Ayatsuji, Yukito (2007 ), The Decagon House Murders, Pushkin
trans. Ho-Ling Wong
Murder by Death, Neil Simon’s brilliant (though dated) cinematic parody on the whodunit, featuring parodies of various well-known detectives, from Hammett’s Nick and Nora to Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, is successful both as a parody and a pastiche of the genre. Or rather: genres, plural, because while Sam Spade, from Raymond Chandler’s dour oeuvre, and Miss Marple, from Christie’s sharp pen, are both in the business of dealing with the aftermath of violent murder, the books in question are very different. In the end, Simon has to settle on one specific tone, and he picks the perceived comfort of a Miss Marple setting. An old country manor, and a series of attempted murders vaguely in the style of Christie’s And then there were none. The greatest strength of Simon’s parodies is not in the characters themselves, though their foibles and habits allow us to identify them immediately, it is the metafictional way Simon mocks the basic act of solving mysteries. During the movie, each detective offers a solution, and each solution comes with its own logic, inherent to that specific writer’s preferred way of structuring surprises and revelations. Simon’s final series of revelations, uncovering (twice) the culprit, is similarly partially based on the famous plot of And Then There Were None, before he finally pulls the rug on the whole structure of logic and inference. Neil Simon understands what makes these mystery genres work, and he plays them off against each other, and in conversation with the audience, letting them ultimately in on the joke. The detective genre, as all genres, is a big, magnificent toy box of narrative, where variations and repetition make stories recognizable and surprising at the same time. A good mystery writer has the skill to work the algorithm in a unique way, without losing the functionality of the tools of genre. Simon, meanwhile, is not a mystery writer and does not use any of the tools: instead, he displays them for us.
Yukito Ayatsuji’s 1987 Japanese mystery classic The Decagon House Murders is oddly similar to Murder by Death. It, like the movie, uses And Then There Were None as a foil, and in it, nobody, just as in Simon’s movie, takes a step back and uses Christie’s novel as a blueprint to solve the case (though Ayatsuji’s characters are more than aware of it – the murderer explicitly refers to it in his brooding introduction). As with Simon, the plot revolves around a group of people named after famous detectives, isolated in the countryside. Unlike Simon, Ayatsuji offers his readers very little humor – and for good reason. The Decagon House Murders is a straightforward murder mystery. The guests are brutally murdered one by one, following Christie’s blueprint, with the murderer’s involvement similar to Christie’s book. There is one major difference between the structure of Christie’s novel and Ayatsuji’s, and that’s the fact that there are two narratives in parallel: the events in the eponymous house, which is on an isolated island, and events on the mainland, which, to anyone aware of the story of And then there were none, provides a clear clue as to the identity of the murderer. It undersells The Decagon House Murders to call it a straightforward mystery – in fact, it is intentionally formally strict. It is a so-called Honkaku novel. As this introduction to the genre explains,
Those who write in this style abide by “fair play” rules, which requires that all clues necessary for the reader to solve the crime be present in the text, as dictated in 1923 by S.S. Van Dine in his Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.
And since in Honkaku novels, “the solutions are dependent (…) on solving the physical mechanics behind the actual crime,” giving us a clear clue as to the identity of the murderer is not a black mark against the book within its specific genre. The whole book is a work of love, dedicated to Golden Age mystery writers – and yet for all that dedication, it is remarkably joyless and bland.
First things first. The plot: members of a university “Mystery Club” are invited to spend a week on an isolated island, where previously a horrible murder had happened. They land by boat and will not be able to maintain contact with the outside. Rather than use their own names, the members have nicknames
derived from the American, British and French mystery writers they all respected so much: Ellery Queen, John Dickinson Carr. Guston Leroux, [Van Dine] and Edgar Allan Poe. The two women were called “Agatha” and “Orczy”
after Agatha Christie and Baroness Orczy. There are two houses on the island, the “Blue House” of which only ruins remain, and the Decagon House. We are offered a blueprint of the Decagon House in the first chapter, which furnishes us with a wealth of information. The fact that an unsolved murder happened on the island (in the Blue House) becomes immediately relevant, as former members of the Mystery Club, back on the mainland, receive letters saying, “My daughter Chiori was murdered by all of you.” The envelope is signed by the architect who designed both buildings on the island and who himself died recently under mysterious circumstances. Chiori died of alcohol poisoning at a party, and in a way, all seven Mystery Club members on the island were responsible. This of course echoes the fact that Christie’s original novel assembled a group of criminals who each escaped justice for a particular crime. Meanwhile on the island, the next morning, there are seven notes, one per visitor, labeled “First Victim,” “Second victim,” etc. And so the murderous puzzlebox unspools, and murders, one by one, the visitors, while the Murder Club alumni on the mainland, unaware of the ongoing murder, try to solve the mystery of the threatening letters. The final solution is clean, and devoid of surprises or extraneous information, as demanded by the rules of Honkaku. What’s also clean is the story – clean of psychology, sympathy or depth.
By using nicknames, Ayatsuji does not do what Neil Simon does – there is no inherent difference to the way the seven doomed visitors deal with the threat that takes one from their midst each day. Ayatsuji is severely disinterested in examining the narrative differences between the seven different writers and how that might shape a world view, and an approach to logic and perception. Instead, we are given seven largely interchangeable characters, mere stock characters to drape a plot over. That’s the main use of the nicknames – it removes the individuality from the characters. That does lead to certain unpleasant elements – misogyny creeps in. Not just the misogyny from the male characters towards the female characters, but also from the author towards his own female creations – having one of the women die via poisoned lipstick is just one of many superficial treatments of gender. To be fair – Ayatsuji just doesn’t care, and neither does his ideal reader. Using stock cliché as a way to fill in the gaps in characterization just has a way of allowing bigotry to creep in.
That said, this book is first and foremost about the whodunit puzzle, and that one is nice, as far as it goes, but in his urge to abide by the Honkaku “fair play” rules, we are given too many hints to the solution too early and are thus not surprised by the revelation of the murderer. Ayatsuji foreswears many traditional comforts of the mystery novel in order to give his readers a clever puzzle, and yet, as a puzzle, it doesn’t surprise us with the solution. Instead, we watch the story from the outside, much like the audience of Murder by Death, but the amusement is of following one specific mechanism unfolding, of knowing how and why it will unfold, and of anticipating its workings. There’s not so much humor here – rather a kind of grim self-satisfaction of understanding how this works. If you enjoy being right, and nodding along to something being executed in a formally correct but predictable way, boy do I have the novel for you.
The book ultimately brings to mind the famous opposition between Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown offered by Antonio Gramsci in his notebooks. To Gramsci, Father Brown is a Catholic “who pokes fun at the mechanical thought processes of the protestants” – and Sherlock Holmes is petty, narrow and pretentious. How this fits into Gramsci’s politics is examined here, but I want to just note that this gap, this difference also explains why I was left so dissatisfied by the book. Father Brown’s work relies on empathy and introspection – but while we are given an emotional reason for the murders, there is no empathy and next to no introspection. For Chesterton, empathy opens new connections, an understanding of how things work beyond simple appearances, which helps Father Brown deduce the solutions. For Yukito Ayatsuji, there is nothing beyond appearances, except for the one deception that is central to the And then there were none-style plot.
Ayatsuji’s disinterest in deeper motivations comes to a head late in the novel when a decimated group of Mystery Club members suspects one another, offering the blandest of motives which are so laughably dull that Ayatsuji calls them out himself: “rather a simple attempt at a motive, “ one character offers by way of derision, moments before suggesting another, equally plain motive. The fact that the writing is also monotonous does not help. The translator Ho-Ling Wong cannot be blamed for it, since, from what I can tell, older editions of this novel come with an introduction by fellow Honkaku luminary Shimada Soji, who calls the writing in the original Japanese novel “clunky” and the characters “vacant.” In this sense, the translator did a magnificent job in retaining these qualities in the English text. And yet – is it enjoyable? I mean, WEIRDLY, it is a very quick and smooth read – despite all the issues I have with this novel.
The biggest failing of the books comes in comparison with Murder By Death – Neil Simon did not set out to write a satisfactory mystery, which also contains parodies. It is all parody. That said, Simon offers a funny but clear understanding of the mechanics of various Golden Age mystery writers. If you pick up any of their works, you will recognize the qualities and structures Simon satirized. The same cannot be said of The Decagon House Murders. There is absolutely no meaningful relationship between this novel and Christie’s work – or indeed the work of many of the writers used as nicknames. There is no understanding of what makes Christie’s most famous mystery work, the way modernity and traditionalism intersect in her depiction of class and gender, nothing, in the pages of the book. There is a reason Christie’s work has endured, and that reason cannot be found only or even predominantly in the mechanics of her cases. Look, I’m sure Ayatsuji perfectly understands her work, as a devotee to Golden Age mysteries, but the novel as a text has no interest at all in really relating to the writers it supposedly pays homage to. This is the most disappointing aspect of what is, despite all this, quite a breezy mystery.