Dispatches from the sick-bed III: Death in the House of Rain (Szu-Yen Lin)

Death in the House of Rain (Szu-Yen Lin, 2006)

I don’t like this, but I can see why the impossible crime enthusiasts would enjoy it.

It’s Scream Taiwanese style.  University students spend a dark and rainy night in a strangely-shaped house where three people were killed; four more die.

The group includes a stalker and would-be rapist; a reclusive voyeur; and two people who were bullied at school, and whose parents died violently.

It’s all puzzle, with little in the way of style, humour, or characterisation. The “pure” puzzle plot, without any character interest (à la Period I Ellery Queen), is as unengaging as the British Humdrum at its dullest.

The solution gives it a (much-needed) lift.  The idea is simple and surprising, one of those devices that can be told in a single sentence, and I can see why the puzzle fans would cheer and applaud.  It’s not entirely original (see, among others, episodes of The New Avengers and The X-Files), but it’s effective.

It also, though, involves a hell of a level of coincidence, which the author justifies by invoking Edgar Allan Poe and what looks like dependent arising.

We’re meant to believe, too, that several people have the kind of tricky, crazed engineer’s mind that can construct a locked room mystery.

Points off, too, for the fourth death, involving sticky-tape, running up and down floors, and two diagrams. It’s so complicated that my eyes glazed over. (It’s the pneumonia!) If the central idea seems inspired, this is laborious.

The solution to the mystery in the past also smacks of Heath Robinsonry, or what Wodehouse called Murderer’s Flytrap.  (SPOILER: Glueing a saw to the floor!)

ADDENDUM:

I feel like I’m rehashing Anthony Berkeley’s argument in The Second Shot, but, as I said above:

“The “pure” puzzle plot, without any character interest (à la Period I Ellery Queen), is as unengaging as the British Humdrum at its dullest.

(Unless, of course, it’s a short story, where the plot can be all – e.g. the Coles’ “In a Telephone Cabinet”, Knox’s “Solved by Inspection”.)

A great detective story MUST be ingenious – but it should also be a story.  It should have characterisation, style, atmosphere, action – and, ideally, imagination, a sense of humour, and an interest in the world and people.

See, for instance, John Dickson Carr, G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, and Christianna Brand: all diabolically ingenious, masters and mistresses of misdirection, and all with interesting, lifelike characters, for whom – certainly in Brand’s case, as Brad says – one often comes to care.

Carr and Chesterton were brilliant at devising imaginative scenarios and solutions, but they were also natural storytellers: Romantics for whom the detective story was a tale of mystery and imagination, full of adventure and colour. (And, in GKC’s case, was a way of commenting on society, human nature, or religion.)

Few of their imitators are.  (Hake Talbot, Anthony Boucher, and John Sladek, arguably; Derek Smith, Paul Halter and the shin honkaku movement, not so much.)

There must, simply, be more to a good detective story than a trick, however ingenious.

2 thoughts on “Dispatches from the sick-bed III: Death in the House of Rain (Szu-Yen Lin)

  1. The group includes a stalker and would-be rapist; a reclusive voyeur; and two people who were bullied at school, and whose parents died violently

    You may have seen that I really rather enjoyed this, but I do completely agree that the characters do not come out of it well — like, dude, there are some dangerously messed-up people on this weekend away. And, yup, the final death, with the diagrams and everything else, is rather too inartistic given what comes before (though in that regard it reminds me of the hanging in Carr’s The Case of the Constant Suicides…).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t even remember the final death! I just liked the killer’s identity which, as you say, Nick, can be summed up in four words. This idea tends to work better in supernatural stories (thank you, Shirley Ja Kason), so 8t was rather clever of Lin to work it out in a real world setting. But I agree with everything you say. I’m reading the latest Horowitz now, and I think he does this. I’m still looking for other modern writers who strike that balance.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s