Monday, August 2, 2021

Dungeon of Doom

Deep into that darkness peering, 
long I stood there, wondering, fearing
"The Raven"

Unless they're pocket re-releases, I seldom get new books right away on release, but today's book was of course an exception!

Life for members of Shinkou University's Mystery Society changed drastically ever since their encounter  with Kenzaki Hiruko, a second-year student who, unknown to the public, has solved many criminal cases over the course of her life and who has the tendency to get involved in dangerous murder incidents. Earlier this year, they got involved in a murder case happening in a pension near Lake Sabea during very unusual circumstances and a few months later, they got involved in a murder case in a remote, mountain settlement involving a woman who could predict the future. The connection between these cases was not only the involvement of the Mystery Society, but more importantly, the unique circumstances surrounding these incidents were the direct result of research conducted by a suspicious organization that was dismantled many years ago, but much of the organization's research data has disappeared together with members of the organization. Hiruko has been on the trail of this research data ever since the incident at Lake Sabea and now she's been approached by Narushima Touji, director of the medical firm Narushima IMS West Japan. He reveals to her that Narushima IMS was actually a financial sponsor of the organization some generations ago, but having learned what horrors they have produced, he hopes he can retrieve the stolen research data to prevent more harm, while at the same time keeping his company's involvement a secret. Narushima has discovered where one former researcher of the organization is hiding with his research data: inside a theme park. Umagoe Dream City is a small, regional theme park that is old, worn down and hopelessly outdated, but that's actually why it's become popular lately, as it's presented as "a living ruins" theme park. The park is run by Akishima Industries, owned by a Saitou Gensuke, but in reality he's Fugi Gensuke, one of the missing researchers. Fugi actually lives inside the theme park, in what once used to be the haunted house attraction, and he never leaves this place, staying cooped up inside his spacious manor all day. Narushima also explains that there are creepy rumors surrounding Fugi's house: apparently, once in a while, employees who are staying illegally in Japan, or otherwise have a dubious past, are summoned to the owner's home in the middle of the night, only to never return. Narushima's plan depends on this: he has secured the help of an illegal immigrant working in the park who is told to present himself tonight at Fugi's home. Narushima has hired a team of mercenaries and together with Hiruko (who has the tendecy to attract trouble, meaning they're likely to stumble upon *something*) and narrator Hamura, he wants to break into the haunted house and force Fugi to give up his research data. 

The operation goes as planned initially: with the help of the employee, the team breaks into the house and they quickly subdue Fugi and his two servants. The haunted house only has one entrance, operated by one single, specially made key which also operates a few strangely placed gates in the house.  Fugi is told to show them his research data and Fugi leads them deep into the underground floor of the haunted house... when they are attacked by *a certain threat*. Even the mercenaries, with all their weapons and experience on the battlefield, are hopeless against *it* and some of them are killed and decapitated on the spot. In the chaos, everyone flees in different directions and they all hide in different places during the night, hoping *it* will not find them. Realizing they are no match for *it*, they want to leave the haunted house, but this is impossible: the person who was keeping the key operating the single door and the gates which were keeping *it* locked inside its part of the haunted house, was killed deep within *its* territory, in the annex of the haunted house. His remains, and the key are lying there, but it'd be pure suicide to enter the annex part of the house. They also realize they can't just break out of the house, because that would release *it* into the theme park, and would lead to many more victims. As they try to figure out a way to escape, more of the survivors are found killed and decapitated in the haunted house, but slowly the suspicion arises that some of these deaths weren't caused by *it*, but by someone trying to pin the murders on *the threat.* But how could any one of the survivors commit these murders despite *it* roaming around the haunted house? And more importantly: why should the survivors worry about a few murders when there's an unstoppable force roaming around intent on killing you in Imamura Masahiro's 2021 novel Kyoujintei no Satsujin ("The Murders in the House of Maleficence")?

Imamura Masahiro's 2017 debut novel Shijinsou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead") was absolutely fantastic, the sequel Magan no Hako no Satsujin ("The Murders In the Box of The Devil Eye", 2019) also made brilliant use of a supernatural setting to present a very original mystery story, so as you can guess, I was really looking forward to the third novel in this series, which was released last week (July 2021). Kyoujintei no Satsujin follows the same formula we've grown used to by now: the book combines a classic, closed circle murder mystery story with unique circumstances: a supernatural/unnatural phenomenon that threatens our cast, used cleverly to present an original, and more importantly entertaining, detective novel. The closed circle situation is thus not *just* a storm that has cut an island off from the mainland, or a snowstorm raging outside, but something much more threatening because it's basically supernatural, while at the same time, a classic puzzle plot murder mystery is also at play and the core mystery plot makes cleverly use of the supernatural elements to create a story that really couldn't exist without those abnormal elements: it sets clear rules about what the *supernatural element* does and does not do, giving you both possibilities and limitations as you try to deduce who committed the murders.

Kyoujintei no Satsujin's core premise feels similar to the first novel, as the *threat* in the haunted hause poses once again a very physical kind of danger to the cast of members within a closed circle situation, and they literally have to run for their lives and find safe places in the haunted house to stay alive, while at the meantime one of the group is also killing some of the survivors amidst this chaos. As I was reading this book however, I had to think especially of video games. Perhaps it's because of the floorplan of the haunted house presented at the start of the book, shown at a slight angle, reminding me of a map in a videogame. The *threat* that is endangering the lives of the people locked up in the haunted house also reminds of a certain, famous game and the setting of the haunted house itself already feels very much like a video game, especially as the map is "updated" a few times with new discoveries made and the design of some spots of the map feel like they come from video game design grammar, with choke points and a maze-like design. You'll be checking the floorplan a lot while you read this book, which some people may not like, but I quite enjoyed slowly learning the various points of interest of the map.

I'd perhaps say that Kyoujintei no Satsujin as a thrilling experience, is perhaps the best of the three novels. While the idea of a physical threat is similar to the first novel, the mystery aspect of the plot of Kyoujintei no Satsujin is not as end-loaded as that novel, meaning the thrills of the book don't only come from the physical threat, but also from seeing the mystery develop over time. With that, I don't just mean that more murders mean more mystery. Kyoujintei no Satsujin actually shows more puzzle pieces and puzzle solving throughout the story, whereas in Shijinsou no Satsujin, they did talk a lot about solving the mystery throughout the novel, but the actual solving of parts of the mystery mostly happened at the end, with the earlier parts being discussions on possibilities which were then discarded. In Kyoujintei no Satsujin, Hiruko wil solve some parts of the mystery early in the novel, which will make think of certain characters/circumstances in a certain way, which again shine a different light on future murders etc. Because the mystery solving doesn't only happen at the end, but throughout the story, the reader who's looking for a good detective story doesn't have to wait all the time until the end. The closed circle situation is also very interesting this time, as part of the problem is that while the survivors could technically force their way out of the haunted house by breaking down the draw bridge of the haunted house (which is now drawn), it'd mean setting *the threat* loose in a theme park, so they hesitate leaving the closed circle situation in that manner. There are also a few intermezzo's which put the unfolding events in a different context, so with the current predicement inside the haunted house, the frequent mystery solving and the intermezzo's, the reader is always being presented something to keep them hooked. Personally, I don't mind having to wait until the very end to read a long explanation of the whole case, but I think that in general, this novel is better at juggling the various elements in a balanced manner compared to the previous two novels, and the dramatic subplot these novels always had, is perhaps done best in this one too.

I wonder if there'll be plans for a live-action film based on this novel? It'd actually make for a better film than the second novel and I liked the first movie adaptation a lot, so I'd love to see a sequel to that...

Looking at just the core mystery, I do think Kyoujintei no Satsujin won't appeal to everyone right away. There is little doubt about who committed some of the murders, as *it* decapitated the poor saps right in front of the others. But there are a few decapitation murders which seem clearly to be committed by someone else and not *the threat*, but under seemingly impossible circumstances: at the suspected time the body was decapitated in the underground floor, *it* was roaming there around looking for targets and in order to bring the knife used to decapitate the victim to the location where the body was found, one would have to somehow pass by *it* unseen (despite the choke point on the floorplan) and unheard (the survivors had placed glass fragments everywhere to make sure they could hear where *it* exactly was whenever it moved, meaning nobody could've walked there unheard). It's a very technical impossible situation, where you have to keep it clear for yourself where everybody was at what time, where *it* was and everyone's exact movements across the map, which might not appeal to everyone. The solution for this murder does make clever use of the unique circumstances of the story and the particular characteristics of *it*, but unlike the previous two novels, one could argue that the precise workings of these particulars (what works, and what doesn't) isn't as clearly described this time, so it's hard to tell how fair this feels. I really like the idea of how the impossible situation was pulled off though, and it's definitely a solution to an impossible situation that could only work on this novel due to its unique story. In puzzle plot mysteries with a supernatural theme, it's important to make clear to the reader what the "rules" are, but as mentioned before, the rules surrounding *the presence* in Kyoujintei no Satsujin aren't immediately clear to the reader, because *it* does follow a specific archetype directly, so it's harder for the reader to imagine right away what's possible and what's not. That was slightly disappointing, because in the previous novels, Imamura really succesfully managed to incorporate the supernatural in a way the reader could instinctively understand and guess what was possible and what's not. Here the reader must be much more careful to make sure they understand what is possible exactly. There's not one truly grand situation or some revelation that turns everything around in terms of the mystery plot in this novel, but as I said before, there are a lot of minor mysteries solved throughout the story and together they form a satisfying novel (I like the solution Hiruko thought off to retrieve the key for example). Overall, Kyoujintei no Satsujin is perhaps plotted not as tightly as the previous novels and there are a few times where the hand of coincidence and contriveness feels rather obvious (the reason why there's an impossible murder in the first place...), but there's still more than enough to entertain the genre fan.

I would not recommend you read this book without reading the first two novels first though. The book builds on the events of the previous novels and while it does not outright spoil them, the three novels do form one chronological narrative together and references are made to previous events and some of the events that unfold here, even shine a different light on what happened in the first two books. And there's a cameo at the very end of the book that won't make any sense at all unless you have read the first book, so you'll definitely want to read this in order.

Kyoujintei no Satsujin is another solid entry in the series. It does not stray from the formula, so it might lack the oomph the first novel had, but it's still a very good, entertaining detective novel that uses its absolutely unique setting to present a tale of mystery that you won't find anywhere else. I think that in terms of solely the mystery, it's not as tightly written as the previous novels, but as a thrilling experience, I think this one may be the best balanced one yet. It's also clear that Imamura is really expanding on the universe, so it will be very interesting to see what will happen in a future entry. I hope we may see a fourth novel in two years again. 

Original Japanese title(s): 今村昌弘『兇人邸の殺人』


  1. Sounds more like a House of Hell.

  2. "I would not recommend you read this book without reading the first two novels first though."

    That should not be too difficult to do considering the criminal absence of translations. The Murders in the Villa of the Dead is still on the very top of my wishlist of Japanese mysteries that need to be translated.

    1. So obviously, they'll start translating these books starting with this third entry, just to mess with everybody, right? :D

    2. Sure, if they want to have their face edited with a Japanese dictionary. :)

  3. Like the novels that came before it, this sounds like a really fun mystery. I'm now looking forward to the inevitable translation of this series even more strongly. I like the sound of how reliant on the map it is. I feel like maps are often underutilized, so it's nice to have reason to refer back to it frequently.

    The concept of the characters being stalked by some monstrous presence sorta reminds me of Kotou no Raihousha, incidentally.

    1. I think I mentioned it before in a post, but I love mystery video games that make use of the ability to show of 3D spaces in an easy-to-grasp manner for their mystery plot. Ultimately, it's pretty hard to show off some ideas in a book, but games like Danganronpa have done pretty cool things by using space (and the accompanying maps) in their (impossible) murder plots. Which suddenly makes me realize why it makes so much sense that Kitayama helped with plotting the third Danganronpa game and wrote the Danganronpa Kirigiri novels, because using 3D space is really his thing...

      Funny thing, I was thinking of Kotou no Raihousha too, but this book is not as focused on the question of 'what is this thing for heaven's sake and what can it do?' I don't describe *it* in this review, but there's a really easy word to describe *it* actually ^_^'

  4. I was eagerly awaiting the review, and it's good to hear that 兇人邸の殺人 is the strongest of the series in terms of being a novel. But it sounds like the strongest mystery or puzzle remains 屍人荘の殺人? 🧐

    I confess the premise of 兇人邸の殺人 appeals most to me, of the three instalments for the series, and I can only hope the Chinese translation gets released sooner rather than later; the Chinese translations for the first two novels in the series took about a year to be released. So I have about a year, hopefully less, to read 魔眼の匣の殺人, such that I can get started on 兇人邸の殺人 the moment it arrives in my mailbox!

    Not sure if I told you about how a bookseller sent me a teenage girl's magazine instead of the mystery novel I ordered. 😐 The replacement copy is arriving today! 🥳 But I'm still stuck in the early stages of ドローン探侦と世界の终わりの馆 by 早坂吝, due to a combination of busy evenings and a somewhat slow start to the story.

    1. Yeah, puzzle-wise I'd say the first one is still the best. I'm kinda hoping we'll get a short story collection one day, there's already one prequel story and I'd love to see more stories set in the 'normal' days of university before all the crazy stuff happens :P

      Yeah, I remember you mentioned a seller sent you the wrong book, great to hear that's been cleared up!