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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Decagon House Murders

Ayatsuji Yukito

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To purchase The Decagon House Murders

Title: The Decagon House Murders
Author: Ayatsuji Yukito
Genre: Novel
Written: 1987 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 228 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Decagon House Murders - US
The Decagon House Murders - UK
The Decagon House Murders - Canada
Meurtres dans le décagone - France
  • Japanese title: 十角館の殺人
  • Translated by Ho-Ling Wong
  • With an Introduction by Shimada Soji

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Our Assessment:

B- : okay framework, but too messily and weakly built up on it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 11/12/2020 Laura Wilson
The NY Times Book Rev. . 23/5/2021 Sarah Weinman
The Washington Post A 15/7/2015 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "Clodhopping prose and clunky exposition don't succeed in spoiling the pleasure of trying to guess the identity of the culprit, or the highly ingenious solution." - Laura Wilson, The Guardian

  • "(I)t was a pleasant surprise to read Yukito Ayatsuji's landmark 1987 mystery (...) and discover a real depth of feeling beneath the fiendish foul play. (...) This is a homage to Golden Age detective fiction, but it's also unabashed entertainment." - Sarah Weinman, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A) terrific mystery, a classic of misdirection very much in the manner of Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr. (...) If you were to take this novel as a serious social document, you would be appalled at its body count. But Ayatsuji keeps the reader from feeling any serious identification with the victims. They are simply types." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The short Prologue to The Decagon House Murders is properly sinister and vague, an anonymous figure having completed his preparations and ready now to play god: "Judgment, yes judgment", he promises:

     They would arrive there suspecting nothing. Without any hesitation or fear they would walk into the decagonal trap, where they would be sentenced.
       Pretty harshly sentenced, too, as the plan is: "to kill them in order, one by one".
       The promised 'decagonal trap' is a house on a hard-to-reach island, and the novel proper begins with seven members of a university Mystery Club stranding themselves there for a week in the spring of 1986. They are entirely on their own here, with no way to communicate with the mainland, nor any way to return before they are picked up again. (One might add: 'apparently', to all of the above and much of the below -- predictably, not everything in the novel is as entirely clear-cut as it might (initially) seem.)
       The group of students takes their mystery-obsession pretty seriously, referring to themselves and each other only by their club-nicknames, homages to great mystery writers of the past. So the seven are: Poe, Ellery, Carr, Leroux, Agatha, Orczy, and Van Dine. (Their actual names are only revealed in the novel's resolution.) The island-stay is meant to be a vacation of sorts, though the new editor of the club's mystery-magazine, Dead Island -- named after Agatha Christie's And Then There were None, whose original Japanese title conveniently was ... Dead Island (死人島) -- wants them to write for it during the week they'll be spending there. Instead, they find themselves living out a Christie-like murder mystery -- with no possibility of escape.
       Bad things happened on the island relatively recently, with its owner, architect Nakamura Seiji, murdered there, along with his wife and another couple who worked for them, and the main building on the island, the 'Blue Mansion', burned down (leaving only the 'Decagon House', which is where the visitors live while on the island). Among the mysteries surrounding the recent crime: the four victims died at different times over the course of several days -- and Kazue, Seiji's wife, was found with her hand cut off. Another man -- their gardener -- went missing, and the assumption was that he killed them all and then escaped.
       Beyond that, the Mystery Club has a much closer connection to Seiji, though it's one they are (or seem to be ...) unaware of: his daughter Chiori was a member. Was, until she died, as a consequence of drinking too much, after a club-party over Christmas. And now it seems someone is blaming the mystery club members, and is determined to get vengeance.
       For the first four days of the action, chapters alternate between those set on the island and those set on the mainland. Yes, there's activity back in civilization, too, as a former member of the club, Kawaminami Taka'aki, receives a note starkly claiming: "My daughter Chiori was murdered by all of you". Kawaminami had actually left the party before anything happened to Chiori that fateful night, and since he has distanced himself from the club anyway he doesn't feel particularly guilty. But he's curious about the note and its meaning, and begins to investigate -- first whether others from the group got similar messages (they did), and then what might be behind them. Since the sender is given as 'Nakamura Seiji' he has to wonder whether the mass-murder on the island several months earlier unfolded differently than the police believe -- and whether Nakamura Seiji might, in fact, still be alive.
       The earlier deaths loom as a huge shadow over present-day events, but for quite a while The Decagon House Murders proceeds with only hints of menace -- the notes like the one Kawaminami received, or then, on the island, plates arranged suggesting there would be five victims among those present (along with a 'Detective' -- and, ominously, a 'Murderer'). At first, most of this isn't taken too seriously. Indeed, it's only close to midway through the novel that readers are warned that: "the parade of death was about to begin". That's when things really get going.
       Ayatsuji signals his intentions with this novel from the get-go, from the nicknames of the club members to the name of their magazine. He's going old-school, with the novel proper opening with one of the club-members, Ellery, making the case for mystery fiction as an "intellectual game", a puzzle for readers -- and emphatically distancing everything here from the then prevailing form of Japanese mystery fiction:
     So enough of the realism of the social school of mystery fiction once so favoured in Japan. [...] What mystery novels need are -- some might call me old-fashioned -- a great detective, a mansion, its shady residents, bloody murders, impossible crimes, and never-before-seen tricks played by the murderer.
       That's what Ayatsuji tries to set up and then play out here: a limited cast of characters, many with their own little (and some pretty big) secrets, isolated on this island -- and, apparently, one of them a murderer, killing the others off, one by one. Clues are sprinkled throughout the story: it's a puzzle, allowing the reader to play along as detective in this whodunnit, matching their skills against those of the author (and the murderer).
       A lot here depends on the puzzle -- just how ingenious is it ? Ayatsuji certainly has it planned out well and elaborately, and there's certainly a moment when readers find themselves nicely wrong-footed as the identity of the murderer is revealed. But if the whodunnit part is reasonably well done, the how-he-done-it -- painstakingly then spelled out -- is kind of a mess. Yes, in a way it all 'neatly' works and fits together, but, really, the reader never stands a chance, since Ayatsuji introduces much that allowed the murderer to get away with picking the kids off one by one only after the fact. Even the motive is underdeveloped, feeling like an ex post facto add on.
       Disappointing, too, is that Ayatsuji is so weak in fleshing out pretty much anything in the novel. Packed with incident and with layers of personal and family history -- a lot of these characters are lugging along a lot of baggage, most of which is at best glancingly mentioned -- Ayatsuji largely just zips along the surface, ultimately doing little more than listing horrors, rather than delving deeper into the connections and ramifications. For a novel that deals with roughly a dozen corpses that have accumulated in three incidents over less than a year (the two mass-murders on the island, as well as Chiori's death) Ayatsuji really doesn't delve very deeply into much that must have been going on here, with only parts of the relationships adequately explained. (At least the chopped off hands are explained .....)
       In a way, Ayatsuji's glimpses of the characters' background and feelings almost make the novel more frustrating -- he throws in this incredibly heavy stuff (one student's mother is in a mental institution for attempting to kill a patient in a hospital, the parents and sister of another were killed when he was in middle school, to name just two examples) but that's all he does -- toss it into the conversations, without doing anything with it. The novel might have worked better if it had focused solely on the puzzle, and treated the characters just as role-playing cogs in the story's machinery. (In his Introduction Shimada Soji claims Ayatsuji's: "characters act almost like robots" and that they are: "devoid of any human emotion, only moving according to electrical signals: a setting reminiscent of the inside of a videogame", but that's not really accurate: Ayatsuji's characters lug around a lot of emotion, it's just that he doesn't do much with it (leaving it as a terrible distraction); automatons would have been more fun.)
       Shimada Soji also explains in his Introduction that this novel triggered a revival of the "honkaku mystery"-form -- orthodox, old-style puzzlers, the detective-work in them based on logical reasoning (as opposed to the: "realism of the social school of mystery fiction" one of the characters had complained about), in a new, more modern guise. Perhaps so, but it's still a rather disappointing exemplar. The framework is okay -- not brilliant (too much is left outside the reader's purview (until the explanation is spelled out), which feels a bit unfair), but a decent puzzle -- and the set-up, including the back and forth between scenes on the island and on the mainland, is quite good, but otherwise the novel plods along and packs way too much carnage and tragedy into it, without giving the reader much reason to care about any of it or any of the characters

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 January 2016

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The Decagon House Murders: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Ayatsuji Yukito (綾辻 行人) was born in 1960.

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© 2016-2021 the complete review

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