzle, and the solution is electrifying, in large part because it relies entirely upon the book-ness of this book. No movie adaptation is possible. I'll say no more.

January 2016, Berkeley

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