It is not every day that you come across a set of stories exclusively based on unlocking locked room mysteries, impossible crimes and breaking unbreakable alibis.

Each of these scenarios are, individually, extremely challenging for most mystery authors – and they are, perhaps, best tackled alone. But what makes The Red Locked Room – a collection (translated by Ho-Ling Wong) of short stories from influential Japanese crime fiction author Tetsuya Ayukawa, the pen name used by Toru Nakagawa – special is that it manages to incorporate, with aplomb, all of the aforesaid elements to craft engrossing tales of crime and detection.

In his introduction to the book, author Taku Ashibe cites Ayukawa as one of the luminaries of the honkaku (literally, ‘orthodox’ or ‘standard’) mystery genre – a school of writing that strove to recreate ‘classic fair-play mysteries’ in Japanese settings with a more local flavour. Not surprisingly, therefore, Ayukawa seems to be particularly inspired, both in his choice of detectives and narratives, by John Dickson Carr and Freeman Wills Crofts.

A luminary of honkaku

The opening story, “The White Locked Room”, is Ayukawa’s take on the classic no-footprints-in-the-snow theme. A professor turns into a victim in a sealed house surrounded by snow, as a student of his watches helplessly as his mentor suddenly bleeds to death. The catch is, if the victim is truly innocent, then this is an impossible crime. Sounds familiar? Of course, it does

Seasoned readers will not miss the story’s similarities with Carr’s The Three Coffins. The way the story unfolds – the ‘accidental’ nature of the man’s death, the timing of the snowfall and its role in ‘obscuring’ and ‘revealing’ puzzling footprints and the importance of the witness’ actions in it all – reeks of Carr’s masterpiece, but not quite. There’s an ingenuity and precision to the solution, delivered in cryptic forecasts by the detective at key moments in the story, that does away with the superfluous, slightly unbelievable elements of Dr Fell’s exposition in The Three Coffins. And while Ayukawa’s detective, Ryūzō Hoshikage, is clearly based on Gideon Fell and/or Henry Merrivale, the scoreline here is evident: Ryūzō Hoshikage - 1, Dr Fell/Henry Merrivale - 0.

The following story, “Whose Body?”, introduces us to Ayukawa’s other sleuth, Chief Inspector Onitsura. He is modelled after Croft’s character, Inspector Joseph French – and like him, Onitsura too specialises in cracking unbreakable alibis. “Whose Body?”, one of the highlights of the collection, has Onitsura in charge of a sensational case that starts well before the first corpse surfaces. Murder weapons – a gun, an empty bottle of sulphuric acid and a rope – are sent anonymously to three seemingly unrelated people at random. It seems to be a prank till the first victim is found, shot by a revolver. Thereafter, the story advances, thriller-like, almost at a pulpish, breakneck speed – very unusual considering that it is set in the mould of a police procedural. More deaths follow, through strangulation and burning – and it would seem that the weapons sent were not pranks, but a foreshadowing of things to come.

Yet, for all its pace, Ayukawa expertly deceives readers every step of the way with small touches. Every element, however small, matters from the very beginning – and you’ll wonder what elementary part you have missed that has led you to be trapped in Ayukawa’s illusionary trap. Is it the character traits of the people involved? Or is it a part of their conversation that you have overlooked? Is there any significance to the props and weapons used? Were you not able to keep track of the spaces in which the action unfolded? Was it too convoluted for you to figure out a correct timeline of events? Or were you unable to see through the confusion surrounding identities? Rarely do police procedurals even aspire to be this absorbing.

“The Blue Locked Room” is less ambitious in its conception and scope. On the other hand, it’s a good example of how instinctive thoughts and actions (in comparison to premeditated ones) can also make for puzzling plots. The culprit makes effective use of the space and time at hand to kill a much-hated theatre personality and then arrange it in a way that makes it seem like a locked-room murder case with outside interference, But, even his machinations cannot fool the great Hoshikage who comes up with an answer that reinforces a central tenet in detective fiction: “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” All in all, a story that is, in equal parts, Christie-esque, Holmesian and Queensian.

“Death in Early Spring” features Onitsura at his alibi-cracking best. Ashibe singles out this story as an illustration of why Ayukawa was a master of both locked room mysteries and alibi deconstruction stories. For Ashibe, the story is also a validation of Ayukawa’s belief that “an alibi is basically a locked room in time” and that “a locked room on the other hand is an alibi in space.”

However, the real reason this story stands out for me is that it highlights the mystery genre’s enduring love affair with travelling (short- and long-distance), the railways and timetables. Much in the tradition of Crofts’ novels, and taking hints from The Cask in particular, “Death in Early Spring” has Onitsura solve a murder in an abandoned building where it is impossible for the only suspect to have been present at the time of the crime. The resolution is a validation of Onitsura’s tedious but extremely meticulous style of investigation – he refers to timetables frequently and undertakes multiple train journeys (literally stepping in the shoes of both the victim and the culprit) to unravel the discrepancy of a role reversal and the source of deception that made the impossible possible.

Much like “The White Locked Room”, “The Clown in the Tunnel” has an element of fortuitousness that dilutes, somewhat, the precise, premeditated nature of the plot. But the problem it poses is an interesting one – how does a man dressed as a clown disappear in the middle of a long, straight tunnel/passage watched on both ends after attacking people and killing one in a house full of musicians? The way the story pans out is Christie-like (you may notice, above all, a collusion between most of the characters), but Hoshikage’s intervention once again shows the careful skill with which Ayukawa time and again interweaves and blurs the boundaries between ‘locked rooms’ and ‘alibis’ of time and space.

“The Five Clocks”, a story Ayukawa apparently wrote at the behest of Edogawa Rampo (the father of Japanese crime fiction), has a most imaginative plot. It involves a man manufacturing his alibi using five different clocks in different locations, some set apart by quite a distance – and making a scapegoat out of his friend, who becomes the chief suspect in the process. Onitsura saves the day again. But, with analog clocks, the story is very much a relic of the past and a product of the age in which it was written. One wonders, however, if this daring trick can be replicated in this day and age of digital clocks and the Internet Standard Time. A challenge for future writers, perhaps?

The last story of this collection, “The Red Locked Room”, is perhaps the most ambitious of the lot and involves the introduction of a dismembered body in an autopsy room with closed vents and no means of egress at the time it was brought in. Ayukawa is up to his usual tricks here, manipulating the reader’s perceptions of time and space and making deceptive use of the props and tools in plain view, but something didn’t quite click for me with this one. In parts, it all felt a bit too artificial, forced and careless for my taste.

Stretching the limits of locked room mysteries

Some occasional quibbles aside (the outdated, conservative and quite unnecessary socio-cultural commentary in certain sections, for instance), this is quite a competent selection of short stories that I see making it to other future mystery anthologies. As fans of the genre, we tend to harbour certain expectations while reading a work – the plot, the characterisation, the settings and the messages, for example – and we usually want all of these elements, of the correct quality, in the right measure for our complete enjoyment. However, there’s a completely different kind of enjoyment to be had when one sees a master author devote their energy and thoughts in exploring, to the utmost, particular themes and aspects only – just as Ayukawa has done by stretching the limits of what’s possible in the realms of locked room mysteries, impossible crimes and alibi-deconstruction stories. Which is to say, read and enjoy The Red Locked Room for the puzzles it presents and its celebration of the wonders of logical reasoning; do not expect to find much by way of compelling motives and well-defined characters in these stories – those are best left for another book.

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