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.  

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