Hummel doesn’t flinch from the discomfort of transforming trauma into creative work, detailing who is used up and discarded in the process. Like its prequel, “Lesson in Red” is a gutting meditation on the relationship between art, life and violence.
There is a tendency in some circles — OK, I’m guilty of this — to write off puzzle mysteries as mere intellectual exercises that devalue the humanity of the murder victims. (This is why a number of Golden Age favorites leave me cold.) So it was a pleasant surprise to read Yukito Ayatsuji’s landmark 1987 mystery, THE DECAGON HOUSE MURDERS (Pushkin, 288 pp., paper, $16), translated from the Japanese by Ho-Ling Won, and discover a real depth of feeling beneath the fiendish foul play.
Taking its cues from Agatha Christie’s locked-room classic “And Then There Were None,” the setup is this: The members of a university detective-fiction club, each nicknamed for a favorite crime writer (Poe, Carr, Orczy, Van Queen, Leroux and — yes — Christie), spend a week on remote Tsunojima Island, attracted to the place, and its eerie 10-sided house, because of a spate of murders that transpired the year before. That collective curiosity will, of course, be their undoing.
As the students approach Tsunojima in a hired fishing boat, “the sunlight shining down turned the rippling waves to silver. The island lay ahead of them, wrapped in a misty veil of dust,” its sheer, dark cliffs rising straight out of the sea, accessible by one small inlet. There is no electricity on the island, and no telephones, either.
A fresh round of violent deaths begins, and Ayatsuji’s skillful, furious pacing propels the narrative. As the students are picked off one by one, he weaves in the story of the mainland investigation of the earlier murders. This is a homage to Golden Age detective fiction, but it’s also unabashed entertainment.