Tokuya Higashigawa’s Lending the Key to the Locked Room is a humorous, rather gentle take on the impossible-crime murder mystery. It doesn’t function well as a whodunnit (thanks to the paucity of suspects), but I feel as if it would be unfair to judge it on that basis. What it does exceedingly well is present an enjoyably wacky (at times absurd) investigation in which two plot threads continually threaten to bump into each other. It’s fun. It’s different. In some ways, it’s completely antithetical to what I love (and write), but I still had a great time.
The Problem: Soon after being dumped by his girlfriend, Ryuhei spends an evening with his future employer, Moro. They’re going to watch a film together. (You get no points for guessing the genre of film.) Across the street from Moro’s apartment, Ryuhei’s ex-girlfriend is stabbed with a thin blade and shoved off the balcony of her apartment. Good thing Ryuhei has an alibi, right? Well…no. His alibi takes a shower and is stabbed with the same blade. Oh the front door was chain-locked on the inside. And a witness says no one came into the apartment or left. And Ryuhei was the only other person inside the apartment. When you discover the solution, this situation becomes quite funny, but it’s not funny at first.
The Investigation: This is where the novel really shines. Ryuhei employs the services of his ex-brother-in-law, Morio Ukai, a resourceful (if at times too insistent) private investigator. Meanwhile, two cops are doing their own investigation. How these two investigations run parallel, covering the same ground while staying ignorant of each other, is deftly handled and often very funny. Indeed, the humor in the book is of the kitchen-sink variety–sometimes sly and sometimes heavy, but always welcome. Eventually, the two investigations merge and the clues are brought to the fore.
The Solution: It’s not bad. It’ll definitely be a situation where you have solved 80% of the mystery, but then there are smaller details you missed. There was one especially good clue involving a food item that flew over my head.
There are a lot of meta elements in LtKttLR. The ones that work tend to be the typical ones we find in mysteries–characters discussing what the detective would do or characters talking about mysteries they’ve read. This is a tradition in murder mysteries and I enjoy it; however, there are times when the author speaks directly to the reader, detailing why certain scenes are coming. This is not fun or cute or whimsical. It’s annoying. Just tell your damn story. Rant finished.
LtKttLR was translated by Ho-Ling Wong. Overall, it’s a commendable job. Occasionally, there are awkward moments. I’m not sure whether to criticize the translation or the author. One example (paraphrased) “He punched him. (Lightly)” One character is mad at another and gives a half-hearted punch with no intention of hurting him. I got the feeling there is a word for light punch in Japanese and Wong couldn’t find a proper English word. The inclusion of “lightly” in parentheses takes the reader out of the narrative. Besides a few instances like that, the book reads smoothly.
So, this a fun book that’s more interested in bringing a dash of humor to the locked-room mystery than horror or suspense. If that’s your bag, I’d highly recommend it. And if it’s not your bag…well, that’s the category I would place myself in, and I enjoyed it a lot.
Next review will probably be The Punch and Judy Murders or Death Turns the Tables or A Graveyard to Let or…It’s gonna be Carr. Get used to it!