On My Shin-Honkaku Bookshelf – 12 Japanese Mysteries I’d Kill To Be Able To Read

It’s an open secret that I am deeply fascinated with Japanese mystery fiction. My passion for mystery fiction was fostered from a young age by (still genuinely fantastic) mystery video games like the Ace Attorney franchise. I was weened on the style and standard of plotting of shin-honkaku mysteries before I even knew what the term meant!

For a few years strong now, I’ve actually been studying Japanese with the explicit intention of becoming a professional translator of shin-honkaku mysteries — or, failing that, at least being able to read them myself. Over time, as I’ve collected novels to attempt to force my way through, my fascination with shin-honkaku mysteries has slowly become defined less by the translated novels I’ve already read, and more by the untranslated novels I will one day soon be able to read.

For the past few weeks I’ve been working on a few big discussion posts for my blog, since I haven’t done any big genre-spanning posts since On a Defense of Impossible Alibis and “Doylist” Impossibilites. These projects include a defense of modern pastiches of classical detectives in response to the negative pre-release reception of the new Marple anthology, a discussion on the genre of hybrid mysteries and why they’re an essential sub-style of mysteries to embrace, and a post on video games and why they’re uniquely capable of capturing the spirit of Golden Age Detection better than GAD itself — when done well, that is. These posts are eating up a lot of my time, and between them and school and reading Japanese novels, I haven’t had a lot of material to throw up on the blog lately! So, I decided to channel my languages studies into my blog and make this top ten list of every shin-honkaku mystery I desperately want to read, not only to remind myself of why I’m learning the language but to perhaps coax some of you into studying the language yourselves.

I set out to make this list with the following guidelines for myself:

  • Entries may only be:
    • novels
    • short-story collections written by a single author or consistent group of authors
    • individual short-stories
    • I will not include anthologies written by multiple authors, but I may select individual stories from these anthologies — with one exception being if multiple authors contributed to a single holistic project, such as a round-robin novel in the style of The Floating Admiral.
      • However, I may only pick one story from any given anthology.
  • The intention of this post is to highlight the sheer creative variety of shin-honkaku mysteries. Therefore, stories with unconventional premises were prioritized over more well-known mysteries or mysteries by reputed authors. These may still appear, but I didn’t want to make a whole post just talking about untranslated works from famous authors already covered by Pushkin Vertigo or Locked-Room International.
    • Furthermore, there is no works-per-author limit, but in accordance with this guideline I will prioritize authors with novel premises. The more traditional an author, the less likely you’ll see multiple books from them represented on this list.
    • If a series is defined by a shared premise, only one book from that series may appear on the list.
  • These works may not have translations in any capacity — this includes even bad translations by first-year Japanese students posted to Reddit. If it has an official or unofficial translation at all, it isn’t applicable, as the intention is to create motivation to study Japanese.
  • Video games, television shows, comics, movies, radio shows, podcasts, musicals, plays, etc. are not applicable. There are many, many, many good mysteries in every medium, but I did not want to dilute this post. Video games are already getting their own post, anyway, as the medium deserves it.
    • However, novel spin-offs of multimedia franchises are applicable. They must be original stories, and may not be adaptations of existing plots in the series.
  • Synopses will be written from a combination of reviews and book descriptions. I may accidentally extrapolate incorrect details, but I will do my best to keep it to strictly what I know for a matter of fact.

And, one fair warning… I tried to find a lot of these on my own, but quite a few of these are inspired by my reading Ho-Ling no Jikenbo, the blog of Ho-Ling, preeminent translator of Japanese mysteries. Even the few I did manage to find on my own I later discovered were covered on Ho-Ling’s blog well before I got to them — the man’s got all of his bases covered! If any of these stories sound interesting you, or you want to read more about Japanese detection, absolutely do check out Ho-Ling’s fantastic and informative blog for reviews.

With that all out of the way, let’s get to the 12 shin-honkaku mysteries I’d kill to be able to read… And perhaps, so would you!

The Cinderella Castle Murder (シンデレラ城の殺人) by Konno Tenryū (紺野天龍)

First up is actually the novel I’m reading at this very moment, The Cinderella Castle Murder, a murder mystery reimagining of the ever-popular Cinderella fairytale. Reading Masahiro Imamura’s zombie apocalypse-infused locked-room mystery Death Among the Undead has awoken a deep fascination with Japan’s breadth of “hybrid mysteries” — mysteries that combine elements from non-mystery genres — so expect this to be a minor trend in this list.

The Cinderella fairytale is hijacked by a murder mystery! When Cinderella is locked-and-sealed inside of a room, whose sole entrance is guarded, with the Prince at his ball, there is no way he should’ve wound up dead… And yet, he does; murdered, in fact! Being the only person inside of a room that was locked in three difference ways means that Cinderella is immediately brought to court and tried for the murder…

With nobody to defend her, the fast-talking and sharp-tongued Cinderella is forced to represent herself as a defense attorney, picking apart contradictions in the seemingly airtight testimony of the array of quirky witnesses who all seem to know for a definitive fact that Cinderella is guilty! Worse yet, her magic will wear off at midnight, revealing her true identity, proving inconvenient not only for herself but also her evil stepmother and cruel step-sisters… So the race is on for Cinderella to prove herself innocent before midnight, not only for herself, but also for the people who don’t really deserve it…!

This novel’s structure of picking apart witness testimony in a fantastical court has earned comparisons to my pet mystery franchise Ace Attorney/Gyakuten Saiban, so that is immediately fascinating for me! Konno Tenryū is not a famous author in the slightest, but well-regarded by a few of my Japanese friends who have read their works as a writer of fantastic magic-infused mysteries — including Ho-Ling, whose blog brought my attention to this particular novel.

The Locked-Room of the Alchemist (錬金術師の密室) by Konno Tenryū (紺野天龍)

Another magic-infused hybrid locked-room mystery by Konno Tenryū!? It’s more likely than you think…

In a world where magic works as a science of give-and-take, spells instead functioning by transmuting physical matter, the renowned alchemist Ferdinand is murdered inside of his lab, which is locked behind three steel doors which themselves require the palm-prints of Ferdinand and key members of his organization to open. Not only is it almost unthinkable that a magical being like an alchemist, who can transform any matter within his grasp into a weapon, could be killed by someone un-magical… it’s further unthinkable that any random person could bypass all of these security precautions… Therefore, the blame is immediately placed on the shoulders of Theresa Paracelsus, the only remaining Alchemist in the organization and the only one capable of using her alchemy to commit this murder! Emilia, our protagonist, doesn’t believe Theresa could be the killer, and sets out to solve this murder that, if not committed by Theresa, is utterly impossible…

It’s must easier to see how magic plays into the plot of The Locked-Room of the Alchemist than The Cinderella Castle Murder, which instantly makes it sound so much more promising as a showcase of Japanese hybrid mysteries and the unique way in which fantasy can inform a brilliant murder plot… This is the first in a series of ongoing series, and the sequel sounds even more fascinating than this one!

Locked-Room Murder Game – The Fool’s Mate (密室殺人ゲーム王手飛車取り) by Utano Shōgo (歌野晶午)

A fringe community of online mystery fans have grown tired of their immense powers of deduction and intellect on fictional murders… and have turned to committing perfect crimes in the real world! Using masks and voice-changers, these real-world murder masterminds share details of their exploits, and challenge each other to solve their crimes in this locked-room mystery short story collection…

A community of murderers who challenge each other to solve their crimes sounds like a natural evolution of the format of the “armchair detective club” popularized in Miss Marple’s The Tuesday Club Murders. Using the internet as the medium for these stories is even more interesting. It’s unclear to me how much the internet really matters in these crimes, but given that I’ve heard the stories are semi-serialized, it’s possible that some cross-story misdirection could occur with these crimes and the internet overlapping…

This is the first of two-and-a-half novels in the series, and is deeply fascinating, if only daunting because its first story is the longest by a sizable amount…

The Adventures of Rintarō Norizuki (法月林太郎の冒険) by Rintarō Norizuki (法月林太郎)

Rintarō Norizuki is, as can be divined from his detective and himself sharing a name, a disciple of the Queenian school of mystery writing. The few Rintarō Norizuki short stories that have been published in English are utterly brilliant, so to see more of the Eastern Second Coming of Ellery Queen would be a dream!

Unfortunately, I know very little about the stories in this collection, but there’s some interesting titles including “The Cutting Monster”, “The Cannibal’s Puzzle”, and “The Death-Row Puzzle”. Fascinating stuff, and I’m only sad I can’t say more about this one!

There is a New Adventures of Rintarō Norizuki, which has much less evocative titles, but nonetheless I’d be interested in reading! It seems like Japanese mysteries favor locked-room mysteries and impossible crimes, so if nothing else I’d love to see more of Japan’s take on non-impossible puzzle mysteries!

The Murder of Alice (アリス殺し) by Kobayashi Yasumi (小林泰三)

Ari Kurisugawa is haunted by dreams of a surreal land ruled by a Queen of Hearts. She dreams of nothing but this Wonderland and going on adventures with White Rabbits and Mad Hatters. One day, though, she is shocked by a dream in which Humpty Dumpty has a great fall… only, it wasn’t an accident. This is greatly distressing, but it only gets worse when she awakes and discovers that a student in her school has similarly died by falling off of the roof of the faculty building!

Once the suspicion of murder arises and Ari becomes the prime suspect in both worlds, investigating the deaths reveal that Ari’s not the only one to dream of Wonderland. In fact, as it happens, these “dreams” are a very real, shared world in which her and multiple classmates have met each other in the form of avatars! When it’s discovered that not only do real people correspond to people in Wonderland, but so do the events of the murder, Ari/Alice teams up with intelligent Imori/dim-witted Bill the Lizard to solve this cross-worlds murder mystery and prove her innocence!

This is the third hybrid fantasy-mystery on this list in which a woman is falsely accused of murder and must prove herself innocent, but somehow in spite of the three stories having this basic similarity they all feel like three dramatically different tales when they’re all laid out. As you can tell, this mystery is a reimagining of the children’s story Alice in Wonderland and is the first in a series of novels that utilize the same premise with difference stories such as The Wizard of Oz or The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. A mystery involving the interplay between two parallel stories set in different worlds is deeply fascinating, and the possibilities send my brain running!

“Whodunit Reception” (フーダニット・リセプション) by Morikawa Tomoki (森川智喜)
collected in Honkaku King 2022 (本格王2022)

Honkaku King is an annual best-of short story anthology series of all of the best detective stories published in a given year, as decided by members of the Honkaku Mystery Writers of Japan club. Ho-Ling’s review of this volume contained many fascinating stories, but the one that stood out the most to me was “Whodunit Reception” by Morikawa Tomoki.

The narrator and their friend accidentally destroy the unpublished manuscript for the last and final chapter of a mystery-story that is being serialized right now. In order to avoid getting into serious trouble, the two have to try and repair the manuscript. Fortunately, they’re able to save almost all of it… except for the parts of the story where the detective explains whodunit! By using the context clues of the surrounding text, the two have to fill in 17 blank spots to complete the story (keeping in mind, of course, that the only context they have is the final chapter and none of the rest of the novel).

This sounds like a puzzle/riddle-lover’s dream! I myself make it a rule to complete at least 10 puzzles a day purely for fun, so this bizarre little story in which the solution to a mystery story is itself the mystery story sounds compelling! A novel little meta-mystery I’d absolutely love to sit down with one of these days, with a fun concept, even if it’s not as far-out as some of the fantasy mysteries we’ve looked at! Every single other story in this anthology sounds fantastic though…

The Locked-Room Collector (密室蒐集家) by Ōyama Seīchirō (大山誠一郎)

My interest in this one has Ho-Ling’s fingerprints all over it. I first discovered Ōyama Seīchirō’s works through アリバイ崩し承ります (Alibi Cracking, At Your Service), a television drama adaptation of one the author’s other mystery collections of the same name. Alibi Cracking, At Your Service deals predominantly with “impossible alibi problems“, but other variations on alibi plots also appear, and the average quality of the episodes and tricks is quite high. Ho-Ling’s review of Alibi Cracking, At Your Service ended up directing me to his review of The Locked-Room Collector by the same author, and he speaks very highly of this one! The main defining quality of The Locked-Room Collector is that unlike the lateral thinking puzzle that many locked-room mysteries tend to be, all of the mysteries in this one are impossible crimes solved through pure Queenian chains of deduction.

While on a conceptual level this collection doesn’t seem all too interesting, I am previously acquainted with Ōyama Seīchirō’s work and already think highly of him as a plotter and can attest to his abilities!

Ace Attorney: Turnabout Airport (逆転裁判-逆転空港) by Mie Takase (高瀬美恵)

The Ace Attorney, with all of its bumps and warts, is my favorite mystery series ever. It is partially nostalgia, as this video game franchise is the thing that got me invested in Golden Age/(shin-)honkaku mysteries to begin with. But even then, going back and revisiting the series, where it works Ace Attorney has some of the absolute best-plotted mysteries ever written. The series’ gameplay cycle of being given testimony, and using evidence to find contradictions, explaining the contradictions, and then moving onto more testimony gives the reasoning an air of Queenian deduction chains. As a game series based entirely around the logic of statements vs evidence, the quality of cluing is quite high, and Ace Attorney boasts some of the most unique, imaginative clues I’ve ever seen in the genre! But this series is something special in Golden Age detection in a way that’s impossible to summarize in a few paragraphs, and deserves a post all to itself…

Truth be told, this entry is kind of cheat. I don’t care about Turnabout Airport specifically. The novel I’m more interested in is its immediate prequel, Turnabout Idol, but a fan has already translated the novel and posted it online, disqualifying it from this list… Nonetheless, Turnabout Airport is a standard Ace Attorney case, featuring defense attorney Phoenix Wright as he defends his subordinary Apollo Justice, who is accused of murdering a politician at an international airport! As a fan of the series who has been thirsted for fresh (good) content for nearly a decade now, these two novels are an oasis!

Word to the wise, the novels seem allergic to creating any more new characters than they absolutely have to, as both Turnabout Airport and Turnabout Idol feature exclusively recurring characters as defendants and prosecuting attorneys, which means the novels probably assume you have prior connection to these characters for the stories to work, so… Take this as my obligatory recommendation to go play Ace Attorney.

The 46th Locked-Room (46番目の密室) by Arisugawa Arisu (有栖川有栖)

I promise it’s a coincidence that I’ve gone of a tour of all of the Queenian authors…

Arisugawa Arisu is another author in the “Ellery Queen”-school of mystery writing, but his series have a bit of an odd gimmick: there are two Alice series. The Student Alice series and the Writer Alice series. Both Student Alice and Writer Alice are different people, and each are detective novelists. Student Alice writes novels about Writer Alice, and Writer Alice writes novels about Student Alice, while the real world Arisu writes about both of these men writing about each other…

I’m not confused, you’re confused!

I don’t have any particular interest in specifically The 46th Locked-Room, but more broadly I am interested in all of the Writer Alice series. The Moai Island Puzzle, which was translated by Ho-Ling for Locked-Room International, is the second novel in the Student Alice series. The 46th Locked-Room is the first novel in the Writer Alice. My main interest with this novel is not in its plot, but merely to compare the two series side-to-side and hope to understand why there are two Alice franchises…

Makabe is a detective fiction author known as “The Japanese John Dickson Carr” due to his output of 45 locked-room mysteries. The 46th Locked-Room therefore refers to his final novel, as he has produced multiple mediocre mystery novels back-to-back and intends to soon expand beyond the confines of the detection genre. Only, of course, he winds up murdered in a locked room himself!

Admittedly, of all the stories on this list, this is the one I have the lowest expectations for. Every meta-mystery where detective novels are a plot point seem to have the same annoying quirk I complain about in my reviews of Death Invites You and The Honjin Murders: fake evidence is produced with no meaningful explanations just to muddy the waters for no better reason than it’s a mystery novel! We gotta! I’ve never liked this type of red herring, and it seems to be the territory of meta-mysteries like this… But, nonetheless, I go into it with an open mind!

“Amulet Hotel” (アミュレット・ホテル) by Hōjō Kie (方丈貴恵)
collected in Honkaku King 2021 (本格王2021)

We return to last year’s Honkaku King anthology, in which “Amulet Hotel” by Houjou Kie sounds the most promising, in no small part because of Ho-Ling’s review of the anthology… In fact, Ho-Ling’s summary of the story is brilliant, and knowing almost nothing of my story myself I couldn’t do better if I tried, so here’s an excerpt from his review:

When a guest of the Amulet Hotel’s annex complains that the door to his room can’t be opened and it turns out even the owner’s master key can’t open the door, they break the door down: the door had been blocked by a serving cart jammed beneath the door handle. Inside the room, they find a murdered man and an unconscious employee of the hotel. Normally, this is time to call the police, but not in the Amulet Hotel: the annex of the Amulet Hotel serves a very special kind of guest, the kind of guest who likes their privacy very much, who doesn’t like the police and who will make use of the special hotel services like having guns delivered to their rooms. Everyone is a criminal here, so whenever anything happens here, the Amulet Hotel will “clean up” themselves. But while the Amulet Hotel does cater to the criminals, there are still rules they expect their guests to obey to, and the most important one is that they should never ever inconvenience the hotel. Hotel detective Kiryuu is asked to figure out whether the unconscious employee in the hotel room killed the guest, or whether someone else did and if so, how the locked room was created and once they know what happened, they will deal with things properly.

Ho-Ling’s review is glowing and this mystery sounds utterly brilliant and conceptually novel! Every story sounds like quality goods, though!

RPG School (RPGスクール) by Hayasaka Yabusaka (早坂吝)

This is the first anything I ever tried to read in Japanese that wasn’t a news article or a social media post. I still haven’t actually committed to finishing it, so it’s on this list purely because I feel like it the first novel I’ve ever tried to read in Japanese means I should get around to finishing it sooner rather than later…

In a school where everything functions under the rules of fantasy role-playing video games like Dragon Quest, the Dark Lord has taken control of the school and filled it to the brim with monsters! Only, of course, with all of this chaos going on with needing to save the world from a great Godly evil, people have found the opportunity to commit impossible murders like the murder of a student in an un-tainted coat of snow.

This book is another hybrid mystery, and in this one the puzzle is informed by the fact the entire world operates under the rules of a video game! As someone who loves RPGs, seeing a murder mystery somehow be derived from the format is exciting and fascinating!

“When the Snow of Dried Leaves Melts” (かれ草の雪とけたれば) by Kaburagi Ren (鏑木連)
collected in New Orthodox Detective Special – Banquet of Impossible Crimes (新・本格推理 特別編―不可能犯罪の饗宴)

This is one I was really proud of discovering on my own, only to just now find out while trying to find a synopsis that, yes, Ho-Ling already covered it… Sigh… I was already interested in the story from the title alone, but Ho-Ling’s review puts it over the top.

“When the Snow of Dried Leaves Melts” is an impossible crime story (one of many in this anthology) in which a man is murdered on the fourth floor of a real world government building. The only way out of the room was a ladder, which a man was climbing down and soon apprehended from. Naturally, his guilt is debated, therefore the question of how someone can commit this impossible murder comes into play, especially when this suspect helped create the impossibility himself…

Admittedly the premise sounds pretty standard for what the title was offering, but I’m actually glad Ho-Ling covered this one because it let me write this synopsis at all. His review is that the story is simultaneously brilliant and also bullshit, so I’m sure I’m in for a hell of a ride!

And there we have it, the 12 shin-honkaku stories I’d kill to read! I tried to capture a wide variety of stories, form, and genre without relying too much on just mentioning the big names, and I think I’ve done a fairly good job at creating a to-read list of Japanese detective stories, for myself and hopefully other would-be students of the language!

Already, I was fascinated with Japanese mysteries, but the more I learn the language and therefore the more I become acquainted with shin-honkaku mysteries the more deeply my fascination runs! I can only study day-in-day-out and hope one day I can become fluent enough to read all of these brilliant-sounding mysteries!

Top 15 Favorite Impossible Crimes – Revision 0

I’ve never liked making “top favorite” lists in genres where I am so painfully aware of how little I’ve experienced in contrast to how much of it still exists waiting for me. Making a list of my favorite impossible crime novels specifically felt impossible because I’m just so, so, so aware of how many likely very good locked-room mysteries are sitting in my to-be-read pile right now. It’s worse, in fact, since I’ve started studying Japanese and have become more aware of a whole new world of obviously brilliant mystery novels. My personal horizon is so narrow, but the potential is so broad and it makes me feel like any list I make will come off as pedestrian. That’s why I’ve labeled this “revision 0”; I’m confident that by this time in 2023 the list will look immensely different. Maybe 33% of the entire list will be traded out by that time, I’m sure, and there will be at least one revision

This list is media non-specific. Television, movies, video games, comics may all apply. This is also why I’ve also settled on 15, rather than 10, because in the making of this list I realized that it was hyper-dominated by locked-room mysteries from Japanese novels and non-novel media, and I wanted to make some room for good, accessible, western media too. I’ll also only include one full entry from an author, including honorable mentions if necessary. Having qualified my list and the title of the post, my top 15 favorite impossible crimes, in no particular order, are…

Death of Jezebel – Christianna Brand (1949)

Anyone who has ever spoken to me will not be surprised by this being my immediate first inclusion on a list of favorite impossible crimes. Not only is Death of Jezebel my favorite Christianna Brand novel, not only is it my favorite impossible crime novel, it’s simply my favorite Golden Age mystery novel ever written. Christianna Brand is in top-form at demonstrating her ability to build up entire false narratives and hoodwink you into them, to bait the audience into believing things without ever really saying or doing anything. A masterclass in misdirection, the murder of a woman in a locked-and-guarded tower during a play also features multiple grand mechanical and technical tricks that are clever, novel, and macabre. One of four Brand masterpieces that I think even people with no interest in impossible crimes should give a chance.

The Moai Island Puzzle – Arisu Arisugawa (1989), trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2016)

The impossible shooting that occurs in this novel is a very strong alibi trick, but as good as it is this element of the story is only a small part of what makes The Moai Island Puzzle so strong a contender for fans of mysteries-as-a-puzzle. Puzzles buried within ciphers wrapped within riddles and tied-up with lateral thinking problems are the name of the game with this novel that celebrates puzzles as almost like an artform. A brilliantly intriguing and cerebral mystery novel.

Whistle Up the Devil – Derek Smith (1953)

Cringe-inducing romance and overly-convoluted climax aside, this is a homerun of an impossible crime novel. The principle murder of a man conducting a ceremony within a supposedly haunted room is just a good offering, with a complex arrangement of what still amounts to a quick series of little tricks we’ve all seen before, obvious bits and pieces and sleights of hand, but nonetheless enjoyably convoluted. What elevates this novel from good to fantastic is the knee-slapping devious and blastedly simple alibi trick employed in the secondary murder in a police station that nobody ever walked into or out of, aside from two men who were in each other’s view for every point of time that mattered. This short story-length masterpiece hiding in an otherwise just-above-average impossible crime makes this well-worth reading.

Here I want to give a quick honorable mention to Derek Smith’s other novel, Come to Paddington Fair, which if you were to ask me probably has a more brilliantly-plotted and conceived central murder, and a much more unique trick. I neglect to mention it as a proper entry on the list, because I felt like when you realized that coincidence doesn’t exist in a deliberately-plotted world the beginning of the story spoils the resolution in such a way that it makes much of the ensuing investigation feel redundant. Come to Paddington Fair is a fantastic idea, but unfortunately relies so majorly on an early Christie-esque dodge that, if you’re not hoodwinked by it, ends up toppling the whole story and every misdirection that comes after it. I noticed the initial dodge immediately, and pieced together the rest of the plot before the story had even hit its stride, and that did dock a few points for me. I still heavily recommend it, because while I feel like it spoils itself by being too clever by half, I think I’d always prefer a too-clever-for-itself story to its dull counterpart any day — it’s novel, unique, and a very intelligently plotted crime novel with a very innovative take on how to establish an impossible crime.

Murder in the Crooked HouseSōji Shimada (1982), trans. Louise Heal Kawai (2019)

Sōji Shimada is the Japanese locked-room murder, well known for his output of well over 50 novels featuring locked-rooms and other various impossible murders. His other major impossible crime offering, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, which is also available in English is much more well-known and equally deserving of praise for its brilliance and grandiosity of mechanical scale, but I just adore Murder in the Crooked House. Sōji Shimada, I feel, is an author you’ll either adore or hate. His settings and solutions are brilliant and original, but also stretch credulity and highlight above anything else the puzzle. As a sheer lateral thinking exercise, Murder in the Crooked House contains one of the best impossible crimes in any novel ever, even if I can’t confidently say it’s one of the best novels containing an impossible crime. It is wholly original, complex, intricately-plotted, and taut, and a fantastic puzzle from end to end with a fantastic method for committing murder in a triple-locked room that more than makes up for its obvious culprit.

Time to Kill – Roger Ormerod (1974)

Roger Ormerod is an author who wrote well after the Golden Age had ended. Despite this, his novels had all of the fairly-clued plotting and cerebral misdirection and alibi tricks as a novel from the 1930s, blended with the aesthetic of a gritty contemporary PI novel. His debut novel is an impossible alibi problem — from the moment the murder is committed, we know who the killer is, but there’s one problem: the killer has an airtight alibi provided by the narrator himself and we have no idea how he committed this murder under such impossible-for-him circumstances. I used to think that there were only three basic explanations for the impossible alibi, but Time to Kill offers a fourth possibility that to this day is still my favorite explanation for this particular problem. It perfectly sets up Ormerod’s thorough and educated understanding of Golden Age-styled alibi trickery almost in the style of Christopher Bush — a lost disciple of the puzzle mystery that more people should be seeking out.

Till Death Do Us Part – John Dickson Carr (1944)

Despite being a self-styled disciple of the impossible crime problem, I’m actually incredibly ashamed to admit that my reading into John Dickson Carr’s oeuvre is very limited! My first review on this blog was me airing out how little I enjoyed The Case of the Constant Suicides. Aside from that, I’ve only read a small handful of specially-recommended Carrs, only around 10 I think. I’ve been so caught-up in reading other impossible crime novels that I’ve neglected to honor the master himself! Let this be a wake-up call to me to get back to Carr…

Till Death Do Us Part is absolutely the most brilliant locked-room conceived by Carr that I’ve read. Preceded by expectation, nobody needs to know what I have to say about this book. It’s damnably simple and clever, the puzzle is brilliantly conceived, the cluing clever and well-done.

Jonathan Creek (Season 1 Episode 2) “Jack in the Box” – David Renwick (1997)

Jonathan Creek is a late 90’s-early 2000s BBC drama featuring the titular magician’s assistant who uses his knowledge of stage illusions to solve locked-room murders and impossible crimes. I think the series is incredibly hit-or-miss, containing both some of my favorite and least favorite locked-room mysteries ever conceived, and it might be a little worrying that in Jonathan Creek‘s 17 year run I think the show peaked in its second episode ever…

There are more than a small handful of fantastic impossible crimes in this series, actually. The Christmas special “Black Canary”, the first episode of season two “Danse Macabre” are both also great, but “Jack in the Box” really perfected the formula right out of the gate with a satisfying and original explanation to the shooting of a man in a locked-and-sealed bunker that entirely inverts the very premise of a locked-room murder as a question of how the killer escaped from the room.

The Great Ace Attorney 2: The Resolve of Ryūnosuke Naruhodō (Case 3)
“The Return of the Great Departed Soul” – Shū Takumi (2017)

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a Japanese mystery video game series, one game of which I’ve reviewed on this blog. In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and all of its subsequent spinoff titles, the player takes on the role of a lawyer tasked with proving the innocence of clients falsely accused of murder. Using a point-and-click interface, the player investigates crime scenes, interviews wacky witnesses and suspects, and collects evidence. The next day, the player goes to court and is tasked with cross-examining witnesses who are either grossly mistaken about what they saw or hell-bent on seeing your client behind bars and deliberately lying. Through a series of simple question prompts, the player finds lies in testimony statements, presents evidence to expose the lies, and then is loosely-guided on a series of Ellery Queen-esque sequences of deductions and logic where the player explains why the lie was told or the mistake was made and then what the truth of the situation is. By the end of every case, the real killer is discovered and your client is saved from wrongful imprisonment!

In the spinoff series The Great Ace Attorney the format is shaken up by placing the player in the role of Phoenix Wright’s ancestor Ryūnosuke Naruhodō, a Japanese lawyer who teams up with the Great Detective Herlock Sholmes in Victorian London. The third case of the second game of this particular series is a very unique take on the impossible crime problem, inspiring one of my 15 categories of impossible crimes — the impossible technology problem!

Your client is a scientist who was presenting an instantaneous kinesis machine, a piece of technology that is capable of molecularly dissembling any human subject and then reassembling them somewhere else, allowing them to teleport from one location to another in the blink of an eye! Unfortunately, during the presentation, his assistant and test subject was teleported to the wrong location. While he was meant to be transported to the INSIDE of a nearby glass tower, the test subject was instead manifested a few dozen feet in the air above the tower, whereupon he fell through the walls of the tower. The police were summoned only to find the man stabbed to death by a screwdriver through the heart. Since the tower was totally inaccessible to anyone until the police arrived, it’s determined that the only person who could’ve committed this murder is your client, who must’ve stabbed the victim before teleporting him away. In order to prove your client’s innocence, you need to prove how the teleportation could’ve been faked! But how else can you explain a man moving hundreds of feet into the air in less than a second…

The solution to the teleportation isn’t at all difficult to figure out, but there’s a second and third puzzle hiding in the background of this case that makes it brilliant. The true explanation for the murder when you get past the impossible problem is genuinely shocking, and there are quite a few plot threads that connect this murder to an ages-old serial killing that the rest of the game’s narrative is concerned with. A brilliantly innovative presentation of impossible crimes, the method of connecting this subplot to the overarching narrative of the game is a masterstroke of writing, and a somewhat obvious impossible solution doesn’t stop the mystery from offering up some genuine surprises. One of the best cases from a very, very good mystery series.

Death Among the Undead – Masahiro Imamura (2017) trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2021)

One of the most defining features of the shin-honkaku movement that I feel like westerners don’t see from just the translations we get from Vertigo Pushkin and Locked Room International is the amount of authors who love to experiment with form, style, and genre without betraying the underlying and ever-present element of a complex, cerebral puzzle. Hybrid mysteries, the sort we get from Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi mysteries like The Cave of Steel, are even more present in modern Japanese mystery writing than they ever were over here! There are authentically Golden Age-styled mysteries written to take place within the confines of a world that operates under the rules of a fantasy roleplaying video game, or mysteries set within fantasy worlds. There’s a short story collection about a group of murderers who share stories of their exploits over an internet board and every story is a different member of the board. And then there’s Masahiro Imamura’s breakout hybrid mystery, Death Among the Undead, which combines the locked-room mystery with a zombie apocalypse!

Death Among the Undead is a brilliant piece of work with three absolutely stunning impossible crimes that all three offer up entirely novel and unique explanations to the problem of murders committed in locked-rooms either provided by or enhanced by the presence of a horde of brain-eating undead! This novel is an absolute jaw-dropper of plotting genius that can confidently stand with its head held high among any classic of the genre. It is no less a classic, puzzle-driven impossible crime story for the presence of zombies — in fact, I’d say it’s even more so, as the rigid rules that the zombies abide by offer an extra layer of complexity and reasoning. Simply fantastic.

Death in the House of Rain – Szu-Yen Lin (2006) trans. (2017)

Death in the House of Rain is a dangerous impossible crime novel, because its an idea that I feel like could’ve easily failed. It doesn’t succeed on the strength of its core idea alone, but on the framing of its idea through the personification of fate and fortune as almost its own character, which arguably is the true killer, above anyone else who might’ve committed murder in the story. The solutions to the three first disparate locked-room murders are all connected by a single thread that is very devious and devilishly simple, brimming with an original idea whose reliance on coincidence could’ve easily failed if not for the underlying theme of fortune. It’s, in fact, an idea I proposed in my List of 50 Locked-Room Solutions which people often privately criticized me for because no impossible crime existed which could claim to use the solution, so I’ll admit I’m a little biased from reading this book and getting that feeling of aha! I told you!.

A fourth impossible crime brilliantly rises from the resolution of the previous three as a connecting thread, and it’s just as good as you could hope. This novel is fantastic, but easily could’ve not been.

The Kindaichi Case Files Shin (Case 3) “The Prison Prep School Murder Case” – Seimaru Amagi (2006)

I actually know very little about the Kindaichi Case Files franchise or its sister series Detective School Q, having only organically read one or two mysteries from each of them. They weren’t bad at all, mind you! Honorable mention to Detective School Q‘s first proper murder mystery for being blindingly brilliant, actually! However, I was directed to this particular case by TomCat’s blog post on this very same topic, and reading it honestly reawoke my interest in the two franchises! This is ingenuity distilled into its purest form, plain and simple, with a grand, brilliant, and complex impossible alibi trick at the heart of it.

Both Kindaichi Case Files and Detective School Q are classic examples of the locked-room mystery puzzle plot in the realms of anime/manga series, and having read one of the best impossible crime stories of all time by sheer chance in these series I can easily recommend anyone and everyone to seek this series out and read it if they have even a tiny interest in locked-room mysteries. John Dickson Carr would be proud of these two detective series. I read this case in Japanese in the manga, but the anime adaptation is available in English for anyone curious!

Case Closed/Detective Conan (Anime-original, Episodes 603-605)
The Séance’s Double Locked Room Mystery Case – Chiko Uonji

Detective Conan, as I’ve mentioned on my post about the franchise, contains many classics of basically any form of Golden Age-styled plotting you can think of. Alibi problems, locked-room mysteries, inverted mysteries, Detective Conan could probably make a top 10 list of any of them. Between both the manga and the anime, Detective Conan has produced more than its fair share of strong impossible crimes, many of which could end up on a list like this. For anime-originals, honorable mention to The Cursed Mask Laughs Coldly, which I think is more inventive and innovative, but The Séance’s Double Locked Room Mystery Case narrowly won out for its intricate intertwining of two impossible crimes. A brilliant set of two locked-rooms that rely on each other for their solutions makes this case a stand-out for its uniqueness of plotting, and the solutions are nothing to sneeze at either, but trust me when I say there are probably at least seven other Detective Conan impossible crimes equally worth mentioning at some point or another…

“The Lure of the Green Door” by Rintarō Norizuki (1991) trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2014)

The standout story from international tour of impossible crimes, The Realm of the Impossible, “The Lure of the Green Door” is a locked-room mystery inspired by the premise of an old science fiction parable by English author H. G. Wells in which a man enters a green door to another world. In “The Lure of the Green Door”, a man is murdered in his locked-and-sealed study with a green door that isn’t locked but mysteriously cannot be opened… The solution is a physical trick that plays on an old concept, but it’s a startling unique take on the concept that I’m proud to have solved ahead of time. The scale of the solution is also great without detracting from the elegance of the trick! A masterpiece of the short-form locked-room mystery.

“The Clown in the Tunnel” by Tetsuya Ayukawa (1958) trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2020)

A clown commits a murder, is seen running into a tunnel, and then vanishes before he can appear from the other side!

Tetsuya Ayukawa is a Japanese author famous for crossing wires between impossible crimes and alibi problems. As the introduction to the The Red Locked-Room collection notes, Ayukawa often uses alibi tricks to establish impossible crimes, and locked-room tricks to establish alibis. This gimmick very often lends itself to old tricks being applied in unique, novel, and stunning ways, and “The Clown in the Tunnel” is the best example of this! An absolute stunning example of how an alibi trick can lend itself to an impossible disappearance, and one of the best stories from a very good collection.

“The Ginza Ghost” – Ōsaka Keikichi (1936) trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2017)

The Ginza Ghost is a fantastic collection of impossible crimes from early Japanese crime writer Ōsaka Keikichi. Despite it existing in the early eras of the honkaku school of plotting, this collection shows off an author who demonstrates marked ingenuity and genius, with ideas that are still novel nearly 90 years in the future. The best story in the collection is easily the title story, “The Ginza Ghost”, which features a murder inside of a locked tobacco shop where a woman appears to have killed another and then herself — however, mysteriously, the murderer appears to have died significantly before her victim, suggesting the presence of a ghost who committed the crime… Ordinarily, I don’t enjoy impossible crimes that rely so centrally on an accident for the illusion to function — I’m a sucker for cartoonishly intelligent criminal geniuses — but the accident in this case is so elegant, simple, and brilliantly unique that it’s impossible not to love it.

And there you have it, my 15 favorite locked-room mysteries, which is 66.6% Japanese, quite a few of which aren’t even from novels. I’m sure Ho-Ling doesn’t mind the free publicity. I don’t mind to seem biased, but there are just so many strong and ingeniously plotted mysteries in the Japanese honkaku and shin-honkaku schools of mystery writing… This list will definitely not last long, but I enjoyed making it.