Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Secret of the Scarlet Hand

"That’s the result of all our Study in Scarlet: to get them a testimonial!"
"A Study in Scarlet"

The book of today has a gorgeous cover! This is the cover for the 2020 revised pocket version by the way.

Disclosure: I translated Ayatsuji Yukito's The Decagon House Murders.

Saeko's life changed the day she learned her parents who brought her up, weren't her real parents. As long as she could remember, she had always been Izumi Saeko, so it was a shock to hear that she was born Munakata Saeko, and that after an incident that took her parents and her sister's lives when she was still little, she was raised by the Izumis. The Munakata clan is an influential family in the city of Aizato, about two hours away by train from Tokyo, but there are few living members left: only Saeko's grandfather and her (childlesss) aunt Chiyo, which is why Saeko is now brought back to the Munakatas as the heir. As per family tradition, Munakata Chiyo is the current director of the Seishin Girls Academy, a prestigious boarding school that has prepared the girls in the upper-class society for their future duties for generations. As the heir of the Munakatas, Saeko too is of course required by her aunt to enroll in Seishin, but the moment Saeko arrives there she's having regrets. Unlike her old school, Seishin Girls Academy is located in the middle of nowhere, with gates keeping outsiders out and all the sudents inside. Saeko also quickly learns that life here is nothing at all like the free life she had always enjoyed: there are strict rules about how to behave, what to wear and what they can own and as a transfer student suddenly arriving in this new environment, she quickly also realizes there's a distinct hierarchy among her fellow students, with the 'madonna' Aya at the absolute top. Everyone here seems to have adapted completely to the strict life here, which makes Saeko feel quite uneasy. Saeko's roommate Kei on the other hand doesn't seem to fit in quite well with the other students, but to Saeko, Kei seems one of the few normal girls here. For some reason however Kei refers to herself as a Witch. With Kei as her roommate, Saeko seems to think she might make it through her time here, but only one day later, Kei is found dead in a special room in the dormitory whcih is usually kept locked: thirty-five years ago, a wealthy student of the academy stayed in this extra spacious room, and she too claimed she was a witch. But one night, she committed suicide in the bathroom and the room has remained sealed since, fueling rumors among the students. Kei too was found burned alive in the bathroom of the sealed room, like a witch. This event is of course enough to greatly disturb Saeko, but she's given no time to recover as more and more murders occur on the grounds of the Seishin Girls Academy. Due to her period, Saeko's also been feeling unwell lately, sometimes passing out or even losing memory of what she was doing moments before, and that's not helpful as the other students slowly start to suspect the new transfer student of the murders in Ayatsuji Yukito's horror mystery novel Hiiro no Sasayaki ("The Scarlet Whispering" 1988).

After writing the first three novels in his House/Yakata series, Ayatsuji decided to try his hand at a different genre for the first time, resulting in Hiiro no Sasayaki in 1988, a book that is more focused on horror than on mystery (though there's a mystery plot there). Nowadays, Ayatsuji is also known for his horror novels, and the horror mystery Another is arguably his best known work across the world due to its various adaptations, but Hiiro no Sasayaki is when he first fused the horror genre with a mystery plot. I'm personally not a real horror fan by the way: I don't watch horror movies at all for example, nor do I really play horror games (soooometimes I play horror sound novels). I do like reading horror manga once in a while, like by Umezu Kazuo and Itou Junji (yeah, those are not really original choices), but that's about it with me and horror. Despite that though, I didn't need the dediction in this book to Dario Argento to realize the main inspiration for Hiiro no Sasayaki, for even though I haven't even seen the movie, it was clear that this slasher horror mystery set in a closed-off girls academy and talk about witches was greatly influenced by the famous giallo film Suspiria.

 Oh, and to go off a minor tangent. I recently read the manga 13-gatsu no Higeki ("The Tragedy of the 13th Month") by Miuchi Suzue, the shojo manga giant best known for Glass Mask. This manga too is about a young girl suddenly being sent to a girls boarding school, slasher murders and a witch cult. I read this manga soon after Hiiro no Sasayaki, so I obviously assumed the same inspiration source, so imagine how surprised I looked when I learned that 13-gatsu no Higeki actually predates Suspiria by several years!

So Hiiro no Sasayaki takes strongly after slasher horror films. It has a creepy atmosphere throughout, with almost doll-like female students who under the burden of the strict school rules and a kind of caste system, all seem to resemble each other in an attempt to "not stand out", people hiding secret pasts from Saeko, gruesome murders that happen across the school (each murder is portrayed from the POV of the victim) and a Saeko who is suspected as the murderer not only by her fellow students, but Saeko even has doubts about herself as she keeps having these moments where she just blanks out and finds herself waking up somewhere hours later. And of course, usually a murder occurs during those moments. The book provides a thrilling, speedy read that follows the familiar horror film tropes and as the story develops, things start to escalate even further until it reaches the haunting climax.

But, I hear you asking, is it a mystery story? For I don't have the habit of discussing non-mystery stories here. It's a surprisingly difficult question. Hiiro no Sasayaki's focus definitely lies on the slasher horror plot, but there is a mystery plot beneath all the blood. Part of the story revolves around Saeko (and an ally) trying to figure out what really happened to Kei in the bathroom and the subsequent murders and while the climax doesn't really have a "here we have clue X, clue Y and clue Z, and that's why A is the murderer" scene, it does have that moment so typical of Ayatsuji's plotting where previous parts of the book suddenly take on a completely different meaning and you see the whole book was plotted and written in a way that was probably cleverer than you had first expected. I think that if you start reading this after the House/Yakata series, the difficulty level is fairly low and you'll be able to make an educated guess as to the final revelations regarding the killer, but if you were just expecting a bloody slasher, you might be pleasantly surprised by what the book has in store. Still, don't be mistaken, you'd best read this book as a horror story, that also uses mystery genre writing conventions to give the reader the 'shock ending' we all expect from a horror movie, and you shouldn't expect a mystery story with people calling themselves Ellery, Carr and Agatha talking about the limitations of the genre here.

As a palate cleanser, I did enjoy reading Hiiro no Sasayaki though. It's not a genuinely surprising horror mystery story, but it reads incredibly smoothly and as a horror slasher, it basically gave me what I'd expect of the genre, plus some minor elements that make it recognizable as specifically an Ayatsuji work. There are two other books in this series and while I won't be binging them, I expect I'll return to this series in the future anyway.

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人『緋色の囁き』


  1. Thanks for the review, which prompted me to do some searches, on which I discovered some recent Chinese translations of Ayatsuji Yukito, despite having different titles, belong to this horror series. Which makes me relieved that I didn't purchase them!

    Am I right in thinking there aren't that many puzzle-oriented mystery novels by Ayatsuji Yukito, apart from 館シリーズ? From some cursory searches, it seems like "Another" is horror and not puzzle-mystery? Also, would the entries in 殺人方程式シリーズ be puzzle-mysteries?

    1. I have only seen the anime of Another, so I can't really compare with the novels, but while it's mainly supernatural horror, I'd say it's a bit closer to a mystery story than Hiiro no Sasayaki. But it follows a similar concept of many, many gruesome deaths, and a kind of mystery ending where earlier events are suddenly put in a completely different context. But yeah, it's more horror than mystery.

      The two 殺人方程式/Satsujin Houteishiki novels are probably the purest puzzlers Ayatsuji has written, even more so than the House series. Both are pretty good, so I'd recommend them if they're available in Chinese! There's also 霧越邸殺人事件/Kirigoetei Satsujin Jiken, which is not *officially* part of the House series, but it follows a similar format and many consider it like a sort 外伝/Gaiden to the main series. どんどん橋、落ちた/Dondonbashi, Ochita is a short story collection which has stories in the style of guess-the-culprit scenarios of the Kyoto University Mystery Club, which are also pure puzzlers, but less elaborate as fiction (so more focused on the actual puzzle and challenging the reader to guess who the culprit in each scenario is).

      Oh, the drama 安楽椅子探偵/Anraku Isu Tantei which Ayatsuji co-wrote with Arisugawa is also as pure puzzler as you can get!