Tuesday, July 28, 2009


「 さぁー。。。」 「それは密室が『トリックの王様』だから」、『名探偵の掟: 密室宣言』

"But despite that, locked rooms persistently keep popping up. Why is that?"
"It's because the locked room is 'the King of Tricks'", "Meitantei no Okite: Locked Room Manifesto"

While most people won't think there's any difference between one detective subgenre and another even know there are subgenres within the detective literature genre, they do exist and one is usually inclined to favor one subgenre over another. For me, when I usually talk about detectives, it is about books written in the style of Golden Age detective fiction. Golden Age detective fiction, which in Japan is called orthodox detective fiction is all about challenging the reader. The writer plays a fair play game with the reader, challenging him to solve the puzzle. In this style of books, logic reigns. More than any other genre, it asks the reader to be involved with the story, to actively think about what is written.

A locked room mystery is the ultimate challenge. A murder which occured in a closed space, without no apparent escape route for the murderer. The disappearence of someone from an constantly observed room. The body in a snowy field without any footprints of the murderer. Impossible happenings that did happen. And there is a perfectly logical rational explanation for it. Within Golden Age detective fiction, the locked room is truly "the King of Tricks". Which explains why books like this one are written:

有栖川有栖の密室大図鑑 (Arisugawa Arisu no Misshitsu Daizukan ("Arisugawa Alice's Great Illustrated Guide to Locked Rooms", also known as "An Illustrated Guide to the Locked Room 1891-1998")

I had been looking for this book by detective writer Arisugawa Alice (self-chosen romanization after the Wonderland character and he also uses a logo with a Cheshire Cat) quite a while and I luckily managed to pick it up the very last day in Japan (though I had decided earlier that week not to buy books anymore because of the weight of my bags and stuff...). It is a guide on the 50 most important and interesting locked room mysteries starting from 1891. Arisugawa describes the historical context, how the locked room looks like and luckily does not spoil the solution to it. Though books like this have been written earlier (like Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes which due to current market prices, is too expensive to acquire), this one is interesting in two aspects. One is that it includes illustrations of all the locked rooms mentioned in the book.

Roughly speaking, you could divide locked rooms solutions in two kinds: the mechanical one and the psychological one. The first one are the rope and needle solutions, for example MacGyvering intricate mechanisms to close doors from inside. The psychological tricks, which are my favorite, are used to make a room seem locked and make use of habits and blind spots of the human mind. The rope and needle solutions though often gain much from illustrations, detailed maps, because explanation in text is often not enough to truly get the picture (that's also why I think mechanical solutions work better in manga or TV-shows). Of course, there are stories where it doesn't make sense even with illustrations. The Chinese Orange Mystery, I still don't understand you.

Anyway. Illustrations. Good. The second interesting point about this book is that it also offers Japanese examples of the locked room mystery. For a fan of Japanese detective fiction not actually living in Japan, it's hard to find out which books are good, which writers are popular et cetera. Where in the West, "we" all know that Carr's The Hollow Man, Gaston Leroux' Le Mystère de la chambre jaune and Futrelle's The Problem of Cell 13 are famous and why, it's hard to find that sort of information on Japanese detective fiction in languages other than Japanese. As detective fiction is one of the best selling genres in Japan and many books are published every month, it is difficult to find out what's good, what's not and these kinds of books, though very specialistic, are great time savers. Of course, you'll have to be a specific sort of reader at any rate to even consider buying these kinds of books.... (actually spent some hours in Japan trying to create a locked room in my Weekly Mansion room. With rubber bands and strings and stuff. It's hard. Of course, this book is not nearly as geeky as the book by Arisugawa on how to make locked rooms yourself. Which I also have.)

The locked room mystery might not be the favorite sub-subgenre of everyone, but you can hardly deny its popularity. Ever since its creation, it has taken on many, many forms. And after more than 100 years, we still see new variations on the locked room. Hail "The King of Tricks".

Today's song: 浅野真澄 (Asano Masumi) - 論理の旋律は必ず真実を奏でる (Ronri no senritsu wa kanarazu shinjitsu wo kanaderu ("The Melody of Logic always plays the Truth")


  1. You're forgetting two important kinds of solutions for the locked room problem: the booby trap and the rearrangement in time and space, even though the former is not really popular among impossible crime enthusiasts, they lack ingenuity and feel like a cheat, and the latter can be fitted in the psychological category, they should've been mentioned (even if you're roughly speaking).

    There's also the impossible crime genre which I think really shows off the creative ability of the detective story (people found stabbed or strangled in the middle of a field of snow or wet sand in which the murderer didn't leave a single footprint, seemingly impossible disappearances in front of unbiased witnesses, houses and trains that disappear under equal baffling circumstances, murdering ghost's at seances and invisible unicorns that murder in full view, coffins flung around in sealed crypts and miracle mid-air walks, ancient curses and mythical creatures that kill, etc), but should be mentioned separately. Maybe an idea for a future blog entry, eh Ash? ;)

    Anyway, I'm a big fan of locked room mysteries and impossible crime stories, not only because they offer a real challenge to the reader, but also because of the eerie atmospheres they can create.

  2. Hi! I found your blog and it opened a whole world of possibilities to me. You're really doing an amazing job with these reviews: they're clear and readable even though to those who know next to nothing about Japan and Japanese fiction.

    Now, I'm writing my final dissertation on locked room mysteries and since I dedicated a small paragraph to the Japanese ones, my supervisor (who is a detective fiction enthusiast) was very much interested in the Arisugawa guide. There is even a chance that it will get translated to our language (Italian)! That's why I was sent on a mission to found a crucial information: how many pages is it long?

    Thanks in advance!

  3. I wrote many years ago a novel not yet published, with three locked rooms, I have written many stories with locked rooms, including three apocryphal Sherlockian, 2 quenian, 1 rawsonian.
    I write several articles of detective fiction. In Italy I have published a dissertation about the history of Locked Rooms (so far I got to the third party), and some articles about novels and short stories by Carr. And I have two blogs of detective fiction, one in Italian and one in English.
    I want to know one thing, since you share my passion: In Japan you to know which did authors publish Locked Rooms Novels containing Locked Rooms-Lectures such as those found in Carr, Rawson, Derek Smith, Boucher, Halter and all arising from the first in The Hollow Man by Carr?
    Thanks in advance!
    Pietro - Italy

    1. Hi, thanks for the question!

      These are the ones I know of (haven't read them all though). There are probably more, but these are probably the most famous (and there are also alibi trick lectures, no-footprints lectures etc out there...).

      Amagi Hajime - Amagi Hajime no Missitsu Hanzaigaku Katei (short story collection + essays)
      Awasaka Tsumao - Trick Koukyoukyoku
      Abiko Takemaru - 8 no Satsujin
      Maya Yutaka - Tsubasa aru Yami (motives for creating locked rooms)
      Nikaidou Reito - Akuryou no Yakata
      Komori Kentarou - Lawell-jou no Misshitsu
      Yamaguchi Masaya - 13ninme no Tanteishi (the 13th Detective)

      Komori Kentarou -  Geneology of Locked Room Lectures (Misshitsu Kougi no Keifu
      Edogawa Rampo - Categorization of Tricks (Ruibetsu Trick Shuusei)

    2. You Japanese are really unique!
      I'm beginning to think that Italy and Japan are more similar than you might think, except for a few things. In addition, Italy and Japan seems to be the only nations that continue to publish mystery in large quantities unlike the countries in which these novels were originally published, as if time had stood by us.
      The data that you provided me are very interesting. I expressed myself badly the last time: in Italy Mondadori publishing house has been publishing on the its blog (now I want to start a fourth part dedicated to Japan) not a history of the Locked Rooms, but a history of the Locked Rooms-Lectures, which in West has never been done. I thought I was the only fool on earth to have thought such a thing, and instead I see that Komori Kentarou has already done it. Locked Rooms Japanese have never been published in Italy (the only Japanese author of mystery has been published Edogawa Ranpo: I had the good fortune to read Inju, a novel that has been in my two blogs, Italian and English, reviewed).
      I ask you one thing I do not know if you can, but if I manage, I would mention in the next essay, I could send the scans of the pages of the novels that you mentioned (or the ones you have, in case you are not possessed them all) where there are dissertations on Locked Rooms?
      How would I go Komori Kentarou contact and exchange information on gender? Maybe I have mentioned the steps that he did not know.
      I see that in your blog roll is mentioned a site of Ellery Queen. Well, at that site there are two interviews, one at a Japanese, the other to an Italian. That Italian I am.
      Pietro De Palma - Italy

    3. Are there any Japanese digital libraries from which to download the free versions of some of the novels that you mentioned?
      I read your article on Abiko Takemaru for example, and I read that in the book you mention is a Dissertation created looking at Carr. I, before I found your blog, I was sure that Japanese authors had written dissertations, for love in Japan toward Carr is equal to the interest that exists in Italy. I wrote several essays on Carr, but the most important is that about The Third Bullet and about the strange similarities between this novel and the short novel The Bourning Court.
      Just in case you wanted to read them, even using the Google translator, here is the link of the Blog Mondadori (publishing house that publishes in Italy since 1929 Mystery novels, Hardboiled, Thriller) to the page that lists my essays and articles on the prestigious Italian site:



    4. Just to make one thing clear, I'm not Japanese ^_^'

      Komori Kentaro has a twitter account (https://twitter.com/komorikentarou), if you happen to be using Twitter. Also, John Pugmire (of http://lockedroominternational.com/), who is similarly doing research on locked rooms, used to have contact with him. John also has some summaries / rudimentary translations of Japanese stories / essays, so he might be able to provide you with translated data (though I am not sure to what extent your fields of speciality overlap)

      I don't know of any place where you could download the novels though.

    5. I know You aren't japanese, but chinoise.
      Ho-Ling Wong seems to me a name more Chinese than Japanese.Moreover, "Ma Ho-Ling" I remember was a big Chinese Communist political, is not he?
      However, if you are Chinese or Japanese, nothing changes. The preface you made to a novel by Edogawa Ranpo and you cite all the authors who are Japanese or am I wrong?
      By the way you are male or female? I would say female, but I may be wrong not seeing your own pictures and seeing only Pichachu :-)

    6. Ho Ling may tell me a thing John Pugmire has told me yesterday?
      John suggested asking to you the reductions in Japanese, of novels with Locked Rooms, with the extract which speaks of the dissertation. I do not care the time. Whether you can do within two months or within four, has no difference: it will only say that I will present the relevant article later than the time that I had expected. John told me, also: " I know that almost every writer of the Shin Honkaku school (except Shimada Soji himself) has included a locked room lecture in at least one of his books". The writers you wrote the day before yesterdaybelonged to Shin Honkaku school or belonged to other school? Thanks in advance!
      Pietro De Palma

    7. Abiko Takemaru, Nikaidou Reito and Yamaguchi Masaya are considered Shin Honkaku writers (the others date before the movement. However, it is exaggeration to say almost all writers of the school have done a locked room lecture. It's a relatively popular topic, but Ayatsuji Yukito, the formal starting point of the movement, has not written one AFAIK.

      And I'm sorry, but I really don't have the time, nor, at the risk of sounding rather blunt, the interest in making summaries / translating all locked room lectures from those books. I do occasionally post translations on my blog, and while I don't think I'll post locked room lectures (because there are too many and too 'alike'), I might do some more of the variations like the alibi trick lecture, or motives for locked rooms. Though that's definitely not something for the near future, and these translation are usually just posted in a whim, so no idea when/if.

    8. Do not worry.
      Did not want to exploit you, I just wanted to ask you some help. That's it.
      But that's okay. I will ask a help to some other.

  4. well, i don't know Japanese...

    do you think it will worth, for me to spend some money to get this book just for the figures? or is there anything else special?


    1. Well, if you don't know Japanese, the illustrations are really the only thing the book can offer you. And the figures do not explain the locked rooms, so you really just get a crime scene illustrations. So it becomes more of a novelty thing... not sure if it's really worth the money/trouble then.

      The cover in the post above is of the original release, but there is also a cheaper pocket version. Both are out of print AFAIK though (the pocket version is probably still relatively easy to find second hand, but again, hard to locate if you don't know Japanese).

  5. I really don't get why do The Problem of Cell 13 is that much praise

    I don't even think it's overrated, it's much worse: I think the solution of the locked room just plain sucks.

    I do like the other adventures of SFX Van Dusen though, he really reminds me of Sherlock

    1. True, the solution is not fair to the reader, but I love the premise: the idea that someone can escape a prison with just a good head. But to be honest, from the same time period, I prefer Lupin's escape from prison...