Michael Dirda*2 “Locked-room masterpieces from Japan are the perfect escape for summer” https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/locked-room-masterpieces-from-japan-are-the-perfect-escape-for-summer/2020/08/04/c1049626-d5ac-11ea-9c3b-dfc394c03988_story.html
When you need respite from our impossible times, try solving some impossible crimes. Like playing chess or doing crosswords, reading classic fair-play detective fiction provides a welcome, if temporary, escape from sad, tumultuous reality. In books of the 1920s and ’30s — the Golden Age — one can experience the calm of austere intellection, observe the restoration of order after chaos.
In Britain, Agatha Christie specialized in murders committed by suspects you would never suspect, and Freeman Wills Crofts — in such classics as “The Cask” — showed how patient investigation can break down seemingly impregnable alibis. In this country, Ellery Queen presented the most topsy-turvy situations and challenged the reader to explain why, as in “The Chinese Orange Mystery,” a body is found in a room where everything has been turned upside down, backward or inside out.
In contrast to the Golden Age who-and-howdunits, modern crime fiction generally emphasizes people over puzzles. Some of the genre’s best books are societal dramas, such as Chester Himes’s often darkly comic accounts of the Harlem detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. Others are portraits of the criminal milieu like George V. Higgins’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” and Ted Lewis’s “GBH,” and still others are mainly psychological studies in the vein of Patricia Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer mysteries repeatedly turn on hidden family tragedies, sometimes even ancient Greek ones (see “The Chill”). Most people now read Raymond Chandler less for the mystery than for the sassy similes and the weary melancholy in Philip Marlowe’s voice:
“I rode down to the street floor and went out on the steps of the City Hall. It was a cool day and very clear. You could see a long way — but not as far as Velma had gone.”
In context, that poignant last sentence from “Farewell, My Lovely” is as moving as anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald. And therein lies a problem. The more literary the crime novel, the more you need to deal with unruly emotions. You quickly feel yourself caring about the victim, the detective, even the criminal. In short, you’re back in the world from which you had hoped to escape for a few hours.
This is one reason you might want to try some of the modern honkaku — meaning authentic or orthodox — mysteries from Japan. In the 1980s, a circle of young people — many of them students at Kyoto University — turned away from socially aware crime fiction to form a study group devoted to the analysis of classic puzzles and miracle crimes, especially the locked-room masterpieces of John Dickson Carr.
The most brilliant members of the Kyoto University Mystery Club eventually went on to professional writing careers. But they were little known to American readers until Locked Room International began issuing its best books in translations by Ho-Ling Wong. Five years ago, I reviewed Yukito Ayatsuji’s “The Decagon House Murders” — a variant on Christie’s “And Then There Were None” — and last month, I picked up “The Red Locked Room,” a new collection of the dazzlingly tricky stories of Tetsuya Ayukawa.
In general, honkaku mysteries emphasize ingenuity above all else. Some of Ayukawa’s stories do feature the appealing Ryuzo Hoshikage, an amateur armchair detective with a fondness for Sherlockian flourishes. At one point in “The White Locked Room,” Hoshikage suddenly asks, “On the night of the murder, was there any talk about a cat or dog being burnt in the neighborhood?” That story’s plot neatly reworks the classic trope of murder in a house surrounded by freshly fallen snow.