The Japanese Agatha Christie?

How to begin?

Maybe with an executive summary: The Decagon House Murders, a 1987 novel by Yukito Ayatsuji, is a locked-room mystery explicitly based (in two different ways) on Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel And Then There Were None. I enjoyed reading it—with a couple of reservations.

Let’s unpack that paragraph:

  1. The Christie novel referred to above is, to put it mildly, very well known: in fact, it’s the best-selling crime novel of all time and (according to some) one of the top ten best-selling books of all genres. (Do note that it has been published under multiple titles, sometimes as Ten Little Indians and before that under a title that I am not going to reproduce here.) It has spawned successful adaptations for radio, stage, television, and films.
  2. The six main characters in The Decagon House Murders are all members of a Kyoto University detective-story book club who self-consciously set themselves the task of spending a week at an isolated island with no transportation, no telephone, no (gasp!) internet access, in order to solve a murder that had happened there the previous year.
  3. I mentioned having reservations. Stay tuned.

The idea of a decagon-shaped house, with ten congruent rooms around a central decagonal hall, of course appealed to me as a geometry teacher. Its decagonality turns out to be relevant to the plot as well! Fortunately there’s a diagram of the rooms, as was relatively common in books of this nature during the age of the classic mystery. You may wonder why six people need ten rooms, but of course one room is an entryway, one is a kitchen, and one is a bathroom. That leaves six, right?

Well, seven actually, but who’s counting? You’ll have to read the book to explain the discrepancy.

A couple of matters may confuse you at first. The students all have noms that reflect fictional characters from Western literature—Ellery and Agatha, for instance. That device sets up some initial cognitive dissonance in the reader; the fact that you’re reading an English translation already takes away from the Japaneseness of the story, and the Western names only make it worse as you visualize matters in your head. It would be interesting to find out how a reader of the Japanese original perceives the story. Also, if you’re used to the American university system, some details may be jarring, such as how an undergraduate can be studying law or medicine. The plot is intricate enough to be confusing—but then again it’s based on Christie, so what else would you want? Plot twists are to be expected, even when you go in with the knowledge that the story is based on And Then There Were None, so you correctly have the expectation that the characters will be killed one by one. Finally, there is far too much cigarette smoking in this novel! Then again, it was 1987 Japan, so that’s probably realistic.

A word about the translation by Hong-Li Wong: for the most part it is seamless, though of course I don’t have the faintest idea how accurate it is. At one point the translator had to improvise, as the meaning at that point is dependent on a particular Japanese kanji character—the worst sort of nightmare for translators, but Wong handles it masterfully.

Categories: Books