It's always nice when the book I'm reviewing is one that readers without knowledge of Japanese have a chance of reading. There are so few translations of Japanese mysteries. The translation to the book I'm writing about here isn't out yet (and I haven't seen it myself); but since it's been reviewed in Publishers Weekly, I take it that it should be appearing soon. 十角館の殺人(jukkakukan no satsujin, The Decagon House Murders, 1987) by AYATSUJI Yukito (綾辻 行人, born 1960) is one of the most famous detective stories in modern Japan, credited with starting the "new orthodox" (shinhonkaku) trend in Japanese detective fiction and rated high in lists of the top Japanese mysteries. The book had been translated into French, and will now be available in English from Locked Room International, translated by Ho-Ling Wong (whose blog you should be reading if you're interested in Japanese mysteries).
Ayatsuji is probably best known in the English speaking world for the horror mystery Another, which was adapted into an anime series. The Decagon House Murders is playing with one of Agatha Christie's most horror like novels, And Then There Were None. A group of seven students, all members of the Mystery Research Club, go to an uninhabited island for a week, planning to write detective stories for their club magazine. The island had belonged to an architect, NAKAMURA Seiji (中村青司), who had been fond of odd buildings, often with tricks and jokes built into them. The Decagon House, a separate house in the grounds of his mansion, is his own design. The mansion itself burnt to the ground when someone killed Nakamura, his wife and their servants. One of the servants, the gardener, was never found. Was he killed too, or was he the killer? Or could it be that the body identified as Nakamura actually belonged to the gardener and Nakamura is still somewhere at large?
The club members all identify themselves by club nicknames taken from the famous writers of western detective stories: Agatha, Orczy, Ellery, Carr, Van, Poe, Leroux. Alone on the island, they find themselves in a game of murder. One after the other is murdered to fill the appointed roles of five victims, one detective and one murderer.
Meanwhile on the mainland, two members of the mystery club have received letters claiming to come from the dead Nakamura and apparently announcing revenge for the death of his daughter, who had died of alcohol poisoning at the club's New Year's party. The story then unfolds in alternating chapters, as the students on the island attempt to solve their mystery, while the students on the mainland investigate the earlier case, trying to find out whether Nakamura really did die.
If you had to identify what the characteristics of shinhonkaku were from this book, it would probably be a matter of putting more value on the traditional trappings of mystery (the lonely island, the mysterious earlier case, the series of preannounced murders) than on the actual puzzle. This is not remotely a fair play puzzle, and if you read it expecting one you will be disappointed. It has one very nice trick, which a reader will probably guess at some point in the story (since it's a long book); but "solving" the mystery that way does not feel very satisfactory. It's an easy narrative to read though, and the alternation between island and mainland strands provides a nice variety.
You can read the opinions of other bloggers here (Ho-Ling) and here (On the Threshold of Chaos).