Tetsuya Ayukawa is a forefront author of Japan’s Golden Age, often called “the honkaku mystery”. Not unlike the British Freeman Wills Crofts, Ayukawa is purveyor of alibis, time tables, and train-bound mysteries. However, Ayukawa stands out from his English progenitor with a unique twist: Ayukawa was fond of crossing the boundaries between the alibi problem and the locked-room mystery. By using alibi tricks to create impossible crimes and, inversely, using tricks from impossible crimes to construct alibis, Ayukawa was skilled at breathing new life into his tricks by placing them into novel situations!
He is an author of many short stories and novels, but out of his massive oeuvre only seven short stories have been translated, all by Ho-Ling Won and collected in The Red Locked Room in 2020. These seven stories are nearly cut down the middle, with four focusing on Ryūzō Hoshikage’s investigations into impossible crimes (“The White Locked Room”, “The Blue Locked Room”, “The Clown in the Tunnel”, and “The Red Locked Room”) and three focusing on Chief Inspector Onitsura as he investigates cases of iron-clad alibis (“Whose Body?”, “Death in Early Spring”, “The Five Clocks”). While the Hoshikage stories to be more straightforwardly classical Golden Age-styled puzzlers, the Onitsuras were more like those modern blendings of puzzle plot and police procedural enjoyed by Roger Ormerod and Douglas Clark, with the collection intermittently jumping between series!
It can be said that very few authors can beat John Dickson Carr at his game, and equally true for Freeman Wills Crofts at his. Ayukawa was quite ambitious in aiming for both, but can you confident claim he comes out the victor..?
“The White Locked Room” is the first story in the collection, in which Professor Zama is found stabbed to death in his snow-bound house, even though the only footprints around the house are those of his friend, who discovered the body, and his student Kimoko Satō, who is also on the scene! Worse yet, the absence of the fatal knife precludes suicide, so how could the poor man have been stabbed? The conventional police are woefully incapable of figuring out this seemingly impossible murder and are forced to defer to the expertise of skillful amateur Ryūzō Hoshikage.
I’m going to show my biases here, but I don’t like “no footprint” impossible crimes very much. They seem to have less variations on less concepts than any other established sub-genre of impossible crimes, and this story doesn’t prove me wrong. The solution ultimately turns on a minor redressing of a very old hat with few interesting touches. There’s a nice cultural clue that I’m proud to have picked up on, but besides from that I was merely whelmed with this first story.
The next story in the collection, “Whose Body?”, concerns itself with a series of mysterious packages that have found their way to a seemingly random group of people: to one man, an empty bottle of corrosive acid; to another man, a cut length of rope; and, to a woman, a recently fired gun! The supposed sender, a local painter, denies sending anyone any packages. The three boxes are understandably suspicious in their own right, but the three recipients are shocked with the news that a man was found in the basement of a nearby building with his head cut-off. The man was tied up with a length of rope, had his fingers burnt off with acid, and was shot through the chest with a gun… Those three packages each contained the tools used in a recent murder! Naturally, Inspector Onitsura is on the case.
The lion share of this story masquerades as a dull and slow police procedural, but the heart of “Whose Body?” is pure Golden Age! If you force yourself to break the solution apart into separate pieces, you could argue this is just a Lego-tower of old ideas, but then that wouldn’t be doing it justice. The killer’s plan in this story is brilliantly devious, performing an impressive feat of time manipulation with an equally impressively simple maneuver. It didn’t quite make my 30 favorite mystery stories list, but I know if I made a list dedicated to short stories then “Whose Body?” is an absolute shoo-in! Truly great stuff, this!
In “The Blue Locked Room”, a police officer is forced to intervene when a member of an acting troupe attacks his womanizing boss because the actor’s fiance slept with the manager! However, although the police officer walked the man to his room and instructed him to keep the door closed, the man somehow winds up murdered in his locked and sealed bedroom! How this impossible crime could’ve come to be, is a question left for the pretentious super-amateur-sleuth Ryūzō Hoshikage.
The culprit is the most surprising of any story in the collection, but I’ll admit it’s a surprise that feels somewhat unearned by the story surrounding it. The locked-room trick itself is a decent patchwork of old ideas with some clever twists, but all-told it’s not a very inspired story. Definitely an unfortunate follow-up to the superb “Whose Body?”.
The titular “blue” of the locked room is in reference to the fact the room has blue lighting, and it doesn’t matter as concerns the mystery, sadly.
We return to Inspector Onitsura in “Death in Early Spring”! A young man named Kazuomi Kokuryō has been fatally strangled at a construction site near Gofukubashi 3-Chōme! The only possible suspect is Fukujirō Fuda, who was competing with Kazuomi for the affections of a girl who, in reality, was interested in neither man… Unfortunately for Inspector Onitsura, Fuda has a perfect alibi, and so the Inspector goes about recreating the two men’s afternoons in order to bring guilt home to the obvious perpetrator!
An example of the impossible alibi problem, a type of impossible crime in which we’re aware of the culprit’s guilt, but not the method by which they manage to commit the crime with an unassailable alibi, “Death in Early Spring” is also Ayukawa’s jab at the old-fashioned Croftsian time-table alibi plot! And it is fantastic; a better example of the “time-tabler” condensed into hardly 20 pages, I’ve never seen! The basic crux of the alibi plot is reliant upon a concept so time-worn that any seasoned mystery fan would think of it during the course of the story and pray to God it isn’t the solution, and yet with his final twist on the knot Ayukawa manages to push it entirely out of the realms of possibility, and then pull it back out of his hat in a way that miraculously elevates it to sheer greatness that elates the reader despite his initial protests. The fact that Ayukawa can take this frustratingly tired and played-out gimmick and put a genuinely lovely spin on it with the story’s central locked-room-esque gambit is, frankly, impressive, and it’s a gambit I’ve seen done once or twice in other alibi plots but still genuinely love.
This was the story that made me come to terms with the fact that I was probably to going to walk away thinking more highly of the Onitsura stories on average than the Hoshikage stories, and this story wound up on my 30 favorite mystery stories list! Well-deserved, at that!
“Clown in the Tunnel” is the third of the four Hoshikage stories. Ryūzō Hoshikage investigates a bizarre crime: a clown, after committing a murder at a jazz band’s lodgings and tying up a maid in the kitchen, appears to waltz through a tunnel and disappear… The problem? On the other side of the tunnel is a roadblock put up after a traffic incident! It’d be impossible for the clown to cross through the tunnel without being seen by police, and yet he perfectly does! How did this clown perform this impossible vanishing act?
This story is frustrating to me. Not because it’s bad, no, not by any means is it bad. It’s the best story in the collection. But it’s frustrating to me that I basically wrote this story three years ago. I have an unpublished manuscript sitting on my Google Docs right now for a novel involving two impossible crimes, one of which relies on nearly the same principle as the one Ayukawa invented in this story. It’s worse because I sent the idea around to friends, very knowledgeable friends and brutally honest at that, and they all gave me their unambiguous approval that the story was original and clever, but I didn’t trust them! I was embarrassed of the silliness of the concept and let the novel rot in the cloud, never to again see the light of day!
And then I read “Clown in the Tunnel”.
If nothing else, “Clown in the Tunnel” is cathartic for me because now I know that, sitting on the other side, the idea I thought of really is good! A unique element to “Clown in the Tunnel” is the fact that it truly is the epitomizing story of the author’s ability to cross wires between impossible crimes and alibi plots. Despite the Carrian or Paul Halterian impossible crime premise of a clown who can walk through walls, the story, not unlike “Death in Early Spring”, involves a time table! And the time table is central to figuring out the trick for the clown’s disappearance… In the end, an alibi trick is utilized to construct an impossible crime and I loved seeing it from the reader’s seat, even if I didn’t trust the idea when I wrote it myself. This story ended up on my 15 favorite impossible crimes list.
“The Five Clocks” sees Onitsura return as he investigates the murder of an accountant who was apparently about to give evidence of his involvement in embezzlement, but is soon murdered in his apartment. The police have an obvious suspect in mind, but Inspector Onitsura has other ideas. However, in order clear the innocent man’s name, Onitsura has to battle with the fact that the true killer has a scarily airtight alibi: the killer, the the assistant division chief in the victim’s company, has an alibi proven by five different clocks (the clock of a restaurant he ordered from, the clock from a radio station, a witness’s wristwatch, a clock on the wall in his study, and a clock at his tailor). How could the killer have committed this crime with an alibi affirmed so neatly?
Another impossible alibi problem. The premise sounds like it’d be ripe for impressive time manipulation, but the eventual solution is wildly inelegant and not very interesting. The story essentially ends up five (at a stretch) different alibi plots melted down and stuffed together into a twenty page story, and the answer to each “clock” (alibi) is the exact first solution the relatively astute mystery reader will probably think of for each one. There’s more to “The Five Clocks” than the other stories, but more uninspired plotting is, frankly, worse. Easily my least favorite story in the collection.
And, finally, the finale Hoshikage story and the last story in The Red Locked Room is the title story, “The Red Locked Room”. A young female medical student is murdered and found dismembered in the little red brick dissecting room at the edge of her university’s campus, sole door to which was secured from the outside by a combination lock the combination to which only one (innocent) person knows. How could this violent and egregious crime have come to be? Ryūzō Hoshikage brings the crime home to the rightful culprit…
Apparently, “The Red Locked Room” is supposed to be one of the quintessential Japanese locked room mystery stories, but the quality of the story doesn’t quite live up to its apparent historical significance. While it’s not quite easy to spot the culprit, the locked-room’s trick should immediately occur to most readers with even a passing awareness of impossible crimes. It isn’t that the solution is particularly cliched or over-used, because it isn’t, but it’s definitely the easy answer to the provided set-up. There’s an attempt to misdirect away from this solution, but the misdirection is so underplayed that, ironically, the reader will probably forget about it and end up skipping to the correct solution anyway. Unfortunately, while the idea isn’t particularly unoriginal, it’s still a trick lacking in inspiration or cleverness and ends up just being limp and obvious as a result.
The Red Locked Room is something of an interesting collection because there was almost no middle ground in quality. Either the story was painfully lacking, uninspired, and uninteresting, or it was the opposite extreme of wildly brilliant and imaginative. While the quality of this collection is fairly uneven, the stories skewing good were immensely good and, for my money, more than compensate for their worse counterparts (which were mediocre, rather than outright bad). The better three stories (“Clown in the Tunnel”, “Death in Early Spring”, and “Whose Body?”) inspire me in my Japanese language studies to read more of this author, while the worse four I’m content writing off as unfortunate flubs.
While I’m not entirely confident I can say that Ayukawa bests either John Dickson Carr or Freeman Will Crofts in the overall quality of the work displayed here, I am happy to say that where Ayukawa does his best work he at least matches them momentarily. Ayukawa’s propensity for crossing-wirings between alibi plots and locked-room mysteries is shown off best in “Clown in the Tunnel”, which itself feels like a marriage between the works of those two great authors he is compared to, but “Death in Early Spring” equally display his excellence in this field.
Even if I only truly enjoyed three of the seven tales in this collection, I believe they’re more than worth the price of entry for The Red Locked Room! Do check it out if you have the time!
- “Clown in the Tunnel” – 9.25/10
- “Death in Early Spring” – 8.75/10
- “Whose Body?” – 8.25/10
- “The Blue Locked Room” – 6.75/10
- “The Red Locked Room” – 6.25 / 10
- “The White Locked Room” – 6/10
- “The Five Clocks” – 5/10