- By Tetsuya Ayukawa
- First published in Japanese in Hoseki and Tantei Karabu, between 1954 and 1961
- US: Locked Room International, 2020, translated by Ho-Ling Wong, introduction by Taku Ashibe
Two ukiyo-e woodblock prints by Hiroshige hang in the hall. The artist did not try to fit everything into his paintings; he sketched a scene, the people, the snow. Perhaps the essence of Japanese art is to express things in a succinct way, eliminating the extraneous. Again, the post-war Japanese economic boom relied on miniaturisation: reproducing – often surpassing and perfecting – Western inventions with elegant simplicity.
The seven short stories in this collection are gems of craftsmanship; each is concise, yet displays an innate understanding of the fair play puzzle plot. Tetsuya Ayukawa (pseudonym of Toru Nokagawa, 1919–2002), critic Taku Ashibe claims, was as much “the Japanese honkaku mystery story” as Ellery Queen was the American detective story.
Ayukawa read the outstanding British and American authors: he understood the principles of their mysteries, and produced stories that were as ingenious, as finely logical, and as surprising as the famous Anglophone writers. This collection features impossible crimes in the John Dickson Carr tradition, solved by acerbic trader Ryuzo Hoshikage, and unbreakable alibis in the Freeman Wills Crofts tradition, solved by Chief Inspector Onitsura, both with the brilliant close reasoning of E.Q.
The White Locked Room sets the tone. The premise is arresting and intriguing: a mathematician is stabbed; his murderer, it appears, left no footprints. The crime is tantalising and insoluble; we are given facts; the cryptic clues are dangled lovingly in front of the reader with a skill Carr would admire. Did one of the suspects hurt his foot? Was an animal burnt in the neighbourhood? But our minds scrabble for purchase like cats on a mirror. The detectives solve the crime through pure intellect. The solution is as creative as the premise demands. Mike Grost observed that the solution should be the most ingenious part, the high point of the mystery, not an afterthought. Ayukawa delivers in spades. Most of what we saw and assumed is wrong; the truth is concealed and elaborate. Quite simply, it is beautiful plotting. The stories that follow live up to its promise.
Whose Body? introduces Chief Inspector Onitsura, Ayukawa’s answer to Inspector French. A bottle of acid, a revolver, and a hemp rope are sent to three artists, and a headless corpse is found in a ruined building. The clever plot juggles with confusion of identity; formidable logic leads to a cunningly concealed solution.
The Blue Locked Room is the weakest story in the collection. A stage director is strangled in a locked room. The solution comes from a famous Agatha Christie novel (no, not that one), but the least likely person is a surprise, and the reasoning ingenious.
Death in Early Spring is Ayukawa’s train timetable story. A mill worker is choked to death with a muffler; suspicion falls on his rival in love, but the suspect has a cast-iron alibi. Onitsura’s methodical investigation is absorbing; the gimmick is novel; and Ayukawa manages an ingenious wrinkle in the Crofts genre.
The Clown in the Tunnel involves a murder in a jazz band; the clown apparently tied up a witness, washed off blood, left the building, walked into a tunnel … and never came out. This is a highlight of the collection. The plotting is as deft as Agatha Christie; Ayukawa pulls off both a revelatory alibi and a surprise culprit.
The Five Clocks: Chief Inspector Onitsura methodically breaks an unbreakable alibi and clears an innocent man; the reader sits back and watches him do it. Adroit time-juggling to rival Christopher Bush at his best.
The Red Locked Room: An attractive student is dismembered and laid out on the dissection table. Ashibe considers this one of the greatest impossible crime stories ever written in any language. This story made less impression on me, I’m afraid, perhaps because I had little sleep the night before. I seem to recall seeing the method elsewhere.
This may well be Locked Room International’s best short story collection yet. Ayukawa also wrote twenty-odd novels, none of which have been translated into English. Hopefully The Villa Lilac Case, which Ashibe considers Hoshikage’s best novel-length exploit, will follow.