book review

Death in the House of Rain

Some of the best murder mysteries play out like nightmares. There’s a narrative point when all the clues, suspects, and blood turn meaningless. I’m thinking of the multiple confessions in Death of Jezebel or the second beautifully presented murder in Whistle Up the Devil. It’s a challenge to ground a story in reality and then have it believably descend into chaos.

Some books, however, are not particularly interested in grounding their stories. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read books much more far-fetched than Szu-Yen Lin’s Death in the House of Rain. Indeed, the book’s constant flaunting of feeling over sensible character action (“Don’t split up!” — followed by everyone splitting up) is not a problem…if you are willing to go along with the flow. And I recommend you do just that, for there is a lot of pleasure to be had within these pages.

The Problem: Where to start? One year ago, Renze Bai and his wife paid a visit to his brother, Jingfu, at the house of rain, so called because it looks exactly like the Chinese character for Rain from above. (Yes, this is one of those mysteries with an elaborate floor plan which you should use as a reference throughout your reading.) Outside the house, they see a man looking as if he had just met the devil. Inside is much worse. Jingfu has been butchered with a hatchet, the wife has been strangled, and the daughter…well, she had been beautiful from head to toe, but now it’s from neck to toe.

Cut to one year later and it’s all happening again. Renze and his daughter Lingsha (the wife died) move into the house of rain. They both have guests. Lingsha has invited some f̶u̶t̶u̶r̶e̶ ̶v̶i̶c̶t̶i̶m̶s̶ friends and Renze has invited a detective to help solve his brother’s murder from a year ago. Cue the grotesque and impossible as the guest are dismembered, strangled and butchered in And-Then-There-Were-None style.

The Investigation: The characters phone the police, but (wouldn’t you know it) they’ve been isolated by a landslide. The detective Ruoping Lin is on the job–which mainly consists of his puzzling over corpses. The geography of the house allows for a lot of characters to do some of their own sleuthing/plotting. Sometimes we know the identity of the character we’re following, sometimes we just see hands manipulating objects. It’s very well-done if (like me) you’re into this stuff. Eventually, all the madness culminates into our detective calling the suspects together and blowing their minds. Which brings us to–

The Solution: It’s imaginative and fairly-clued. Naturally, your enjoyment will hinge on tolerance for a certain type of solution; however, you can’t deny the rigor with which Lin has designed the plot and the geography. Everything adds up more or less satisfactorily.

I can’t say it has a narrative sweep. Lin writes in short staccato chapters, almost as if he is determined to provide an undiluted dose of murder mystery without any distractions. He gets us in the house quickly and keeps us in murderous company the whole way through. This may bother some of you, but not (I suspect) the regular readers of this blog. Death in the House of Rain is a lot of fun inside the charnel house.

15 thoughts on “Death in the House of Rain”

  1. I love how long it takes the police to get there. Yeah, I get that the road is blocked, but you’d think that there’d be steps beyond “you’ll have to wait until it’s cleared” when there’s an ongoing murder spree.

    As you say, this is one where you suspend belief and just enjoy the ride. I treat most of the Locked Room International stories that way; they’re just an amped up blast of exactly what I want out of a mystery, and I’m willing to turn a blind eye. These are just fun, and a story like Death in the House of Rain is the perfect antidote for coming off a mediocre read.

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    1. Is there a name for isolation techniques? It seems that’s a part of murder mysteria that hasn’t been given a proper sobriquet. Flood, landslide, fire, rainstorm, snow, island setting with poor boat maintenance, car trouble, bridge collapse (very popular), what else? Has anyone done escaped zoo animals before?

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      1. I think a deep-dive into isolating techniques by someone smarter than I would be in order. Maybe it would be important to note that many closed-circle mysteries involve the isolation technique but plenty of mysteries have a closed circle of suspects without the use of isolation — sometimes it’s just the unwritten agreement that the author will only be playing with the characters who have been introduced. Whereas using an unknown character as the killer (say someone hiding on the island with bad boat maintenance) would not qualify as a closed circle mystery, but would be using isolation techniques (although I imagine this is more common in horror where the characters don’t always know they are being stalked until one or two are left.)

        I like isolating characters for 2 reasons. 1. Like you, I’m a fan of the excitement and terror involved in these kinds of scenarios and 2. I’m not a disciple of the Chandler school of sending the detective to different locations to meet new people and slowly piece the clues together. There’s something quite pure about going over the same limited geography and faces until the solution clicks.

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      2. Regarding zoo animals, the closest may be Edna Lina White’s, The Man Who Was Not There (aka The Man Who Loved Lions).

        It has a sinister atmosphere is heightened with the inclusion of a private zoo, which is not popular with the locals due to the accidents which seemed to be happening there.

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  2. The stiff, undiluted dose of mystery and the rigor that went into the plotting is what made this a blast to read. Only drawback is that I have since come across another, much earlier published, impossible crime short story that uses the same trick on a much smaller scale. It could simply be a case of parallel thinking, but they both used the same kind of clue to the crux of the locked room problem. So he may have used that trick as a template and elaborated on it.

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  3. The japanese, for instance, love closed circle mysteries. You’ve got games like Danganronpa and Zero Escape that I’d strongly recommend even if you don’t play video games. The interesting thing is that the setting is, generally, part of the mystery you have to solve. Where the hell are these guys trapped in? Why? Who’s the mastermind behind it all? Is the evil genius part of the group?
    Take Danganronpa for instance: 15 individuals are taken to what appears to be a school and have to play a game. Someone kills another guy and there’s a period of discussing and voting. If the killer doesn’t get the most votes, he walks out free and the rest is screwed. If he’s caught, he’s executed. This goes on until there’s only three guys left.
    You’ll end up with a lot of small fair play mysteries inside a big mindfuckery. I bet you’ll dig them.

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  4. I really liked this one. My one complaint would probably be that there’s an element regarding the murders in the past that I felt was too dark — the murders themselves being brutal is perfectly fine, I think it set up the tone really well — but one thing regarding the, uh, daughter’s body I felt was maybe a bit too far for my taste. It didn’t hurt the experience aside from just leaving kind of an uncomfortable feeling. Which, I guess, may very well have been the intent.

    Beyond that, though, the solution I felt was neat and the pacing is pretty well-done. I felt I could live with things constantly moving along because it always felt like the horror of the murders and the overall situation sort of helped establish the same sense of unease a “calmer” moment potentially would’ve done. And being stuck in a murder house is a situation where it’s easier to put yourself in the shoes of characters anyway, so the reader’s imagination can kind of fill in the blanks.

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    1. Re: daughter’s body

      I immediately thought it was a nod to Shimada–wasn’t there a bit of that business in Tokyo Zodiac? Anyway, I wasn’t bothered because I only saw it as this Easter egg type of thing.

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