The Mill House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji

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Translated by Ho-Ling Wong

Review by Terence Jagger

This is another of Yukito Ayatsuji’s homages to the British Golden Age of mystery writing, like The Decagon House Murders I reviewed here some time ago.  In both cases, the action has a strong ritualistic quality, the plot and the architecture are complex, obscure, freakishly unusual, and the “detective” is the same, Shimada Kiyoshi.  One reviewer compares his plots to John Dickson Carr, and the same intricacy, formalism and unreality is on show here; it even has a plan of the building to help you follow the action..

This time, the house is a remote mill house, far from any other habitation, and constructed on a frankly bizarre plan to allow for a small household to live together, with visitors (of whom there are very few) in an almost separate building, but one made into a rough square by the addition of long galleries, which house the paintings of the deceased visionary artist Fujinama Issei, whose son lives here, almost as a hermit, and as a devoted but selfish guardian of his father’s work.  He is wracked by guilt about a long ago motor accident which killed his companions, and wears a mask to cover his own injuries from that event, which also mean he has to use a wheelchair.  Rather creepily, he is married to a much younger, very beautiful young woman, Fujima Yurie, who has lived almost her whole life at the mill in near isolation from friends, the real world and outside influence.

Each year, three or four guests gather to look at the paintings, all but one – a powerful painting which is kept hidden from everyone.  The action of the book takes place in September 1986, but the murders which haunt the household took place on the occasion of the previous visit, exactly a year before.  Indeed, the chapters alternate between 28 September 1985 and the same date in 1986; this sounds confusing but is actually quite easy to follow.  There is no doubt that the deaths of a year ago, never solved, create a gloomy atmosphere which is only added to by, on both occasions, extremely violent weather, which helpfully impedes the police in arriving and obscures clues.

Then, out of the blue, arrives Shimada Kiyoshi:

“… What happened last year has haunted me ever since, and I’ve long wanted to take a look at the Mill House, at this creation of Nakamura Seiji, for myself. And then I also have this habit of not being able to stop once I’ve set my mind to something..”

“Hm.”

I placed my gloved hands on the armrests of my wheelchair.

“And what is it you want to do next?” I asked him.

“With your permission, I’d like to join the gathering at your house today, in Kojin’s place. You see, I’m also really interested in the paintings of Fujinuma Issei. I request this favour of you knowing very well how impertinent it is to ask.”

“You have my permission.”

Was I really going to let this man inside the house? I had to reluctantly squash down the objections that rose inside me. Why had I said yes?

The main reason was his incessant hinting at some connection between himself and the architect, Nakamura Seiji. But that wasn’t all. I could feel from the aura he exuded that it would be futile to try and thwart his wishes.

“I’Il have a room made ready for you” I said to him. “If you drive up the slope and turn left, you’ll find a place to park.”

The wind began to pick up and dark clouds gathered in the sky, hiding the sun. A great shadow fell upon the house and its surroundings.

As you will by now probably expect, there is a lot of dialogue-based investigation (practical clues, after all, were gone a year ago), peppered by another murder, a series of interlocking alibis, and two locked rooms – one physically locked, the other isolated by witnesses.  An impressive denouement follows, and there is a definite sense of a jigsaw puzzle being completed, although – as often in the original puzzle style mysteries, there is not a strong emotional content.  But this is an entertaining and easy read, ideal for a windy and lonely night in a remote house!

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Yukito Ayatsuji:  The Mill House Murders  (Pushkin Vertigo, 2023). 978-1782278337, 253pp., paperback original.

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