These locked-room masterpieces from Japan are the perfect summer escape

Michael Dirda

THE WASHINGTON POST – 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 specialised 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. 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 emphasises people over puzzles.

Some of the genre’s best books are societal dramas, such as Chester Himes’ 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’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Ted Lewis’ 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 emphasise 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 neighbourhood?”. That story’s plot neatly reworks the classic trope of murder in a house surrounded by freshly fallen snow.

Whose Body is even more ingenious. Three people receive parcels containing an empty medicine bottle, a white vinyl rope or a revolver. All of these items then play a role in a grisly murder scheme in which timing, as they say, is everything. In another story a killer disguised in a baggy clown costume rushes into a tunnel and simply disappears.

Finally, in The Red Locked Room a hospital’s autopsy laboratory serves to hide clever and heartless butchery.

After finishing that mind-spinning collection, I decided to treat myself to Pushkin Vertigo’s edition of Ross and Shika Mackenzie’s translation of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, the 1981 novel by Soji Shimada that served as a model for the younger Kyoto writers. In 2014 England’s Guardian newspaper selected it as second – just below Carr’s masterpiece, The Three Coffins (aka The Hollow Man) – in its list of the Top 10 impossible murder novels.

Motivation, atmosphere and characterisation tend to be perfunctory in most honkaku mysteries – and that’s part of their appeal. But The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is much more involving. In 1936 an artist, obsessed with astrology, apparently plans to slaughter six family members – his own daughters, stepdaughters and nieces.

Before he can execute his inhuman design, he is found inside his locked studio with his skull bashed in. His murder seems impossible, yet mainly serves as the teaser for a greater mystery.

A week after the painter’s death, the six young women – and one other – disappear.

Eventually, their remains are discovered in astrologically significant locations.

Forty years now pass, and these bizarre deaths remain unsolved. On a whim, a modern-day astrologer named Kiyoshi Mitarai resolves to figure out what really happened. I’ll say no more, but here’s a small clue Why are the bodies buried in the ground at different depths

Once you’ve stopped being amazed at the answer, you’ll want to check out other Japanese mysteries, many available from Locked Room International. This month, Pushkin Press is also issuing English translations of The Honjin Murders and The Inugami Curse, by the revered older master Seishi Yokomizo. These days, we can use all the escapism we can get.