The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji

This Japanese murder mystery was originally published in 1987 and is now available from Pushkin Vertigo in an English translation by Ho-Ling Wong. Having recently read two other reissued Japanese classic mysteries, The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo and Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada, I jumped at the chance to read this one, especially when I saw comparisons with one of my favourite Agatha Christie novels, And Then There Were None.

After a brief prologue, the book begins with seven students, all members of their university Mystery Club, arriving on the lonely island of Tsunojima, where they are planning to spend the week. It’s the perfect location for a group of crime lovers because a series of unsolved murders took place there the year before, so the students are looking forward to exploring the island and using their skills as amateur detectives to investigate the mystery. Soon after their arrival, however, they discover that someone is planning to murder them one by one – but is the killer one of the seven or is someone else hiding on the island?

This is an interesting novel and a quick one to read; although it takes a while to get started, the pace rapidly picks up once the first murder takes place. The action switches between the island and the mainland, where Kawaminami, an ex-member of the Mystery Club, is carrying out some investigations of his own, having received a letter which leads him to question what really happened on Tsunojima Island the year before. The alternating narratives add some tension to the story as we wait to see whether Kawaminami will solve the mystery before everyone on the island is dead.

The similarities with And Then There Were None were obvious as soon as I started to read, but sadly this book doesn’t come close to the brilliance of the Christie novel – and the eventual solution and motive are quite different anyway. However, it’s clear that Yukito Ayatsuji must have been an admirer of Golden Age crime novels and he pays homage to them in various ways all the way through the book. The seven members of the Mystery Club have all taken the names of classic crime writers and are known as Ellery, Agatha, Leroux, Carr, Van Dine, Poe and Orczy, while Kawaminami’s nickname is Conan – or sometimes Doyle!

The characters themselves, though, never really come to life at all and feel interchangeable, with very little to differentiate one from another. This leads to a lack of emotional involvement and I found that I didn’t really care who was murdered or who the culprit was. I felt completely detached from what was happening and although I could appreciate the cleverness of the plot, it wasn’t a story that I could become fully absorbed in. To be fair, this seems to be typical of Japanese mystery novels in general, particularly the subgenre known as honkaku, of which this book is said to be a classic example. Honkaku books have been described as traditional plot-driven ‘puzzle mysteries’ with complex solutions and appear to be less concerned with character development.

Still, I found things to enjoy in this novel. The revelations at the end took me completely by surprise and, if I hadn’t had so many other books waiting to be read, I would have been tempted to go back and re-read at least the first few chapters to see how I could have missed the clues. And I loved the descriptions of the Decagon House, the building in which the students stay during their time on the island – a decagonal building with decagonal rooms, decagonal tables and even decagonal cups!

Thanks to Pushkin Vertigo for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki

Last November I took part in the Classics Club’s 25th Classics Spin and the book selected for me to read before the deadline, which is this Saturday, was The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. Written in French and first published in 1804 and then again in a longer version in 1810, this very unusual novel is the work of the Polish author Count Jan Potocki who, it seems, led a very unusual life: born into an aristocratic family he spent some time with the Knights of Malta, he was apparently the first Polish person to fly in a hot air balloon, and he is said to have shot himself with a silver bullet after becoming convinced that he was a werewolf! I read a Penguin Classics edition of the book translated into English by Ian Maclean. I’m not sure how many other English translations exist, but I highly recommend this one; it’s very readable and makes the novel accessible to the modern reader without losing the feel of the period in which it is set.

I’m going to find it very difficult to give a summary of the plot, but I will do my best! It begins in 1739 with Alphonse van Worden, a young Walloon officer in the Spanish army, on his way to join his regiment in Madrid. Taking shelter in a seemingly abandoned inn in the mountains of the Sierra Morena, two beautiful women appear who introduce themselves as his cousins from Tunis, Emina and Zubeida. After listening to their story, Alphonse goes to bed for the night, only to wake up outside under a gallows, beside the bodies of two hanged men.

This is the first of many bizarre situations in which Alphonse finds himself over the next sixty-six days as he encounters a succession of strange and intriguing characters, including a gypsy chief, a cabbalist, a hermit and even the legendary Wandering Jew. Each of them has a story to tell – and often, another character within their story has another story of his or her own to tell too. Sometimes the stories-within-stories become several layers deep, to the point where one of the characters, the mathematician Velásquez, remarks:

“I do not know who is speaking and who is listening. Sometimes the Marques de Val Florida is telling the story of his life to his daughter, sometimes it is she who is relating it to the gypsy chief, who in turn is repeating it to us. It is a veritable labyrinth. I had always thought that novels and other works of that kind should be written in several columns like chronological tables.”

This probably sounds very confusing, but the novel is actually not as difficult to read as you might think. Although, like Velásquez, I often forgot who was speaking and who was listening, I found that in most cases it didn’t really matter all that much. I stopped trying to keep everything straight in my mind and just enjoyed each story for its own sake – and there’s a lot to enjoy! There are tales of hauntings and evil spirits, duels and disguises, magic and hidden treasures and, apart from one or two – the Wandering Jew’s story became a bit tedious, I thought – they are all very entertaining. Some are romantic, some are gothic and ghostly and others are funny; I was reminded at various times of Don Quixote and The Thousand and One Nights. The novel is conveniently divided into sixty-six chapters, one for each day of Alphonse’s journey (although some of the stories are split across several days), so if you wanted to you could probably read one chapter per day, although I was so gripped by it that I finished the book much more quickly than that!

Despite the sometimes random and meandering feel of the book, it does all come together at the end and most of the loose ends are tied up quite neatly. However, I thought this was one of the few weak points of the book – the conclusion of Alphonse’s story seemed too convenient and too abrupt and I think I would have preferred a different kind of ending. Still, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa was a lot of fun to read and just the sort of escapism I needed at the moment!

This is book 19/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting

This beautifully written novel, translated from the original Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin, is the first in a planned trilogy based around the legend of the Sister Bells. The bells commemorate conjoined twin sisters Gunhild and Halfrid Hekne, who lived in the remote village of Butangen and died within hours of each other. Their family donated the bells to the local church in memory of the twins and they are still hanging there, in the bell tower, in 1880 when the novel begins…

As the rest of the world heads towards the twentieth century, Butangen appears to be frozen in time, a place where life is still ruled by superstition and folklore, where people still believe in evil spirits and ill omens. When Kai Schweigaard, an ambitious young pastor, arrives in the village he despairs of ever bringing change to a population so resistant to progress and modern ways of thinking.

If only people had light, he thought. If there was a strong lamp in every home, which could illuminate faces and edifying books, I could banish these mad notions in a few years. But at sunset the village grew dark, and with it folk’s minds, and these unknown powers ruled until sunrise.

One of the ways in which Kai hopes to improve life in the village is by replacing the ancient 12th century stave church where a parishioner actually froze to death during Mass with a larger, warmer, more comfortable building. The old church, complete with its pagan carvings and twin bells, is to be dismantled and reconstructed in Dresden, and a young German architect – Gerhard Schönauer – has arrived to make drawings of the church before it is taken down. However, Kai and Gerhard face opposition not only from the people of Butangen, who are suspicious and resentful of anything new, but also from the Sister Bells themselves. The bells are said to have supernatural powers and to ring on their own when danger is approaching – and it seems that the bells don’t want to be removed.

As well as the two men, a large part of the story is also written from the perspective of twenty-year-old Astrid Hekne, who works as a maid in Kai Schweigaard’s household at the parsonage. Despite the differences in their social standing, Kai is considering making Astrid his wife, but complications arise when Astrid finds herself drawn to Gerhard Schönauer. Meanwhile, as a descendant of the twins Halfrid and Gunhild, Astrid feels a responsibility for the bells and decides she must do whatever it takes to prevent Gerhard from transporting them to Dresden with the rest of the church.

The Bell in the Lake is a wonderfully atmospheric novel thanks to Lars Mytting’s beautiful descriptions of the landscape around Butangen, particularly in winter with its frozen lakes and snow-covered hills and valleys, while the supernatural elements and the role of the Sister Bells legend give the story an eerie and mysterious feel. The sense of time is as strong as the sense of place and the characters feel like real 19th century people, rather than modern day people dropped into a random historical setting. However, I think the decision to have Astrid and the other villagers speak in a dialect which seems to be mainly Scottish is a bit strange. I suppose the translator had to find a way to differentiate between the speech of the local people and the outsiders (who speak in standard English), and using Scottish words makes sense because of the close ties with Norway, but I found it slightly distracting and kept forgetting that Astrid was actually Norwegian!

One of my favourite themes in fiction is the conflict between old ways of life and new, and in this novel we see how the inhabitants of Butangen are reluctant to move away from the traditions they have always followed and try to resist any kind of social, scientific or religious progress. Although Astrid has been brought up with the same beliefs, she has a more adventurous spirit than most of her neighbours and longs to see more of the world, which is what draws her to Gerhard. The demolition of the old church, which Gerhard has come to oversee, and the building of the new one is symbolic of all of this. If you’ve never seen a Norwegian stave church, by the way, I recommend googling them – they look amazing and it’s sad to think that there are so few of them left.

Having enjoyed The Bell in the Lake so much, I am looking forward to the other two books in the trilogy and hope we won’t have to wait too long for the next one!

Thanks to Quercus Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

A three-fingered man. A room painted all in red. The eerie music of a Japanese koto. A katana – a sword – standing blade-first in the snow. These all form part of this classic murder mystery, originally published in Japanese in 1946 and now available from Pushkin Press in an English translation by Louise Heal Kawai.

The Honjin Murders is set in November 1937 in the village of Okamura, home to the Ichiyanagi family, whose ancestors once ran a honjin – an inn where noble travellers would stay during the Edo period. Those times are long gone, but the Ichiyanagis are still proud of their illustrious lineage. At the beginning of the novel, the various members of the family are gathering for the wedding of the eldest son and heir, Kenzo, to a young schoolteacher, Katsuko. Kenzo’s family are not very happy about the bride’s humble origins, but the marriage goes ahead and everyone retires to bed for the night. A few hours later, screams are heard from the newlyweds’ room and the pair are found inside stabbed to death.

With the doors locked and no fresh footprints in the snow surrounding the building, it seems that the perfect locked room murder has been committed. Luckily, Katsuko’s uncle Ginzo knows just the man who will be able to solve it: his friend, the private detective Kosuke Kindaichi. Ginzo sends for Kindaichi who arrives in the village looking dishevelled, unassuming and unimpressive (it’s difficult not to make comparisons with that other famously untidy detective, Columbo, although this book was published decades earlier) but appearances can be deceptive and it quickly becomes clear that Kindaichi has the sort of sharp mind and powers of deduction that are necessary to solve such a complex crime.

I won’t say any more about the plot of the novel or the mystery itself. I didn’t work out how the murder was committed or who the culprit was and I was happy just to watch the solution unfold – although like another Japanese mystery novel I read last year, Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada, I felt that there seemed to be more focus on puzzle solving and providing an ingenious technical explanation for the crime rather than on character and motivation. Maybe that is a common feature of Japanese crime fiction; I haven’t read enough of it yet to know.

What I particularly loved about this book was the style in which it was written, with the narrator (presumably meant to be Yokomizo himself) speaking directly to the reader and breaking off from the story now and then to discuss other classic mystery novels, especially of the locked room variety, and their similarities to the Honjin case:

The first that came to mind were Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room and Maurice Leblanc’s The Teeth of the Tiger; then there’s The Canary Murder Case and The Kennel Murder Case, both by S.S. Van Dine; and finally, Dickson Carr’s The Plague Court Murders…But this real-life case wasn’t quite like any of the above-mentioned. Maybe, just maybe, the killer had read a selection of stories like these, dissected all of the different devices used, then picked out the elements that he needed, constructing his own device. At least that’s one theory.

Yokomizo may have drawn inspiration from some of those earlier mysteries, but The Honjin Murders itself feels original and different, as well as being a very clever and entertaining novel. Although I hadn’t heard of Kosuke Kindaichi until I read this book, it seems that he appears in over seventy novels (one of which, The Inugami Curse, is also available in English from Pushkin Press). I will look forward to meeting him again!

Casanova and the Faceless Woman by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon

Casanova and the Faceless Woman is the first in a series of historical mysteries by French author Olivier Barde-Cabuçon, set in pre-Revolutionary France. There are currently seven books in the series but this one, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie, is the first to appear in English. When I was offered a copy for review by Pushkin Vertigo I was immediately intrigued because although I read a lot of historical mysteries I don’t think I’ve read any set in this particular period.

It’s 1759 and Louis XV is on the throne of France. He is not a popular king – unrest is growing amongst those who feel they have been oppressed under his reign and his rumoured liaisons with innocent young girls have not helped his reputation either – and there are several different factions plotting to overthrow or discredit him. Not long before our story begins, Louis had been the target of an assassination attempt and narrowly avoided being stabbed to death thanks to the quick actions of the Chevalier de Volnay. As a reward for his bravery, Volnay has been given the title of Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths, responsible for investigating particularly unusual crimes on the king’s behalf.

One such crime occurs when a young woman is found dead in a dark Paris courtyard with the skin torn away from her face. On arriving at the scene, Volnay removes a sealed letter from the corpse intending to examine it later, but it seems that someone – perhaps several people – have seen him do it. Over the days that follow, as Volnay sets about trying to identify the woman and hunt down her killer, he himself is hunted by those who want to retrieve the letter and will stop at nothing to get it back.

Volnay interested me from the beginning because he is such a mysterious character. We are told very little about him at first, with the secrets of his tragic and eventful past being revealed very gradually as the story progresses. He seems very alone in the world, his only companions being a monk (with whom he forms a fascinating crime-solving partnership) and a tame magpie. There is a sense that he is not somebody who finds it easy to love or to trust others, and so, when he enters into a relationship with the beautiful Chiara D’Ancilla, we worry that he is going to get hurt – especially as his rival in love is the legendary Casanova.

Giacomo Casanova is one of several real historical figures who have important roles to play in the novel; others include Madame de Pompadour, the king’s mistress, and the Comte de Saint-Germain, the alchemist, sorcerer and musician who has fascinated me since I first met him in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I don’t think Casanova has appeared in any other novels I’ve read, although his career as writer, adventurer, gambler and, most famously, seducer of women, makes him an ideal subject for historical fiction. His character is well developed and convincing here and Barde-Cabuçon explores events from his past in order to explain his present behaviour, but I could never quite warm to him because my sympathies were with Volnay from the start. While Casanova seems to treat his romance with Chiara – and his involvement with the stolen letter and all the intrigue surrounding it – as a game, for Volnay these things are literally a matter of life and death.

I’m not sure whether Louis was really as disgusting and depraved as he is depicted in the novel but his reign certainly wasn’t seen as very successful and I think the author does a good job of conveying the mood in France in the years leading up to the Revolution and the discontent of the people with the king and the aristocracy. However, as a mystery novel, I thought the plot felt a bit more complicated than it really needed to be and the action moved between one set of characters and another too quickly, so that there were times when I struggled to hold on to all the different threads of the story. I also found the ending unnecessarily dramatic with one twist too many – although I had been intrigued by some of the revelations near the end, which left me wanting to read the next book in the series. I hope it’s going to be available in English soon too as I would love to see more of the Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths.

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

I can’t remember when I first read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose; it was possibly in the early 2000s – long enough ago to have forgotten most of the story, but recently enough that certain scenes have stayed quite clearly in my mind. I knew I hadn’t understood everything the first time, so when I saw that Annabel of Annabookbel was hosting a readalong in January I thought it would be interesting to read it again. Unfortunately, it was a busier month than I expected and I fell too far behind to be able to participate in the readalong, but I have been re-reading the book anyway and finished a few days ago.

The Name of the Rose is set in 1327 and is narrated by Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice from Austria. I think the best way I can describe the book is to quote directly from the back cover of my old Picador edition: “Whether you’re into Sherlock Holmes, Montaillou, Borges, the nouvelle critique, the Rule of St. Benedict, metaphysics, library design, or The Thing from the Crypt, you’ll love it. Who can that miss out?” It probably misses out quite a lot of people, actually, but at least that gives you a good idea of the range and number of different topics and influences found in the novel.

The story begins with Adso accompanying a Franciscan friar, William of Baskerville, to a remote Benedictine monastery in the Italian mountains. In a few days’ time, this monastery will host a meeting between an embassy from Pope John XXII and a group of Minorites, but preparations are not going according to plan…Adelmo, a young illustrator known for his beautiful illuminated manuscripts, has been found dead, having supposedly fallen from a window of the Aedificium, the large building which houses the abbey’s renowned library. Was it suicide or was it murder? William, who has already impressed the abbot by successfully locating a lost horse, is asked to investigate.

There’s a reason why Eco has given William the name ‘Baskerville’ – as he moves around the abbey asking questions and uncovering the circumstances behind Adelmo’s death, he uses his powers of deduction just like Sherlock Holmes. Adso, of course, fills the position of Dr Watson, needing William to explain things to him as he goes along (which benefits the reader as well). But when a second death occurs, this one more gruesome than the first, William knows that if he is to have any chance of solving the mystery, he will need to gain access to the library – the secret, forbidden library which only the librarian and his assistant are allowed to enter.

As a murder mystery, The Name of the Rose is quite a good one. Reading it for the second time, I remembered the solution and the culprit, but not every detail of the plot, so I enjoyed watching it all unfold again. There are clues – physical and spoken – there are secrets to uncover, complex relationships to untangle and red herrings which point us in the wrong direction for a while. There are also some wonderful descriptions of the library, a genuinely eerie and sinister place; the scenes in which William and Adso explore its labyrinthine passages and chambers are some of the highlights of the book.

But The Name of the Rose is much more than just a medieval mystery novel. It is also a very detailed and erudite study of the religious history of Europe in the early 14th century, which I think is why some people love the book while others struggle with it. At the time of our story, the papacy has moved from its usual home in Rome to Avignon during a period of conflict between the church and the kings of France. From the very beginning of the novel, we are given page after page of information on the divisions within the church and the various orders and sects, such as the controversial movement led by Fra Dolcino, as well as lots of theological discussions on subjects ranging from poverty to whether Jesus ever laughed. The first time I read the book I found myself skimming over most of this to get to the murder mystery parts; this time, I tried to concentrate and understand the religious detail, but Eco’s style does not make it easy to absorb the facts and I admit there was still a lot that went over my head.

I enjoyed my re-read of this book, although I’m not sure whether I really got much more out of it than I did on my first read. I did love revisiting the library scenes, the descriptions of monastery life, and the characters of William and Adso. I have never tried reading any of Umberto Eco’s other books, but maybe I should. Does anyone have a recommendation?

The Lady Agnès Mystery Volume 1 by Andrea Japp – #WITMonth

I hadn’t made any plans for taking part in Women in Translation Month, but when I came across this book which had almost disappeared into the black hole of my Kindle, I decided to join in. Andrea Japp is a French crime novelist and this, the first volume of her Lady Agnès Mystery (originally published in 2006), has been translated into English by Lorenza Garcia. Japp herself is also a translator and produced the French translations of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta novels, which I think makes her a perfect choice for Women in Translation.

There are actually two books included in this volume – The Season of the Beast and The Breath of the Rose – but they do not stand alone and although they can be bought separately, there is not much point in reading one without the other. Together, the two books tell the story of Lady Agnès de Souarcy, a young widow living in 14th century France with her eleven-year-old daughter Mathilde and ten-year-old Clément, a servant’s child whom she has raised as her own son. Left with only a small dowry to live on, Agnès is struggling financially and reliant on the support of her half-brother, Eudes de Larnay. Unfortunately she and Eudes have always had a difficult relationship and when Inquisitors arrive in the area to hunt down heretics, Eudes sees this as the perfect opportunity to rid himself of his troublesome sister.

Agnès may have some powerful enemies but, unknown to her, she also has some powerful friends who are prepared to do everything they can to protect her from the horrors of the Inquisition. But is there any connection with the murders that have been carried out on Agnès’s land – dead bodies which have been discovered with the letter A marked on the ground beside them – and with the poisoning of several nuns at nearby Clairets Abbey? It seems that all of these things must be linked..but how?

The Lady Agnès Mystery is a book with many layers. First, there’s the richness of the historical setting. Set in the Perche region of France in 1304, the story takes places at a time of religious conflict and of power struggles between King Philip IV the Fair, his various advisers and their rivals, and the two religious orders, the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller. We meet characters who belong to each of these groups and are given a range of different views and perspectives. It’s exactly the same period of history as I’ve previously read about in Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series and I loved revisiting it here. If you’re not familiar with this period, though, it shouldn’t be a problem; everything you need to know to understand the story is clearly explained in the text – and if you do want to know more, there are several appendices at the back of the book which provide definitions, explanations and brief biographies of historical figures.

This is not a dry, heavy read, though. There’s always something happening – a clandestine meeting in a dark tavern, a coded message being deciphered or a hidden room being explored, not to mention the vivid scenes depicting Agnès’s ordeals at the hands of the Inquisitors. My favourite aspect of the book was the mystery surrounding the deaths of the nuns…I particularly enjoyed watching the apothecary nun Sister Annelette using her knowledge of plants and herbs to try to catch the murderer.

So far so good. However, there is another storyline involving the Knights Templar, a secret prophecy and a missing manuscript which didn’t really interest me at all. I thought there was already enough going on with Agnès’s personal story and the murder mystery…and I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds it difficult to read this sort of storyline without making comparisons with The Da Vinci Code.

Volume 1 ends, not on a cliffhanger exactly, but with some of the many plot threads still unresolved. I would like to know what happens next to Lady Agnès and her family, and I would love to see more of the nuns of Clairets Abbey, but I have a feeling Volume 2 will be dominated by the prophecy storyline. Will I read it? At the moment I don’t think so, but I could change my mind.