Tuesday, June 27, 2023

The Mill House Murders, by Yukito Ayatsuji


Pushkin Vertigo, 2023
originally published as Suishakan no Satsujin Shinsou Kateiban, 1988
translated by Ho-Ling Wong
253 pp


The Mill House Murders is apparently the second of several books by this author in what Wikipedia refers to as the "Bizarre House/Mansion Murders" series. I've previously read his The Decagon House Murders (also published by Pushkin Vertigo),  the first in the series and a really good mystery that cinched the deal when it came to preordering this book. And while I had the inklings of a solution to this mystery vaguely floating on the periphery of my brain, The Mill House Murders still managed to seriously stump me as I couldn't figure out either the who or more importantly, the how.  

The novel begins at 5:50 a.m., September 29, 1985, within a prologue in which we learn that it is nearly dawn, and the group of people staying at the home of Fujinuma Kiichi have had a very bad September 28th night. While a typhoon raged outside, things inside the Mill House had taken a horrific turn -- a woman had fallen from the tower room,  a painting had vanished, and one of the guests had simply  disappeared.  As if that's not bad enough, things are about to get worse, with the discovery of a dead man in the incinerator, "cut up in pieces and burnt."  It was, to quote Fujinuma, "a blood-soaked night."   Flash forward exactly one year later, and once again a major storm is making its way to the area, and once again guests are expected at the Mill House. Aside from a caretaker and a housekeeper,  Kiichi lives in the house along with Yurie, whose father's dying request was that Kiichi take her in.  Not too long after he had done so, Kiichi had been involved in a car accident that had left his limbs damaged along with his face, leaving him with the desire to withdraw from the world. He had Mill House built, and he and Yurie spent a rather solitary existence, with Yurie spending most of her life in the house's tower room until the two eventually married.  The Mill House is named for its three water wheels that provide the house with its electricity; as one of the guests remarks about them, they
"...  almost look like they are turning against the flow of time, keeping the house and everything in this valley frozen in a never-ending moment." 

It seems as though this is precisely what the reclusive Kiichi desires, but as idyllic as it sounds, it is evidently not meant to be.  

It seems that every year on September 28th,  a small group of Kiichi's acquaintances make their way to his home to view his collection of his famous-artist father's paintings, which he kept only for himself and not for public consumption in an exhibition.  It seems that these well-known paintings have strange effects on the viewer, often to the point of producing a hallucinatory reaction, but there is one that Kiichi will allow no one to look at known as "The Phantom Cluster," making his guests want to see it all the more.    This year there will be an extra, uninvited guest by the name of Shimada Kiyoshi who is not only interested in the events of September 28th of the previous year, but also a friend of the man who had disappeared at the time, who was thought to have been responsible for the theft of the painting and most likely for the death of the incinerated man.  As Shimada says to his host, "something about the case bothers me. There's something not right ..."   And yes indeedy, there is something very wrong in this house, beginning with the first death, bringing back fresh memories of that night a year earlier, as well as the question of  whether history might be repeating itself once again.  

2008 Japanese cover (which I must say beats PV's cover by a mile) from Amazon Japan

Shimada's theory is that the police investigation of the 1985 events was flawed, and he is there to try to find out "with my own eyes and ears" what had happened.   He is not there in any official capacity, nor is he there to catch the killer; his mission is to simply discover the truth.   As they say in Japan, 頑張ってね, -- ganbatte ne -- good luck.  He'll need it.  As he notes at one point, 
"... solving a problem is a lot like solving a jigsaw puzzle. However, in this case we don't have a picture of the completed puzzle, nor do we know how many pieces there are in total. And of course, the pieces of our mystery might not be flat, but three-dimensional, or perhaps they even have four or five dimensions. So depending on who is putting the pieces together, we could all end up with completely different pictures, or perhaps I should say 'shapes.'
 Given what's going on at the Mill House, solving this particular puzzle is  definitely not going to be easy. 

There is seriously nothing like reading a book that takes place during a major storm while in real life there's thunder and lightning at play all around you, making The Mill House Murders atmospheric and a bit creepy at the same time.   This story begins in the past, moves into the present, and continues in this way throughout the novel. At most points both timelines are set as a mirror of the other, as Shimada's questioning goes on and he gains more information and more clues as to what had happened in 1985.  That is not to say that 1986 doesn't have a few surprises in store; as I said at the beginning of this post,  I thought I had at least a sort of outline of the solution in my mind (I actually sort of did in a vague way guess a small part of it) but by the end, the various twists and turns taken throughout this story brought things to a level at which I would never have guessed.   The truth is that I'm always so happy to end a book with a with a huge gasp when all is revealed; this is twice now that it's happened with this author.  

At Pushkin's website, there is a short bio blurb that says that Ayatsuji is a 
"Japanese writer of mystery and horror novels and one of the founding members of the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan, dedicated to the writing of fair-play mysteries inspired by the Golden Age Greats. He started writing as a member of the Kyoto University Mystery Club, which has nurtured many of Japan's greatest crime writers."

I do hope that Pushkin Vertigo will go on to publish at least a few (if not all) of the remaining Bizarre House/Mansion Murders books by this author -- for me The Mill House Murders was very well done, highly satisfying and really quite ingenious.  I happen to love these sort of mysteries;  they aren't always for everyone but I thrive on puzzle solving of any sort and these books are definitely puzzlers, in a very good way. 

 Recommended to regular readers of Japanese crime fiction/mysteries.  

Thursday, June 8, 2023

Continuing on in catch-up mode: Death of a Stray Cat/ An Affair of the Heart, by Jean Potts


Stark House, 2023
236 pp

paperback (my copy from the publisher -- thanks!)


I love reading the works of women crime writers of yesteryear.  Jean Potts is the author of fourteen novels in this genre, one "mainstream" novel called Someone to Remember (1943) and a huge number of short stories.  Quite a few of the latter were  published in  Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and at least one in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  In short, she was an incredibly prolific author; thanks to Stark House, her work is being brought back for modern readers to enjoy.  This volume contains two of her mystery stories:  Death of a Stray Cat from 1955 and An Affair of the Heart, published in 1970.

Very briefly, because there are two books at play here,  Death of a Stray Cat is a fine whodunit that begins as bookseller Alex Blair and his wife Gen arrive in the small New York community where they have a beach house: "on one side of the road W. Gertz, Meats and Groceries, and across from it the filling station and Rudy's Bar and Grill."  It's Labor Day weekend, and the two of them are looking forward to a happy, leisurely three-week getaway; along for the ride is "a preposterous pair," Mr. Theobald and Vonda, who will be staying at a cottage owned by Dwight Abbott, a friend of the Blairs.  When they stop for groceries, the proprietor lets them know that a young woman had stopped there earlier in the day, wanting to know where Alex's house was.  Neither of the Blairs can figure out who it might have been, and sort of brush it off, not giving it another thought.    Vonda and Mr. Theobald take the Blair's car to drop off the groceries while  Alex and Gen go to have drinks and dinner at nearby Rudy's, a local favorite.  They've just settled in at their table when Rudy's daughter takes a phone call that leads Alex, Gen and local police chief Ed Fuller to the Blairs' beach house, where they find the body of a young woman, apparently strangled. Gen has no idea who she is, but Alex recognizes her as Marcella Ewing.   He can't believe it --  of all the people in the world, he thinks, "it was hard to imagine anybody less dangerous than Marcella."  With only a small group of people as potential suspects, the focus is on the victim herself -- why would anyone want her dead?   I have to say that I didn't guess the identity of the killer, always a plus, but even more to the point, when that person was unmasked I had  a true "whoa!" moment.  The author's brilliant plotting shines through in this story, but even better is the way in which she managed to imbue her characters with such unexpected life. Mystery readers will LOVE this one.   Another thing:  while her Edgar award-winning novel Go, Lovely Rose was awesome,  Death of a Stray Cat beats that one by a mile.  Definitely very highly recommended.  

I really love these old, lurid covers.  This one's from Biblio

After finishing the second book, An Affair of the Heart, it dawned on me that the title can easily be taken as a sort of double entendre, especially because the dead man at the center of this novel has a heart condition.  By the way, this fact isn't a spoiler, since it's right there up front in the book blurb.  This book is much shorter in length than Death of a Stray Cat; although it comes in at less than one hundred pages, there's still plenty of whodunit mystery here to enjoy.  Kirk Banning is only forty-nine, but he's been told that he needs to take things easy in order to stave off another heart attack or an even worse fate.  For some time the younger Lorraine Walsh has been "the other woman" in his life, a role that once she had "leapt into so gladly and blindly," but lately she's had not only regrets, but since meeting Kirk's wife Hilda, she has also developed a conscience about the whole situation.   Things get intense when Kirk actually proposes, something that would have made Lorraine "raptuously happy" a year earlier, but not any more.  He plans on telling his wife about everything in three days' time.  The problem is that Lorraine can't find a way to tell him how she feels now, because the shock just might kill him, given his heart condition.  As she tells her sister Mary, that's not the worst of it -- suppose Kirk had another heart attack and died in her apartment?  How could she possibly explain everything?   As one might guess, on a day Lorraine is away, the inevitable ends up happening, forcing Lorraine, Mary and their good friend Teddy to go into cover-up mode.  All goes okay with the police, and Lorraine has a perfect excuse for his being there to offer to the family.  Kirk's daughter Isobel, summoned to the site of her father's death, realizes that he doesn't have his medication on him like he always does.   Lorraine also  notices that Kirk's medication isn't in the usual spot on her bedside table, leaving Mary to wonder whether or not she and Teddy "might have blundered into something quite different from what they had bargained for."  Evidently, someone wanted Kirk Banning dead, but who?  And how?  What none of the three could possibly know is that there will be a terrible price to be paid when all is said and done.   

a rather bland cover for this one: Gollancz UK first edition hardcover, 1970.  From Dead Souls Bookshop

Once again it's the characters that really make this story, and once again, the plot focuses on a small number of people at its core, all of them with closely-guarded secrets that add an element of tension and a darkish sort of intensity into the reading.  It's not quite on the level of Death of a Stray Cat in my opinion, but it's still pretty good story with more than a couple of surprises along the way. Unfortunately, I did figure out the who in this one, but I think it's likely because it wasn't nearly as involved or written as in depth as the other. Despite that, An Affair of the Heart still makes for a good read, and taken as a whole, this two-novel volume is well worth your mystery-reading time.  I enjoyed this volume so very much that I've just bought three more (so I suppose that makes six in total)  books by Jean Potts directly from the publisher.  As long as they keep putting them out, I'll continue reading them.

My many thanks to the powers that be at Stark House, along with major apologies for taking so long to get to this book and the others they've sent -- we've had a hell of a year here at home and it's only just recently that the pall has begun to lift.  Thank you so very, very much.

Saturday, June 3, 2023

Green For Danger, by Christianna Brand


Poisoned Pen Press, in association with the British Library, 2023
originally published 1944
284 pp


I'm still working at restoring my mental mojo, but that doesn't mean I've been idle readingwise. I'm just very, very behind and now I've got a stack of like five books sitting here waiting for me to post about. Not to worry -- I'll get there.

Green for Danger is book number two in Christianna Brand's Inspector Cockrill series, preceded by the series opener, Heads You Lose (which I'm reading now).  I'm just thrilled that it is a part of the British Library Crime Classics collection, since the copy I have is an old mass market paperback in pretty beat-up condition.   I enjoyed Green for Danger so very much that I immediately bought the remaining books,  including preordering Death of Jezebel (also from British Library Crime Classics and arriving in August) -- that's how very good it is.  

World War II serves as the backdrop for this clever, closed-circle mystery, which takes place at a former sanitorium now serving as military hospital at Heron's Park just outside of Heronsford in Kent.  The seven main players have all been called to duty there, and they are introduced one by one  (along with a bit of each person's backstory) via their acceptance letters which are being delivered by  postman Joseph Higgins.  The male contingent consists of Dr. Gervase Eden, a surgeon from Harley Street, Mr. Moon, another surgeon hailing from Heronsford, and Dr. Barnes (Barney),  a local anesthetist; the women are   Jane Woods  (Woody), who has been called as a VAD nurse as have Esther Sanson and Frederica (Freddi) Linley, and finally Sister Marion Bates.  Offering the tiniest bit of a clue as to where this story is headed, as Higgins takes himself and his bicycle up the hill leading to Heron's Park, the author tells us that he "could not know that, just a year later, one of the writers would die, self-confessed a murderer."  

Within that year, the hospital working routine of these new arrivals has been established, romance and more than a bit of sexual tension hangs in the air, and air raids are regularly bringing in casualties.  One of these is Joseph Higgins himself, admitted with a fractured femur.   His surgery is routine, "only a little operation, hardly anything at all," so when he dies before the operation begins while the anesthesia is being administered, everyone is surprised.  After all, "the old boy was all right" physically, and no one can find anything wrong in the equipment or the procedure that might have caused him to die so unexpectedly.  Goodness knows things like this can happen "for no rhyme or reason," but the problem is that this wouldn't be the first time that Barnes had lost a patient while administering anesthesia.  Major Moon tells him that if anything comes of Higgins' death, he'd be happy to call in "the high ding-a-ding" Inspector Cockrill  to ensure that "there isn't a lot of undue fuss."   At first Cockrill (who often goes by the nickname Cockie) doesn't "see what all the fuss is about," but it isn't too long before he realizes that Higgins' death was definitely suspicious, and definitely a murder.  He also realizes that it's one of our seven main characters who is responsible, but as to motive, he has no idea.  It seems however, that the murderer isn't quite finished, as there is a second death, again in the operating theatre.  

 Original first edition cover, from Wikipedia

As a person who often figures out the who long before the big reveal comes, I have to say that I was extremely delighted not to have done so this time.  I actually had two different suspects in mind but Brand came along and pulled the rug right out from under me.  That's not too surprising, since the author sort of toys with her readers by planting doubts (and thereby possible motives) about each of the seven suspects. In hindsight, all of the clues were definitely there, and it was like a "how did I miss that?"  kind of moment when Brand actually unmasked the killer.  Add to this the very realistic and credible sense of place and the atmosphere that the author delivers pretty much from the start, all making Green For Danger a pitch-perfect mystery. 

from Cinema Sojourns

I have the old black-and-white film (1946, Pinewood Studios) on DVD as part of my Criterion Collection movies, so I watched it right after finishing the novel.  While it deviates a bit from the book I could have cared less.  Alastair Sim definitely steals the show here in the role of Inspector Cockrill, often playing his scenes for laughs, which at times given the dark and actually somewhat sinister atmosphere underlying this film, can be a welcome relief.  He is eccentric, but underneath his quirkiness there is definitely a sense that he is a wise detective with a keen sense of justice.  The supporting cast, including Trevor Howard, also does a great job.  I would definitely recommend both book and movie, in that order.