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The Birth of a Cult Classic: Ho-Ling Wong on Ayatsuji's The Decagon House Murders

Posted on 7th January 2021 by Anna Orhanen

A milestone is Japanese detective fiction by one of its great masters, Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders is a dazzling tribute to Golden Age crime. Now available for the first time in English translation by Ho-Ling Wong, this superbly plotted puzzle-novel revolves around a group of mystery-minded university students who travel onto an island with a sinister history. In this exclusive piece, Wong writes about the real-life Kyoto University Mystery Club, to which Ayatsuji belonged and which inspired him in shaping his debut that became a cult classic. 

The Kyoto University Mystery Club

Tucked away in a corner of the main campus of Kyoto University is the so-called “box,” or club room of the Kyoto University Mystery Club. The club was founded in 1974 as a place for students to talk and write about detective fiction and simply have a good time. It has two major activities: reading circles, where participants read and discuss selected books; and the so-called “whodunit” game, in which the first part of a detective story is read out to an audience who must not only find the solution, but more importantly, explain the logic leading up to it. This, of course, is reminiscent of Ellery Queen’s Challenge to the Reader (1940). 

The whodunit stories of the Kyoto University Mystery Club are designed as competitive detective games in literary form: they are not only a battle of wits between the author and the listener, but also between participants. Most members of the club write at least one story during their membership. The names of the participating authors and the titles of their stories are all written on the wall of the club room and, to date, the game has been held more than 400 times since the club’s birth. The influence of the whodunit games can be felt in the works of the mystery authors who debuted here. 

Ayatsuji Yukito joined the club soon after entering university in 1979. He became one of its more prolific writers, producing not only a slew of whodunits and other stories for fellow members to enjoy, but also stories for the club magazine Soanoshiro, which is sold to the general public during Kyoto University’s annual November Festival. 

He had hoped to make his professional debut with Island of Remembrance, a story he submitted for the 29th Edogawa Rampo Award (1983), but the manuscript only passed the first of four rounds. Island of Remembrance was later rewritten to become The Decagon House Murders, which was published by Kodansha in 1987. The book would be the first in a popular series featuring the many bizarre buildings designed by the eccentric architect Nakamura Seiji.

The publication of The Decagon House Murders was made possible with the support of famed mystery writer Soji Shimada. He had been advocating the return of honkaku (orthodox) detective novels ever since his own debut, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, and he found kindred spirits in mystery clubs in universities all across Japan. The Kyoto University club was one of the places he frequented most and it was here that he discovered Ayatsuji’s work and decided to promote it.

The launch of The Decagon House Murders in 1987 was seen as a milestone in detective fiction and the start of the shin honkaku (new orthodox) movement. The term shin honkaku was originally coined as a marketing slogan for the sequel to Decagon in 1988 by Uyama Hideomi, an editor at publisher Kodansha, but the word now symbolises the rebirth of the classic puzzle-plot novel with a new twist, audacity: pushing the bounds of the puzzle-plot novel while adhering to its fair-play rule. Uyama and Soji Shimada would go on to help many other new shin honkaku school writers make their debut, including Norizuki Rintaro, Abiko Takemaru and Maya Yutaka, all of them Ayatsuji Yukito’s fellow club members.

Thus did the Kyoto University Mystery Club become the wellspring for the renaissance of the fair-play puzzle novel, and the place where shin honkaku was born. It is fitting that the first and most famous novel in this new genre should feature a group of students from the thinly-disguised K—University Mystery Club, bearing the names of famous writers of the Golden Age, whose deaths would lead to the rebirth of the genre in Japan. And maybe, one day, in the rest of the world.

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