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.