The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji

Translated by Ho-Ling Wong

Reviewed by Terence Jagger

This is a very unusual book, and I initially disliked its artificiality – extreme, even by the standards of sealed room murder mysteries – but as it broadened out, I found it increasingly involving.  And I am very much intrigued by all things Japanese, and this was a new slant. The main thrust is simple enough – a group of friends go to stay on an island where they live in a ten sided house built by an eccentric former owner. They are killed one by one, and of course fear and distrust grows quickly. The novel is quite obviously and deliberately an homage to or reworking of a 1939 Agatha Christie novel, now known as And Then There Were None, the original title being quite rightly completely unacceptable now.

There are a number of additional angles, though. First, the original owner apart from being eccentric, had been killed, along with several other people, in a bizarre multiple murder some time before, although the killer was never found – although he was tentatively identified. Solving this murder might, it appears, be the route to the truth about the new murders.  And the group of friends are members of their university’s murder mystery club, and go, not by their Japanese names, but by those of great western murder writers – Agatha, Ellery, Carr and so on. This is really an odd thing to do anyway, but it makes their personalities opaque, and hides their Japanese-ness from us. And it separates them dramatically and oddly from other characters who appear in the novel, either directly or indirectly, who all have conventional Japanese names. The names turn out to be crucial to the plot, but it would be a bit of a spoiler to tell you how!

Stylistically, the book has some quirks. It is translated by Ho-Ling Wong, who I take to be Chinese, although he studied at Kyoto university and now lives in the Netherlands. The translation is always clear, but occasionally gives the impression of being very literal from the Japanese; and the idiom of the fisherman who takes them to the island is very odd: By the way, y’all are really strange college students, aren’t ya? But other parts of the introductory pages remind me of a nineteenth century Russian novel in their forced anonymity: … they were all students of K—- University of O—- City. But once they’re all on the island, things settle down, even if some of the conversation is a bit stilted occasionally.

It’s a great problem for modern crime writers. Diligent police officers performing their jobs slowly but surely; solid, efficiently run organizations; the latest techniques in forensic investigation: the police can no longer be regarded as incompetent. They are almost too competent. Realistically, there’s no place any more for the exploits of the great detectives of yore, with their little grey cells as their only weapon. Mr Holmes would be a laughing stock if he turned up in one of our modern cities.” “I think that might be an exaggeration. A modern Holmes, fit for our modern times, will surely appear.” “You’re right, of course. He’ll make his entrance as a master of the latest techniques in forensic pathology and science. And he’ll explain it all to poor dear Watson, using complex specialist jargon and formulas that no reader will ever even begin to comprehend.”

The students are there a week, and the killings get under way very quickly.  Here they find the first body:

A dark room. A beam of light coming in through the gap between the shutters, cutting through the darkness like a sharpedged sword. “Orczy.” Poe called out to her in a trembling voice. “Orczy.” The bed against the wall was grey in the darkness. She was lying there peacefully, her blanket covering her neatly up to her chest. Her own dark-blue cardigan had been pulled over her head… “Orczy!” Poe let out a roar and rushed into the room. The body lying on the bed, however, did not move at all. “What happened? Orczy…” Lifting the cardigan that covered Orczy’s face with his powerful, trembling hands, Poe felt his whole body shiver. The other five, who had followed him and were now standing in the entrance, tried to push inside. “Don’t come in,” implored Poe, his arms raised to discourage them. “I beg you. She wouldn’t want you to see her like this…” Hearing these words, the five stayed where they were. Poe took a deep breath, raising his shoulders. He carefully lifted the blanket and started to examine the body of poor Orczy, who would never move or feel embarrassed again.

You feel you have some inside knowledge, because the first speaker in the book is the killer, explaining the outline of his plan, but you are given  – at least as far as I could see – no clue to their identity. Two main ideas are discussed by the diminishing band of students, who of course fancy themselves as detectives – that it’s one of them, or that there’s a killer concealed on the island, possibly the eccentric previous owner whose murder might have been faked (or someone concealed on a small sister island nearby).

But once the murders start, you do not remain on the island, but return regularly to the mainland, where some letters have been sent out in the name of the previous, apparently murdered, owner of the island, to a number of members of the university murder mystery club – some who have gone to the island, and some who have not. This sparks an amateur investigation, which gives the book an extra breadth, both in terms of characters and of places and events. This is for me an interesting development, and I don’t remember if there is anything analogous in Christie’s original, which I haven’t read for 50 years, and this is the part of the novel in which human behaviour is almost normal and it which the book is clearly Japanese – on the island, its easy to forget that.

“How do you write your family name with kanji, Kawaminami?” he asked. “The character for ‘river’, as when you write ‘the Yellow River’, combined with the character for ‘south’.”

(It’s very often not at all obvious how to spell Japanese names in kanji (the Chinese characters) from the sound of them, or even from seeing them written down in the hiragana syllabary: Kawaminami would be written as かわみなみ in hiragana, but a name would normally be in kanji, and he is explaining that it would be  川 南 . You hear conversations like this all the time over the phone!)

Eventually, the house is set on fire, and as this is seen from the mainland, the authorities arrive to find everyone dead – and another corpse which belongs to the earlier tragedy. There is a clear and rational identification of the killer, who has committed suicide, but of course you wonder if this is really true – and even if it is, what the motive was. For lovers of the Christie, I can tell you motive structure is quite different from And Then There Were None!

The final chapters clear all this up, and it’s quite satisfying in a jigsaw-like way. I didn’t identify the killer (as I mendaciously claimed to have done when reading the Christie at school – they say confession is good for the soul!) but I did spot the central crux of the plot quite early. But its an enjoyable read once it gets going, and I suspect it will particularly appeal to those who know the Christie and want to see what a modern and very different society has made of it.

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Yukito Ayatsuji, The Decagon House Murders  (Pushkin Vertigo, 2020). 978-1782276340, 224pp., paperback.

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